Is gender equality only for the wealthy?
In my work, I collaborate with people of all ages, and I just so happened to be sat with a group of older people at a business social this week (Christmas is coming, and the party season has begun!). Funnily enough, we got on to talking about Millennial problems — because their children fall into the older end of that category. Hurrah, something I could relate to in the conversation!
They were concerned about how difficult it is for my generation to have anything near to the stability and prosperity they had at their age — in fact, when they were much younger than that. We can’t afford to own our own homes, there’s no longer such a thing as a job for life, and while many of us are choosing not to have kids, there are also many that cannot afford to.
The environment we grew up in has given us many opportunities, but it’s also come with many challenges. We are no longer expected to settle down so young, but we can’t afford to even if we wanted. Women are no longer tied to the home, but if we don’t work all the hours that God sends, there won’t be a home.
It is normal for both partners to have jobs and long-term career plans, but it’s not possible to raise a family on just one salary anymore. This is one of the main areas where women of the 2010s face similar challenges to the women of the 1960s. You’d think that a dual-income household would be better-off than a traditional household where only one partner works and the other looks after the home. But some of the social changes of the 1960s that gave us more freedom have led to an economic reality in which everyone has to move twice as fast just to stand still.
The Boomers really were the generation that “never had it so good”. Millennials can only dream of lifestyles like their parents had. On just about every measure, Millennials are worse off than their parents’ generation, and it’s disproportionately affecting women.
If a couple today want to purchase a home, one salary usually won’t cut it. Lenders are even more cautious since the good old days of 100% mortgages. But what if you don’t have a partner, or don’t want one? The reforms of the 1960s and 70s mean that a woman no longer has to be tied to a man — but the changes in the economy since then do not support our new-found freedom.
The single life’s not for those who want to own property — which is exactly the position that single women found themselves in during the 1960s and 1970s. However, the problems of the women of yesteryear stemmed from gender discrimination by lenders: women could not get a mortgage without a male signatory. In 2018 they can’t get a mortgage on a single person’s salary.
Renting has become even more unstable since our parents’ time. Social housing is being sold off at a rate far below replenishment, and waiting times for a council house are in excess of 5 years in some areas. Renting privately is the only option for some, leaving people at the mercy of landlords and letting agents that impose stringent checks — including credit & affordability checks. If you’re really struggling financially, your housing options are limited, especially if you’re on benefits. Depending on where you live, up to 60% of landlords do not accept tenants on housing benefit.
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The worry doesn’t end there. Many tenants find that their tenancies aren’t renewed, or that they can’t afford the rent increase at the end of the year. So they will have to find a new, cheaper place, plus save up for a deposit, as there’s no guarantee they’ll get it back from their previous landlord, no matter what the legislation says. These additional costs, part of the “singles tax” can keep renters stuck in a situation where they’re paying more in rent each month than the equivalent mortgage, but they don’t meet any lender’s criteria.
Unless you have wealthy parents, you’ll need to save up by yourself for the hefty deposit you’ll need to put down on a property. But it will take you longer than it did your parents to save up that sort of money, and it won’t be due to your penchant for avocado toast. Wages just haven’t risen in line with living costs, meaning that this generation helplessly watches while house prices rise at a level outstripping both their savings and their wages.
53% of British people in their twenties don’t have any savings at all, and a third of under-35s prioritise saving for a deposit over planning for retirement. For this generation, there is going to come a point somewhere in our lifetime where our finances are unsustainable. Many are finding that that time is now, with wages still stagnant following the recession 10 years ago.
Millennials were disproportionately affected by the financial crisis, leaving many without adequate disposable income to put any savings aside. The cost of housing and bills is so high that a worrying proportion of this generation is living paycheck to paycheck. And don’t even get me started on pensions… Oh, go on then, let’s talk about pensions.
Or more accurately, our lack of pension provision. As well as Millennials prioritising homebuying over saving for old age, the age at which we will finally retire keeps on creeping up and up. The last I heard from the government, I won’t be retiring until at least 68. Many of us expect to never retire at all. Since 2012, when the UK government forced employers to auto-enrol all workers earning over £6,036 into a workplace pension, younger people have been investing in retirement funds. But still almost 30% of workers are not in such a scheme.
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Prior to this legislative change, young people in particular were not paying into a pension, and the more lucrative final-salary type of pensions were in decline. Some of the damage has been undone, but older Millennials will be worst affected. I remember being told repeatedly during my 20s how important it was to invest in a pension right then — and facing the opprobrium of my elders when I told them that I bloody well couldn’t afford it.
The current State Pension is a paltry sum of just £126 per week. It’s the one benefit the government cannot afford to be generous with. Our population is ageing, and pensioners are an expensive bunch to maintain. I fear that by the time my generation is ready to retire, it will no longer exist, or be worth far less.
Perhaps the new workplace pensions will be the replacement for the State Pension — it would not surprise me; the government’s privatising everything else. It seems that sagely advice I received is still valid — invest in your pension now. How you’ll be able to afford it is unclear, but nothing is certain for our generation.
So far, so dismal. We can’t afford a roof over our heads, and we’ll be living in tents and eating beans on toast in our old age. How could it get any worse? Well, let’s take a look at our career prospects. The jobs market looks very different to what it was prior to the 2008 recession. In general, work has become more precarious, more demanding, and less well-paid.
The unemployment figures look great — the UK currently has just 4% unemployment, a figure that other countries do not even dream of. And there’s a reason for that: it’s not the true figure. It’s masking a huge underemployment rate. The underemployment rate in the UK is at least 8%, and it’s significant. Someone needs to do crappy jobs that have variable and precarious hours and pay, but it’s not a decent living.
Assuming that you can get a permanent full-time job, your salary isn’t likely to be what you were expecting. Real wage growth is approximately 0%, and real wages are actually lower than a decade ago. Another concern particularly affecting Millennials is the precarity of work. Even in professions that require intensive training, employee turnover is far higher than in our parents’ time.
This is partly driven by Millennials moving on under their own steam, but reflects a broader trend of careers demanding flexibility and adaptation from employees. Only time will tell if Millennials can use this system to their advantage — we are undergoing a transition from secure jobs into insecure work, with individuals acting more like entrepreneurs than employees. One major disadvantage of this structure is the inherent risk associated with self-employment, but this can be offset by high potential rewards.
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If we’re going to address career, we have to talk about the elephant in the room that has far outstayed its welcome: The Wage Gap. No matter how you manipulate the figures, it’s a real phenomenon with deep-rooted causes. And those causes are self-perpetuating, so we can’t just start afresh and solve the problem overnight. The Wage Gap has two main components:
- Women being paid less than men for the same work;
- Women occupying positions that pay less than positions mostly held by men.
There are others that have covered this topic already, so I’d recommend the following articles for an explanation of the Wage Gap and why it exists and is so difficult to close.
The Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1974 in the UK, and more recently we have the Equality Act 2010. But some employers do still flout the law when it comes to equal pay. The problem is that unless an employee takes them to a tribunal, they can get away with it. And taking one’s employer to court is expensive, stressful and isolating. Plus it could affect your future career prospects. And who is most impacted by employment discrimination? Women.
Now we can finally talk about settling down, assuming that you’ve found a partner, purchased a home, and got a decent salary at a company that employs rather than exploits you. Or perhaps you’re in a relationship but your finances and living arrangements aren’t so great. What next?
Well, you may simply choose not to have children — and the difference between generations is apparent in the numbers of young women finding this choice under scrutiny from their elders. But others do not because they feel they cannot afford to. This is also a common reason for young people choosing to delay marriage, as well as a factor in relationship breakdown.
But while Millennials are having fewer babies than previous generations, there are still many that do start families, with varying levels of financial stability. For poorer parents, there will be difficulties associated with housing availability and security, and the likelihood of earning a lower wage, particularly for mothers.
Taking time off to care for a child disrupts a woman’s career trajectory, and mothers are more likely to end up in poorly-paid, part-time work. Single mothers have it even worse, with either the increased logistical burden while holding down a job, or the utter nightmare that is the UK welfare system. The myth of single mothers milking the dole and getting a council flat has been well and truly debunked.
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In order to maintain a minimum standard of living in 2018, it’s necessary for all adults in a household to work. If you want to be a stay-at-home parent these days, you either need to settle for a lower standard of living (and possibly skirt dangerously close to poverty) or marry someone rich. We passed laws and updated company culture to allow women the choice of returning to work — but now they don’t have the choice not to.
Women in the 1960s were expected to leave employment when they married — and employers would not take on married women in all but a few professions. But those women were expected to mind the home and bring up children while their husband provided for them. Even if you want that sort of lifestyle these days, it is very difficult to achieve.
However, as things started to change, married women and mothers were able to find employment. They relied on other women in the neighbourhood to provide daycare, in exchange for “pin money”. The working women would not have been earning great amounts, but the cost of childcare related to their wages was manageable. Recently, the value of childcare has increased enormously, to both the benefit and detriment of women.
In recognising the value of women’s labour in regulating childcare, we have ensured that daycare is paid for as the professional service that it is, but we have also priced some working women out of the market. The cost of childcare is so great that it often exceeds, or at least significantly diminishes, a woman’s salary — which is already likely to be lower than it would be if she not had children, due to the Wage Gap.
Childcare is so expensive because it is heavily regulated, and it takes time and money to become qualified, build up a business, and demonstrate that you’re providing age-appropriate care and education. It’s no longer as simple as the woman next door just taking your kids for a couple of hours (unless she’s a registered childminder). Even as a business, childcare still doesn’t pay that well for those providing it — much of the high prices paid is reinvested in the business — so both the childminder and the working mother are still trapped in low pay.
Unfortunately the cost of childcare is usually measured against the mother’s salary, as it is often lowest. There are many good reasons for women to continue working after giving birth, but it can be financially prohibitive. In these cases, a parent is forced to give up their job to stay at home with the children — just like their predecessors in the 1960s. Neither they nor the women of this generation have a real choice in the matter.
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And if a mother does continue to work, it’s far from easy. At the time of writing, 30 hours of state-subsidised childcare is available for 3 & 4 year-olds, but there’s a catch: it’s only for 38 weeks of the year, and many nurseries are unable to participate in the scheme due to the losses they would make. Some nurseries have increased their hourly rate to compensate for the underfunded government hours, passing the problem onto anyone who works over 30 hours, or who has younger children.
It’s usually the mother that still carries out the emotional and logistical labour of sorting out childcare. On top of that, she has to pay an extortionate amount for someone else to look after her kids, eating away at her salary and restricting her financial freedom, and the financial independence of the household. She cannot win.
Millennials Are Killing Everything
Just like the High Street, newspapers, and the silver screen, Millennials have been accused of killing the traditional family. But what many commenters ignore is that Millennials purchasing and behaviour is shaped by social and economic forces beyond their control. It’s expensive being a woman these days, and that’s before you factor in the Pink Tax or the price of sanitary products.
While previous generations were provided for “from cradle to grave”, this generation sees social protection measures dismantled around them while the pressure increases to earn enough just to survive. Millennials are often accused of being reckless and feckless, yet they are actually very careful with their money and have rather conservative plans for their futures. Some of those plans will be realised, but many won’t — and it’s not their fault.
The current economic climate exists after 50 years of the Boomer generation accumulating wealth. While on paper the economy is doing well, this doesn’t tell the full story. Certain industries are thriving, and some groups of people are well-off, but this prosperity is not evenly spread, and the idea of trickle-down economics has been a massive let-down for many. Millennials aren’t killing a damn thing; market forces and Neoliberal politics are killing them.
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The only realistic prospect of wealth for the Millennial generation is when they receive their inheritance, if they are even that lucky. And they are not expected to acquire it until an average age of 61. It resolves our pension problems, but what are we supposed to do until then? There is a generation of people coming of age in a harsh environment.
They will not get to enjoy the same public services and benefits their parents’ generation did. There is no safety net anymore. They face an uphill struggle to live from month-to-month, burdened by debt and an insecure and low-paying job market. Property ownership feels like a distant dream, and therefore settling down seems like a risky idea. No matter how hard this generation works the conditions, created from the abundance and greed of previous decades, are barriers to success.
The trend in maternal age has been increasing upwards, for many reasons, but it is Millennials’ sense of responsibility and fears about the future that is holding them back from becoming parents. The legacy of sexist practices from earlier times still have an impact on young adults of today, and it is women who are under the most pressure — from well-meaning relatives and from their insecure finances — that are paying the price.
Millennial women can have it all — as long as they’re wealthy enough to pay for it. But most of us have to make compromises that leave us in much the same way as the women of 50 years ago. For all the progress and equality that exist on paper, the reality is very different.