An essay on growing sideways rather than up, living through the 2008 recession in London and the UK, and the possibility that, for me, being a New Labour graduate was just a catalyst for mental illness.
“I always felt very suspicious of the word ‘career’. Isn’t that something you do off a cliff?”
This is one of my partner’s more effective lines. It is one they said to me quite early in our relationship when I was spending a fair bit of time crying mascara streaks over temp agency rejections, and angrily eating noodles in bed at 2pm. The most creative agency rejection I ever had (from a £7 per hour receptionist job in Barnet) was when someone mistook my backstage work for ‘out of work actress’, and a one-year internship at Oxford University Press for ‘attending Oxford University’. I quickly corrected them on both. The woman on the end of the phone told me those were genuinely the hiring criteria to answer the phone at a small law firm. She at least sounded sympathetic to my utter disbelief. This was 2010.
My partner is older than me, and is the end of the graduate generation that didn’t really have to deal with fees. Friends of his have even shown me old paperwork for their grants — little yellowy paper stubs, proof of the Government’s wish to invest in you. He has made an impressive career out of his degrees. He is bright. He tells me I am bright — but the reality is I am the sort of bright who was told too many times as a child that they were, and that this was Significant (and something to cling on to). In my mid-twenties, I was the sort that felt adrift, having searched for an adulthood that never really existed. The sort that is late to their own funeral, capable of destroying an entire company invoicing database via depression ennui, the sort that upsets half the customers because they’re not welcoming enough.
But I could stitch a hem, cook a four course meal for eight in a shoe box flat, ghostwrite other people’s job applications and get them interviews on the spot, and provide better amateur counselling than half the professional therapists I have had (not all). I’m not a nice team player — I am a loyal ally. I just appeared, the further I got through the decade, to have zero practical 21st century survival skills. “If only you’d just apply yourself a little more.” I can still hear it in my head — but any one voice owner for it is now barely identifiable.
I grew up in a beautiful part of the country, with parents who were both self-employed: one as a small time junk shop owner, the other as a cleaner. They’d bought my childhood home — a modest house with an immodest, wild, fruit filled garden — for eleven thousand pounds in 1975. I had fought my way via the 11+ exam into the ‘good school’. I’d met a nice group of girls in sixth form, and thought it was really brave and exciting that some of them, at age sixteen, went to the protest against the UK involvement in the Iraq war. I got my university place at eighteen, said goodbye to all my friends who had done the same, and dutifully left as was the plan. Graduation came and I and walked away with the desired paperwork. I hadn’t taken any drugs until I was twenty-four. I’d never been arrested. I’d never gotten accidently pregnant, or even caught an STD despite my fascination with multiple, unhealthy relationships.
I’d pretty much done everything right, from what I understood right to mean. My parents had been insistent that I strived to be a renaissance woman — saying I should travel at every opportunity, clear that I was destined for better things than them, certain that I would save and buy property with my first boyfriend like they did, and get a Good Job. Why was I so miserable, lonely, and such a skint fuck-up hiding in a little Islington flat — and why hadn’t the ideal middle class success recipe for happiness worked?
Here is some hasty ‘desk based research’ (facts from the internet) as context:
In 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the intention to carry out his pre-election promise — that by the end of the decade, fifty percent of school leavers would be entering some form of higher education. An educational report (this downloads a .pdf) published in 2012 states that Blair’s government went far in achieving their vision — 350,800 students are recorded in 2011 as present on a first degree (usually referred to as a BA or BSc, in the UK), including those attending the ‘new universities’. These institutions were former polytechnic training colleges or further education colleges that had gained the authority to issue degrees after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and their presence meant that university places became somewhat plentiful in comparison to a decade earlier.
As higher education became more regulated, post-1992 universities proved themselves to be able to produce research of a quality that could challenge even the oldest and most established parts of Oxbridge. This meant that a degree awarded by a new university began to be seen as not just accessible to students who might want to explore more modern subject areas, but worth just as much as an award from one of the older institutions. From the point of view of a restless seventeen-year-old in 2002, the chance to flee one’s claustrophobic hometown seemed an extremely sensible life choice. You too, could be a graduate, and earn a Graduate Salary. You could be better. You could be successful — and mostly importantly, more successful than your parents, or the people that chose not to go. It seemed unthinkable to refuse, and almost mandatory in the climate of the time.
I certainly felt this way: the school I attended was a grammar, a now heavily questioned model designed for so-called academic children with an emphasis on languages, critical thinking and a strong, Victorian bent towards self-improvement. Around age fourteen, I distinctly remember hearing that a girl several years above me was opting to train as a plumber, instead of filling out her UCAS university application form. Various friends and teachers acted like some sort of faux pas had been committed. A rumour circulated that in the sixth form yearbook, instead of having a university name written under her own as her publicised ‘destination’, there was just a blank space. She clearly hated the narrow aspirational culture of the school — on her last day she managed to climb on top of the flat roof of the main building and play her electric guitar at us until one of the fitter teachers managed to intervene. Seven years later, I started to wonder if she’d really been on to something. My graduation had been in 2006. I’d felt unable to return home to a town I no longer connected with, and obvious signs were appearing that one of my parents had a violent drink problem. I had felt utterly lost. My first relationship ended in my final year, leaving me more untethered. I submitted tens of job applications, and then slept on a friend’s sofa for several weeks after talking Manchester University Press into letting me do a couple of days of unpaid work experience, just so I had an industry relevant reference.
Over the next five years, I drifted through various house shares around the country, trying to find somewhere — and someone — to be. Work became harder to find, and permanent work was unthinkable unless I took a bar job, which I was utterly unsuited for — I was too sad to keep up, and not charming enough to hold down banter at the bar. The drunk parent couldn’t understand why it was so hard for me to find stability because I was “middle class now, not working class like I am” and also imparted the shining wisdom that “CVs are a conspiracy, I never had to have one to get a job”. By late 2009 I’d probably applied for over a thousand roles since graduation and could still count the number of interviews on just my hands — toes weren’t necessary. Temporary data entry roles paying just over the price of a pint an hour, intermittent periods on the dole, and occasionally begging the non-drunk parent tearfully over the phone for help was my bright new graduate career. The noise of the idea that I was meant, somehow, to be better than this was suffocating.
I did eventually make friends along the way. Mostly similar people, similar ages — a strange network of barely twenty-somethings who had all left little towns for big higher education focused plans. I got to ride the Sheffield Arts Tower paternoster with my ex-girlfriend — giggling and terrified. I fell in with a group of art students in Oxford who, cradled my shocking mental state and who helped me realise that I’d actually been a promising artist in my teens before I’d left home. One of them also got drunk and pulled a knife on me one evening — later citing that he’d found my loneliness and madness too frustrating and was trying, brutally, to scare me straight. It turned out very soon after he mostly just felt the same. Two of them are still my friends — and they are both still only just finding a place in the world, ten years later. A group of us moved to London finally, sick of overpriced student living in a town where the biggest employer was the university, and hoping we could find something a bit more glamorous and meaningful.
Everyone clusters together now under various alliances — where we did our degrees, what music we like, who met each other in a house share. No one grew up here. Occasionally someone appears in a friendship group who Grew Up In London, a native, a strange, secure sort who never left, or just happily moved back after a while. They have intimate knowledge of areas where an equivalent of their childhood home would now cost the best part of a million, but “their da just bought it on his council wages for 60k in the 80s”. Some are understandably miserable and angry that they can’t afford to live securely in the areas where they grew up. But they give me a weird hope that if I dig my heels in, I can have an ever stronger community here with them — which is becoming the key to solving my loneliness and my instability. One friend firmly stated his loyalty, having known early twenties isolation, with: “We can all bitch about the rent, but no one leaves. That’s the deal.”
Looking back over a decade, the idea of being a ‘young graduate’ seems very emotionally murky. In reality, what did this look like? Hundreds of young people leaving small towns under the impression a new and better future awaited them. Leaving parents, who we are now often desperate to see but unsure how to connect to when we do. We consider the idea of having children in landscapes that are totally unfamiliar, but they’re also where our friends are. Most of us feel we can’t go back — we’re now inescapably From London to those in our hometowns, but still From Elsewhere when in our huge, beloved, overpriced city.
Did going to university actually just fuck up my generations’ ability to be part of a stable community? Is it right or healthy to only be building that now, at the beginning of our fourth decade? I’m not sure we did the right thing. I am definitely sure that I’d avoid telling any possible future child of mine that they had to go to university like I was told, by New Labour, by my teachers, by my parents, by the whole narrative of the time. Why should one have to leave and go hundreds of miles away from the people they’re in love with at the start of adulthood just because they need to be ‘improved’ somehow, trained, shaped, bettered, just so they can have a little bit more of a chance of making money? I only started gaining any real wages at all when I finally had a supportive relationship, a stable home, and friends who I knew weren’t definitely leaving in a year. I still have not ‘become’ anyone, like the drunk parent and my teachers told me I had to. Uncomfortably, I actually count my biggest achievement to date to be that my partner is now my spouse.
Other friends and strangers who I read the articles of have strong, and better informed opinions on this question. I do not wish to speculate on the economic or policy solutions here — I want to explain the emotional. Apprenticeships are only just digging themselves out of the sideline that they’ve been on for the last twenty years. Any nineteen and twenty year olds I encounter now are questioning of all of this — they seem to have learnt from our sins. They want stability, they want friends, they want secure jobs, they sneer at unpaid internships, they do not have the cash to have gap years. They do not avoid higher education, but they consider it far more critically than I ever did, or felt I had the chance to. They seem so smart.
I hope they cling to each other, because that is what matters.