Going backwards

Beena Nadeem reports on the changing family dynamics caused by what economists refer to as ‘the dark age of declining opportunity’.


It’s not much of a surprise (for most young people at least) to learn that the cost of living relative to earnings is vastly different for today’s young adults to what is was in their parents’ time.

Young adults are often lumbered with debt, job insecurity and low wages, while the high cost of living means they are stuck at home with their parents for much longer than everyone is comfortable with. If you think that sounds bad enough, then this isn’t likely to be a blip either. Experts say that the boom years of each generation doing better than the one before are gone. What we’re seeing now is what economists and sociologists cheerfully call ‘the dark age of declining opportunity’.

The stats

A recent report found that under 35’s spend two thirds of their weekly expenditure on essentials (40% goes on housing, utilities and transport alone).

The bottom quintile (income wise) of under 35’s devote more than 70% of their weekly expenditure to essentials.

According to one YouGov survey, only 13% of over 50’s correctly realised that under 35’s spend two-thirds of their weekly expenditure on essentials – they thought the figure was closer to 42%.

The Intergenerational Foundation found levels of wellbeing have dropped dramatically from previous generations.

Gone are the days when a young person could leave university debt free, afford to save for a mortgage without any help and move out of home. Consequently, for parents of young adults, that means a life of working harder now to support kids for longer. Meanwhile young people today can kiss goodbye to the notion of being able to stop work by 50 or 60 years old… By the time today’s youngsters retire, they’re likely to be well into their seventies or beyond.

Holly’s story

At 23 Holly Barden is typical of many young adults moving back into the family home. Holly qualified with a degree in politics and international relations from Sheffield University, but was forced to move back into her parents’ home in a London suburb last June.

Despite having a part-time job throughout her three years at university, she graduated with a £2,000 overdraft
and will have to start paying off her £45,000 tuition fees from next year, depending on her earnings.

“Despite my two sisters and me working while at university, my parents have had to dip into pension savings to help support us. Most parents aren’t aware, for example, that student loans don’t cover your rent and barely cover living expenses. Sadly, this has meant they will be working longer than expected, which I feel really guilty about.”

Holly says she can’t even think about saving until she’s cleared her overdraft. And although staying in Sheffield would have been cheaper – for example, £500 a month cheaper in rent, she says “the opportunities for work are lacking in terms of the types and pay ceilings”.

Holly still counts herself as one of the lucky ones. “I’m from London so have a base there – this is not the case for a lot of my friends, who were from villages or small towns in the North or South of England and had to move back there straight away where opportunities and high paid work are lacking. Unpaid internships in London, which are now increasingly common, are only really feasible to those whose parents can support them or know of people they can stay with.”

With a graduate salary of £21,000 and a one-year contract, Holly says moving out of home to somewhere else in London would mean more than half her salary would go on rent, bills and travel. And all of that means moving out isn’t an option. This is especially frustrating to Holly as her mum bought her first property at 24 and both parents bought together in their early thirties. “The notion of owning a home now to me seems laughable.”

“I feel really frustrated as I feel like I will be stuck in this situation forever. Admittedly this often puts a strain on my relationship with my parents, as my frustration can make me look ungrateful – when really, I appreciate how lucky I really am.”

The dark age of economic decline

Holly’s story is typical of what we’re seeing more and more, says Professor Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and chief executive of the Sutton Trust.

Elliot Major says the period of recovery after the war was largely about reconstruction. There was “a golden age in social mobility which was the recovery; the economy was flourishing, universities were expanding as was the whole public sector.”

This post-war growth saw more managerial and professional roles as well as more well paid roles for those from poorer backgrounds who were not necessarily intent on climbing up the social ranks – there were simply more jobs around, meaning many younger people did better than their parent’s generation.

By the seventies that growth had shuddered to a halt to what we’re seeing now, the dreaded term used by economists and sociologists alike, the ‘dark age of declining opportunity’.

Since then, “things have continued to become grotesquely unequal,” says Elliot Major. “Young people, especially in cities like London, are finding it harder to get on the housing ladder as prices have gone up so much and for those from a poorer background there’s an educational arms race being lost as well.”

Recent figures from the Sutton Trust show that those from ‘high affluence’ households (34%) are more likely than those from low affluence households (20%) to receive private tutoring.

“More than ever today’s middle classes are investing ever more time and money into their children’s education and we see a boom in private tutoring… that’s a good investment as it can open doors to higher earnings. But if you’re from a lower income background it’s especially difficult,” says Elliot Major.

But it’s not just poorer income households who are unable to climb the social ladder, leaving them worse off than their parents. It’s the middle classes too.

“They’re petrified of moving down the social ladder and one of the signals of all this is the boomerang generation of children who are staying with them for longer and longer, he says.

“Parental influence is extending a lot longer into people’s lives than it did a generation ago and that puts pressure on everyone. We’re seeing a new phenomenon where parents are dedicated to their children for much longer periods of their lives and that creates all sorts of issues and tensions.”

What happens next?

We’re likely to see a huge change in family dynamics for the foreseeable future, from all classes, he
says, with more people returning to living in bigger family units – or moving out of big cities to commuter towns. On top of this, “we’re all going to have to work longer. Gone are the days of early retirement”, says Elliot Major. No doubt many are already experiencing this reality.

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