Of all the dire warnings issued in the run-up to the referendum, perhaps the least effective was George Osborne’s threat that house prices could crash by 18% in the event of Brexit.
For young people, home ownership is now an unattainable dream for all but a few, and so in 2017 when Aussie millionaire Tim Gurner said that millennials would be better able to buy homes if they spent less on avocado toast, the BBC calculated that it would take 67 years of renouncing avocado toast on a daily basis to save enough for a property in London at today’s prices. Why, then, would young people be so grimly devoted to the EU when a house price crash would benefit them at the expense of all those selfish Brexit-voting oldies?
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Countless articles have rehearsed the class insecurities of the “left behind” Brexiters. Generally these unfortunates are depicted fulminating over pasties and ale in shabby market towns and grim post-industrial cities outside the London area. The object of their antipathy is the shiny “elite”, plugged into a promise-filled, multicultural urban life and the knowledge economy, seemingly buoyant in the new, frictionless modern world.
Leaving aside its substantive, real-world pros and cons, Europhilia has become a mark of devotion to the culture and worldview associated with this “elite” and the modern world it navigates. It is a value set strongly correlated with tertiary education and that has come to be called “openness”.
Brexit is not really about the UK’s constitutional relationship with the EU. It’s a fight for the values of equality, tolerance, openness, solidarity, internationalism, rationality and truth. You don’t defend values by ignoring them being stamped on.
— Steve Bullock (@GuitarMoog) July 3, 2019
The first election in which I was old enough to vote saw the election of Tony Blair, which makes me just middle-aged enough to remember this Britain arriving. Coffee not tea (and not instant coffee either); cities not towns; low-cost flights, not Butlins; multiculture not monoculture; Jamie Oliver, avocados, broadband, the restyled Mini Cooper; mass customisation; 50% of young people going to universities; everything done on a mountain of debt, especially that 50% graduate rate.
If Thatcherism opened the country economically, Blair’s Britain did so culturally. This double “openness” is the heart of “cultural Remain”.
There are many desirable things about this “open” world and lifestyle. I am a big fan of avocados and European minibreaks, but even leaving aside these caricature “left behind” curmudgeons in the stagnant provinces, openness is a double-edged sword. One of its side effects has been a boom in the cost of living and, with it, a rising inequality (that began under Thatcher) and continued — particularly in the South — under Blair, only to get worse in the 2008 crash.
Meanwhile, the boom in openness-promoting tertiary education produced not so much a boom in graduate jobs as inflation in the qualification levels required to do the jobs we already had. This has left many young people struggling to service a mountain of debt on salaries that are never likely to show much of the “graduate premium” they were promised.
Today, thanks in part to the “open” economy whose values form the foundation of the “cultural Remain” identity, the cost of living — and especially home ownership — has rocketed. Simple aspirations that were within the reach of the working class in the 20th century are an unattainable dream today for millions of young people far higher up the sociocultural pile. And yet those young graduates have all, in the course of moving away to get their degree, absorbed the “open” value set now explicitly taught in tertiary education.
The result is an Everywhere precariat, that has absorbed the values of a world that has little to offer it in terms of concrete benefits, and resolves this conflict by renting the heavily-subsidised and internet-enabled perks of a smarter lifestyle than it can afford to buy. Where once rentals might have just been housing and cars, today that can even include clothing.
The ferocious pro-EU rearguard action does not just represent the anger of an incumbent ruling class defending its perks. It also expresses the class anxieties of the lower echelons of those supposedly elite “open” classes, provisionally accepted as such via their graduate status, whose access to the perks of the open culture is at best precarious but whose cultural identity depends on it.
“Cultural Remain” should be understood less as a reasoned-through position and more as a highly emotional proxy for a faltering but still enticing lifestyle promise. As well as a howl of rage by a middle class unused to being balked, it is a wail of terror from young people terrified at the prospect of falling through the ever-thinning economic ice that separates the slick, happy modern “us” from the miserable, stagnant “them”. It is in this context that we should understand Corbynism.
Because the truth is that for many young people there is barely a fag paper between the urban twenty- and thirtysomething aspirational lifestyles rented via subscription services such as WeWork amid the coffee-shops and short-term rental markets of London, and those less fortunate ‘left-behind’ ones scraping by in the fulfilment hellscape of an Amazon depot.
No savings, no spare time, certainly no capacity to make long-term plans or get married or have kids. The only difference is that one lot get to enjoy their rented lifestyle along with avocado on toast and a “connected fitness experience” instead of ready meals and sanctions for taking time off sick.
Seen this way, one can understand better the totemic power of “freedom of movement”. You might not be able to afford to buy a house where you want to, but at least, says the optimism of youth, with freedom of movement we still have the limitless potential to try something new. To start afresh, somewhere else. Not to mention that same freedom means people with lifestyles even more precarious than our own can come here to staff coffee shops and warehouses, which reassures us we’ve got it better than them. That we’re still us.
But even that party may be drawing to an end. As Janan Ganesh recently noted, the days of the middle-class “world traveller” may be numbered. Graduate starting salaries in the UK are some of the lowest in northern Europe, especially in the creative sectors. Since the crash of 2008, wages for young people have been hit the hardest even as the burden of student debt rises.
The cost of living is rising faster for those in rental accommodation than for homeowners, and with it the cost of those ancillary lifestyle services that console young Everywheres for the way twentieth-century aspirations have moved beyond their grasp. WeWork, Uber and Peloton all posted staggering losses in 2019; how long before the price of their services goes up under investor pressure on the bottom line? Even the price of avocados tripled between 2013 and 2018. The urban Everywhere precariat is heading for a crunch.
They may have bought into the “open” cultural values disseminated by debt-fuelled universities. They may have flocked to London in search of a job in the media, and painted their faces blue to attend People’s Vote rallies.
But millions of young Everywheres are on their way to realising they are not counted among the elite any more. That, in fact, they never were, except on a subscription basis — and even the cost of those subscriptions is slipping from their grasp. We can expect a political reckoning to follow.