Toby Thorn wrote his suicide note on the back of a bank statement. The 23-year-old took his own life shortly after moving into an apartment with friends, stressed to the point of breakdown about student loan and credit card debts amounting to just ￡8,000 (US$12,886). Only a short time ago, there might have been a functioning mental healthcare system to help young people like him, a safety net to fall back on — but that is not the country the UK is any more.
Suicide is not a logical response to debt, but fear is. Fear of failure, fear of never making the leap to adulthood successfully. Fear like that can be overwhelming. I have seen it destroy young lives. For every young person like Toby Thorn who takes their own life in despair — nearly 2,000 every year and rising — there will be tens of thousands more who fall into anxious depression, who hurt their bodies, who fail to thrive.
Some months ago British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke contemptuously of people moving from college or university straight on to the welfare rolls. It is beyond hypocrisy that those in power still treat this as a lifestyle choice for the feckless rather than a cruel necessity brought about by the spending choices of the prime minister and his pals. Plans to remove social benefit for rent from the under-25s are due to be quietly shelved this week. They are being shelved because they are financially unworkable — something that was obvious from the start to anyone with a functioning calculator — and not because they are unjust; something that was obvious from the start to anyone with a functioning conscience.
OUT OF WORK
However, the fact remains that almost 1 million young British people are out of work and tens of thousands more are earning so little that they need the benefit to be able to afford to live in the places where there are still jobs. This is not a future many of us would gladly choose.
For those trying to grow up and build stable lives now, the world is full of frightening questions.
“Where will we live? How will we be able to afford such expensive rent in London? When will we pay back our student debt? How?” — runs a statement by the Imaginary Party, a group of writers and activists in London. “They are not unrelated problems. [They are] maintained and reproduced in order to cultivate a certain set of social relations and a particular way of doing things. What ties them all together is debt.”
Debt, student loans and housing insecurity. Never knowing when or if you will ever have a roof over your head, or enough money at the end of a precarious working week to buy decent food. That is the reality of life for millions of people in Britain today, sapping our energy and sucking away our youth, and it is fortunate for all of us that some are still finding the strength to organize. UK Uncut, a protest group established to challenge cuts to the UK’s public services, are taking over stores to raise awareness of corporate tax avoidance, and this week, students occupied rooms in University College London in protest at the college’s plans to build high-end accommodation in east London, a move that will force the eviction of local residents.
Rent is at the center of it all. Rent and the impossibility of paying it. Rents in some places in London have risen 20 percent in the past year, while wages for under-30s have fallen by between 6 percent and 10 percent in real terms over the last decade. In major cities, many of those who have not been forced out by soaring prices are living two or three to a room or attempting to camp in empty buildings — of which there are thousands in London, since speculation has continued unabated in the recession. This year the coalition government has criminalized squatting in residential buildings and plans to extend the legislation to commercial properties, a move that may force 20,000 people to choose between homelessness and prison.
At least 75,000 young people in the UK are going to be homeless this Christmas — and those numbers have soared, according to housing charities. I’m sorry to bring you all down when we should be celebrating the royal baby, but right now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may be among the very few young people who can afford to build a future and a family in Britain. For the rest of us, it is going to be a cold, hard, angry winter.
Laurie Penny is a journalist and feminist activist from London.