Maybe this is as good as it gets??

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“Maybe this is as good as it gets??” (Jack Nicholson; As Good as it Gets; 1997)

In this line from the quirky 90s comedy a once a far-off warning to my then teenage self now carries more weight than ever as I get older: that even by living life to the full, pursuing your dreams and earnings potential as much as possible will not necessarily equate to life-satisfaction you though you’d end up with. What if, at 34, and living in a nice town, with a beautiful wife and child, a respectful job and in my own property – this is as good as it gets??

For my generation of the 80s, the consensus was that opportunities would be abound for career progression, increases in purchasing power and material wealth gains which to buy a nice house and have a family. That vision now seems limited to the lucky few.

For the UK, the early 1980s was a period of recovery from the oil crisis of the previous decade, while the latter half represented excess and boom due to the national embrace of neoliberalism, represented best by Thatcher’s opening up of the Stock Exchange and crushing of the miner’s strikes. In this context of material excess and inflation, there seemed – looking back – easy availability to housing that could not only meet your needs and aspirations, but which you could also afford. This situation seems to have diminished, especially in the south east.

In 1998 my father decided to sell our family home – a 5 bed detached house, with front drive, large rear garden and located within a sought after part of Nottingham – for around £87,000. I was 16 at the time and gutted we were moving away. This aside, my Dad was probably earning around £ 34,000 in 1998 (I asked him), as he had been working for a University for a long time. A simple website inflation calculation puts his salary at around £54,000 in 2016. Today, the same house (although improved internally and slightly extended) is now worth around £480,000 (or around half a million pounds!). Obviously while not the most scientific or watertight approach, if we the put this same wage equivalent into a mortgage calculator to establish how much someone on that salary would now be able to borrow, this comes to around £256,000. (N.B. This does not include potential debts a borrower might have, child-care outgoings or other liabilities which could detract from the final overall lending amount).  So, in all, even if my Dad was earning £54,000 today, a £256,000 mortgage offer would mean he wound’t be able to buy the same 5 bed detached home he sold in 1998, let alone more modest 2-3 bedroom terraces in the same area. That’s housing inflation, y’all!

Another side to my “maybe this is as good as it gets” status anxiety is that we don’t all end up earning as much as our parents; perhaps due to different life chances, skill-sets, a lack of self discipline or even plane bad luck.  Perhaps now at my earnings peak I am hitting just above the £30k mark. Mortgage providers (using the same calculator) would be willing to lend me around £142,500 (although I have a child and car payments for a 2nd hand car). To put that into some kind of perspective in York, where we live, £142,500 won’t even get you a static home in the countryside near York, let alone a static home (or ‘bungalow’ as advertised by an Estate Agent) within the vicinity of the area we used to live as a family in the nineties – shame on me.

Now don’t get me wrong, a home is a home (and I’m not knocking those living in static/garden/lodge homes), but the ability for our generation to aspire to live in housing that gives us similar opportunities to enjoy indoor and outdoor space, live comfortably and have room to expand (as my parents had) is now massively reduced. My childhood aspirations are being marred by acute year on year house price rises, which have led to housing affordability being massively out of reach to even those with decent incomes.  This inflationary rise in house prices has not been helped by dwindling salary/ wage growth over the past 20 years, with ONS evidence suggesting that real wages have actually began to fall since 2009:

Since 2009 all three groups have seen earnings fall in real terms. Earnings have fallen by 10% (-3.2% per year) for those who started in 1995, by 11% (-2.7% per year) for those who started in 1985 and by 12% (-2.6% per year) for those who started in 1975.  

(Pg 4 – UK Wages over the Last 4 Decades: 2014)

Although not inevitable, it is possible that the toxic mix of unstoppable house price inflation and wage depreciation/ stagnation will continue to divide society between the haves and the have-not’s. In simple terms, those whose parents who have made even modest equity gains are more than likely (especially compared to those who parents who have been renting) to be able to offer guarantor support or even housing deposits to enable their children to get on the housing ladder. In addition, the same parents will also be able – although a lot depends on the contents/ allocation of a will – to pass capital to their children when they die (yep, those same individuals who received helped in getting on the ladder in the first place). This process of ‘double gain’ [my term] is noted by the author John Hills in his excellent book: Good Times, Bad Times – very much worth a read!!

How does the UK housing market impact on me and my family’s aspirations?

While, at first, my £142,500 mortgage offer seems likely only enough to get me and my family housed within a holiday home in Skegness, we did in fact get lucky and in 2014 got onto a scheme where we pay only half a mortgage for a property that we fully own (via a housing association). The result is that we have a nice top floor ‘apartment’ which we live in, in a good area and with the ability to walk into the historic centre of York within 15 minutes. All that being said, it was a two bed property and we had no room to expand or have any outdoor space. Without wanting to sound ungrateful (which I am not), while we found the place more than adequate to fulfill our needs, we knew that we would need to move to be able to be able to have another child and affordability in York is very limited (i.e. our two wages combined would give us mortgage affordability of around £180,000).  The result is that we will likely have to move out of this part of York or even to to a cheaper town, where housing affordability is less of an issue, which in the UK is a dwindling prospect.  While such towns exist, we find ourselves in the position where we might have to start over again and we have already lived together in Nottingham, Sheffield, Cambridge and now York. It would be good if we could settle somewhere for longer than 2-3 years.

For Others

I only managed to get into the position of earning £30k after having completed two degrees and having spent a lot of money on funding myself through University. I am lucky – to a point – to have had that opportunity; while others are perhaps not. We were also fortunate that York Council’s affordable housing scheme is generous, even more so than those in ‘cheaper’ cities, principally as the Council recognises that there is an acute housing affordability to earnings ratio, and offers Discount For Sale (or similar) schemes; less the city suffer an exodus of skilled workers. The city is also steeped in altruism and philanthropy, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation still offering discounted homes in the style of George Bailey’s Building and Loan (see It’s a Wonderful Life). We also previously benefited from an “affordable rent” scheme, which basically meant we paid 60-70% of the market rent in our last place, thus enabling us to save for a deposit. For those who cannot access such schemes, or whose salaries don’t enable saving, the picture – one can only presume – is likely to be much bleaker and the prospect of owning a property more unlikely, unless Mum and Dad are willing and able.

Limit your Aspirations?

Without getting into arguments of watered down Tory housing policies, private sector land-banking and poor build-out rates failing to address chronic housing supply shortages – it does feel like the accommodation needs of mine and younger generations are being pathetically addressed.  While Tory policy has led to interventions in the housing market, this has been at the wrong end; effectively subsidising and cushioning house-builders and mortgage lenders with state cash and guarantees that over-inflated repayments will be met in the long term.  What should be happening are attempts to address shortages in their build out rates, and less emphasis on the planning system (especially as evidence suggests that is not the problem; if anything it needs more money and less incremental changes to being made).  Another factor affecting the diminishing availability of actual houses to buy on the open market links to stock being bought up by landlords. While the popularity of buy-to-let mortgages has perhaps dissipated, their presence still encourages investors to buy up what were family houses and let them to out for monthly rents much higher than the equivalent mortgage payment would have been.
Until the availability of buy-to-let is capped (1 in addition to your own house) and house-builders are forced to build out a greater portion of their permissions (and not at the expense of quality), the situation isn’t likely to improve. Further alterations to housing legislation are also needed, with the planning system has perhaps been tinkered with enough already.  Until something radical is done to shake up the market (Jeremy Corbyn’s state house-builidng scheme anyone?) the aspirations of entire generations will continue to be crushed for the sake of the profit margins of house builders, the greed of buy-to-let landlords (including those who sit quite comfortably in the Houses of Commons and Lords) and general apathy of those within the market to not fix what is inherently broken.

Bibliography/ Links:

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_368928.pdf

http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/bills/article-1633409/Historic-inflation-calculator-value-money-changed-1900.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/11/good-times-bad-times-john-hills-review-welfare-state-tom-clark

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Times-Bad-Welfare-Myth/dp/1447320034

https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2018/mar/09/houses-theresa-may-council-planning-local-government

 

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Demob-happy Life

One of the plus-sides of being out of one’s chosen profession, although employed  in a steady job, is perhaps the overwhelming realisation that there is more to life than purely professional work.

Within an institution of any sort where you are in a professional capacity, either in the corporate or public sector, the expectation to perform to the best of your ability, time after time, can leave your brain in a state of treadmill-flux. Wake up – bam! -‘you’ve this and that at work today’…while at work – ‘do this and that, do it well, do not fail, make us some money’…perhaps later, when lying in bed trying to sleep – slap – ‘don’t forget this meeting tomorrow’ and btw, try and have a good sleep.

With my brain less full of work-centric thoughts, the ability of my mind to explore other avenues that are unrelated to work seems to have permeated into my consciousness in a number of disparate ways. I now think beyond the next day and beyond, towards longer terms goals, including  how to make the best use of my time in the context of my hobbies. I can realistically set myself goals that are not based around the centrifugal pull of work tasks and my subconscious is free to elaborate on these; both in my awake state and my nocturnal condition. Examples being, shall I busk tomorrow?; shall I record a track?; shall I write a song and perform at an open mic next week? All of these are real tasks that I can think about achieving in my new world, whereas before the thought of busking and writing songs – although I had done so before – had escaped me and were viewed as for luckier, perhaps wealthier sections of the population with time on their hands.

Perhaps for some lucky people that undertake a professional role and embrace all manner of that role in a positive way to their core (i.e. they love their job), there is already room for such positive life planning and ability to indulge their non-work aims and mean that they can also develop into a fuller, rounded and creative person. These are the lucky ones.

Well, for now, we will see. People may criticise this career dodging attitude to base my life around. I would state however that I do work, just that the demands are less and such freedom enables me to put parts of my mind towards pursuit of goals I’ve dreamed of achieving as a child and I feel happy about that.

Post-script (4th April 2018) I am now back in my previous career, as I wasn’t earning enough cash. I now do not play music, busk or write as much as I was in 2016, but we live in a house with a garden; although now our weed smoking neighbours are forcing us to move house – argh!!

Its hard out there…

Thinking as I do about my place in life, and the opportunities I have perhaps squandered, I’m constantly in a state of ‘status anxiety’ about where I now find myself.

In some ways I feel I have achieved a respectful existence, married with a child; a mortgaged property in a nice part of town; newish car; job with pension – however there are always unquenchable desires left unfulfilled. As I approach the middle of my fourth decade, cracks begin to appear in my subconscious, mainly linked to a disconnect between my childhood aspirations and where I now find myself. I remember as the naive child of an academic thinking that one day it would perhaps be fitting to achieve at least an academic status similar to my father. After all, I had at least half of his genetic make-up and had had a reasonable upbringing up to that point; living in a detached house, brought up with three older siblings and by two parents who had at least had some grasp of the ways of the world, who imparted us with love and a wanting to see us succeed as individuals who could confidently go about in the world.

With my father having taught for 30+ years at two respectable Russell Group Universities, my aspiration to obtain a PhD did not feel out of the question; although thinking this at age 14, I was perhaps unaware of required good fortune (contacts, being in the right place at the right time), blunt self-belief and intellectual rigor that I perhaps did not have access to or quite possess.  Having now achieved a ‘lesser’ post graduate qualification (i.e. MSc), the PhD while a logical next step, now seems untouchable. This is perhaps more linked to a lacking of self-confidence or being in the position I now find myself in (re of a provider), as well as knowledge of the demanding nature of such a long term pursuit, as well as limited guarantee of reward or career at the end of the road.

The fact is I am acutely unsure of what I want to do. I was a town planner for 7 years, from the age of 26 to 33. I graduated with a degree in Geography from Sheffield University in 2004, not knowing what I wanted to do. I then undertook a self-financed MSc in Urban and Regional Planning, costing almost £10k, working part-time while also studying and volunteering at councils to gain experience. While this paid off with a decent academic result and a graduate role at a well know property consultancy in Cambridge (before I had even finished my degree), I nonetheless began to come across failings in my chosen career path not long after. Being at the whim of a developer and experiencing a barrage of artificial one-sided relationships that inevitably unravel over time (usually due to representing profit driven individuals), I inevitably realised that I was doing little in terms of improving the public good or helping people.  While this moral conundrum was alleviated somewhat for the next four years while promoting renewable energy developments – that in my eyes and those of the council planners were environmentally positive – once again the financial motivation of the client began to leave me feeling cold inside. The weekly monotony of pushing unsuitable wind turbine and solar farm sites through the planning system, those usually either too big, were located too close to sensitive historical or ecological assets and which would inevitably have too significant an overall impact began to grind me down. 

Wind turbines were also viewed with disdain by a range of individuals, in some cases for good reason, but usually by local villagers afraid of house price depreciation or a change to their private view (neither of which are planning considerations) or by their council planning committee representatives. As the agent representing these renewable impediments in the Great British Landscape, I was also viewed with contempt.  While I successfully achieving a number of permissions and planning officer recommendations, success rates decreased with the greed of developers wanting bigger and more profitable turbines, as well as Government’s toughening stance towards on-shore wind; with Planning Inspectors taking a harder view on turbine appeals (perhaps due to the Secretary being pressured by a whole host of Tory MPs who were being bombarded by their disgruntled  ‘landed’ NIMBY constituents). With the Conservative Election manifesto announced in 2014: an end to new wind turbine developments if elected, I could see the game was nearly up and decided to try and digress into a more mainstream planning role. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to gain alternative planning employment together with the desire to start a pension; to increase my holiday allowance (and spend more time with my son), and having suffered a mini breakdown (induced by a number of wanker clients), I decided to take a job at a local university, albeit taking a 30% drop in salary from my previous planning role. 

So where are we now? A year and three months later, I have grown bored of my current university role which has limited progression opportunities, and with the possibility of redundancy have been actively looking for planning roles: starting the whole facade all over again. In this pursuit of unhappiness, I have had over 6 interviews since last October, with some of the top national firms in Leeds (including two second interviews) and have been left feeling frustrated: with some firms not giving me a response; some letting me down gently with positive feedback and others where I am still awaiting an answer (following a recent interview the day before my wedding last month).  I also tried the public sector, however did not even receive feedback from the interview and therefore am beginning to feel that I am trying to get back into an industry that does not want me. Although I gained chartered status in recognition of my experience and skills in 2010, I feel that the combination of having had to pay for the course in the first place (when many of my course-mates enjoyed generous bursaries from the governing body) and feeling I am perhaps not quite what these companies are looking for; that maybe I need to refresh my thinking. 

I am artistic: enjoying painting, drawing, graphic design and photography. I am musical: enjoying singing (including performing with my guitar in pubs or in a local choir in concerts). I have also felt the desire to impart knowledge and have previously tried a PGCE (although was told by the course instructor that it is unlikely I would be able to control a class before I had even started!); and so that avenue has been avoided for a long time. I feel that at 35 my time is running out in terms of starting a new career and wonder what it is I will be happy doing for the next 30 years. I have a family to support and while we are reasonably comfortable, we could also do with a bit more money to buy a bigger house and enable us to have more children.

I moan, and am sure there are people in a worse situation, but I am not sure how to proceed, finding myself defaulting to planning job seeking mode, while feeling I might be neglecting other possible avenues.

Time is running out and I am tired of waking up in the middle of the night sweating and thinking I am letting my family down having got myself into a lower paid position that has no career progression. I feel working in admin I am a let down and feel I wasted previous opportunities and that I might now be stuck.

What to do???