The friendly middle-aged woman who runs the Student Support Centre – which used to be a music room, and has ceilings held in place by stacks of boxes you must remember not to touch – rolls her eyes at me in kindly exasperation. “You’re lucky to be growing up now”, she chides me gently in an Essex accent. “When I was your age, I may as well not have bothered going to school. Why would a girl like me want to go to university for? I only got a job at all after my husband left me. You, you can be anything you want. They say your generation is going to be the richest and best-educated ever.”
I nod uncertainly, and thank the Lord God I didn’t have to be a teenager or young adult with Margaret Thatcher in charge. The past is a foreign country, after all.
I was eighteen in 2007. I’d dropped out of sixth form because my mental health was in tatters and I wasn’t going to university because I didn’t have any A-Levels. When the economy collapsed, I had nothing: no experience, no qualifications, no way of proving my worth over the millions of other people born in the late eighties and early nineties who had to somehow carve out a life in this brave new world of cuts and austerity measures.
Someone with a million pounds of assets and a million pounds of credit card debt once leaned toward me across her glass-topped kitchen table and whispered in scandalised tones: “Do you know, most people are two months away from destitution?”
I was shocked. Two months? Who the hell has that kind of money put away? Most of the people I know would be lucky to keep their home and their lifestyle if they didn’t get paid for a week or two, let alone two entire bloody months.
I know a couple of trust fund kids. Not related to each other – two entirely different people from two entirely different families. Neither of them work, but they both volunteer while living off trust fund payments in flats bought for them by their families. “I have a lot of respect for that”, I said to my best mate the other day. “They’re doing something good and worthwhile for the world. We need more volunteers.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “It’s laudable to try to make your own way, though”, she said.
I was a little surprised. “It’s better that they volunteer – we need volunteers desperately, charities can’t run without them – than that they selfishly take a paying job from someone who can’t afford to go without one, surely?”
That hadn’t even occurred to her. The other point of view hadn’t really occurred to me. My best friend is ten years older than I am.
I have five jobs. I work ten or eleven hour days. They’re jobs that I have chosen, jobs that I wanted, jobs that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for my skills and my talent and my determination – and, most importantly of all, my friends. I got three of them directly because someone I know recommended me to the employer and did most of the hard graft of securing the position for me, and the other two because I was pointed in the right direction first by one of those same people.
My income totals less than the lowest tax bracket. I’m just about still eligible for the lowest rate of housing benefit, I think, but it’s such a soul-destroying nightmare that I’m trying to get by without it. They cut me off, anyway, because it’s so incredibly difficult to sufficiently prove my often-casual and frequently-fluctuating income. I live off Tesco Value food and the generosity of my friends, and round about the 2nd of every month I cry myself to sleep at night trying to figure out how to pay the rent. I always manage to scrape it together in the end, often with help from my family.
I’ve never in my life applied for a job in a supermarket, and when I was on the dole – a period of more than six months – I mostly did the minimum required to not have my payments suspended. My mental health was a mess. Nobody seemed to want to give me a job interview.
Am I a Striver yet, Iain Duncan Smith?
Some friends of mine are planning to see the musical version of Matilda at the theatre. I’m able to go, because my wonderful boyfriend – also ten years older than me and possessing of an Actual Career – has very kindly paid for my ticket. It starts with Tim Minchin’s rather cutting description of being born to a middle-class family in the so-called “noughties”:
One can hardly move for beauty and brilliance these days.
It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days.
Special-ness seems de rigueur.
Above average is average – go figure.
Is it is some modern miracle of calculus,
That such frequent miracles don’t render each one un-miraculous?
Later in the play, Miss Honey swings in dim lighting and echoes the hopeful refrain of her young students.
And when I grow up, when I grow up
I will be brave enough to fight the creatures
that you have to fight beneath the bed
each night to be a grown-up…
I cry and cry and cry.
They say this will all be over by the year 2016. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. After just another three short years, we’ll all be free. I’ll be twenty-seven when that happens. Someone pushing thirty with a solid work history behind them is a much better bet than a teenager with no experience or qualifications – but an 18 year old with a clean slate and a bright future is far more appealing than a 27 year old whose CV is riddled with blank spaces and poorly-fudged gaps.
I wish David Cameron would tell me what I’m going to be when I grow up.