Long hours, stress and pricey commutes go hand-in-hand with London living. But as the government urges us back to the grind, one writer argues that the time is ripe to cut loose and carve your own path.
Four years ago I left my life in London and returned to my childhood base of the Stroud valley countryside in Gloucestershire – but this is no clichéd tale of making homemade jam or skipping merrily off into a wisteria-clad sunset.
I actually found the move quite difficult and yearned for weird things like the background hum of late-night London buses, or elbowing my way through rush-hour crowds on Hungerford Bridge.
When it finally arrived, my big “aha” moment from moving to the country did not lie, as I expected it to, in the romance of rural life (the air! the greenery! the cows!). Instead, my wake-up call was rooted firmly in the sobering field of finance.
I didn’t realise it, but I was stuck in a pretty toxic relationship with London and – like many of its kind – I let it roll on for years.
My first job in the capital was an admin job paying £17,500 a year. After tax and other payments, that worked out at about £1,000 a month, most of which went on rent sharing a flat on Baker Street with six other people and paying off the interest on my student loan (a debt so huge I couldn’t even begin to think about it).
The flat was nice but loud 24/7 and often counted mice among its many late-night visitors. I didn’t care: I was living in central London and had “made it” in this giant, wonderful city of ours.
I was more than happy to dive unthinkingly into a game where the score card read London: £££, me: broke and forever flirting on the sidelines of credit card debt.
The chemistry was clearly all off and yet I kept at it for over a decade: I believed in the charisma of London. Here was a city so charming and alive, I was willing to pay any price for it – and I did.
If anything, there was a certain glamour in constantly dabbling with my overdraft. So what if I squandered all my money on eye-wateringly expensive rent, with leftovers going on equally expensive food, drinks and transport? This was city life! It was worth it! I was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, living it up on a dime in the Big Smoke (granted without either the elegance or talent for seducing rich men that Capote’s heroine conjured up).
Not only did I never make money – even years on, when my career became more established – it somehow never occurred to me to do so. A wage, to me, was nothing more than a means of keeping those pesky “your current account is overdrawn, please move money” texts at bay.
Another strange dynamic began to develop, as well. Because money meant everything to me in London – the dream could end in one month’s missed rent – work by association also started to take on a do-or-die significance.
I thought nothing of constantly working late hours or weekends, and generally letting work trample its way right over my personal life.
It wasn’t even about money. It was more to do with the fact that I was giving away so much of myself away in pursuit of the London promise, an intense job somehow had to be its pay-off. The exhausting, expensive effort of it all was validated in a shiny and all-encompassing career, which neatly closed the loop to the kind of never-ending churn that is familiar to anyone who’s lived and worked in the capital.
Yet this is no time to bring out the violins – I was generally happy, and I’m well aware my London story is pure sunshine compared to most. The point is this: the unhealthy relationship habits London and I developed back then are magnified tenfold now, in 2020, with the fallout of coronavirus.
Today we’re in a place where crippling wage stagnancy (a 2018 report found millennials earn roughly the same as those born more than a decade before) coupled with increasingly narrow credit conditions means that the closest “generation rent” is likely to get to buying an actual London house is by posing outside one for Instagram. While property prices may drop going into 2021, these entrenched problems will cancel out any glimmer of an advantage that first-time buyers may hope for.
It’s not just property prices, either. The outbreak has made the many problems that Londoners face – record rent inflation, a toxic culture of 75 hours a year more than the rest of the country in unpaid overtime and a overloaded public transport system that is the most expensive in the world – a whole lot worse. And, in a narrative that is as familiar as it is tiring, women will be hit hardest by this fallout, particularly BAME women.
The move out of London happened to be the trigger that made me recognise my dynamic with the capital for what it was. For the first time in my life, I began to earn money – even while hopping ship from a permanent job into the more choppy waters of freelance work.
It’s only anecdotal, but I soon noticed that other people I met in my new hometown seemed more likely to set up their own businesses, too. There is more of a willingness here to follow through on those crazy ideas that come to all of us one day in the shower. Perhaps because people are not spending an average 64% of their income on rent like Londoners, they’re able to take more risks.
In many ways, though, London is worth the effort. And you don’t need to up sticks to the countryside to balance its more noxious effects: any change could be your catalyst. A change say, caused by lockdown.
It’s no coincidence that having had a taste of the work from home lifestyle in lockdown, nine out of 10 of us want to continue doing so. Meanwhile just 7% of Londoners want to return to the office full-time.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps can talk about Covid-safe offices all he likes, but he’s missing the point.
2020 has set into motion a series of extraordinary events that reach well beyond the virus itself. For the first time, people have had access to a radical new way of working that has entirely dismantled the belief system we’ve built around fast-lane city living.
In a move that no-one could have predicted pre-Covid, those living in the capital have been able to offset sky-high rent and compulsive overtime with zero commute and flexible working hours. They’ve discovered that this new, unprecedented way of doing things has opened up a path to greater productivity, less stress, better relationships and more time for relaxing or exploring local neighbourhoods.
It’s not a picnic for everyone, of course. Home-working is impossible for some, and there are valid arguments over the erosion of office networks, as well as the loss of jobs in city centres.
But the fact remains that, for all its tragedy, the fallout from coronavirus is also a conduit for powerful new ideas. For the government, it’s a sign that instead of simply nudging us all back onto the office treadmill, they should take a long hard look at why we’re so reluctant to do so (hint: it goes beyond hand sanitiser supplies).
You, meanwhile, can make some changes of your own. Coronavirus is your chance to press reset on any elements of your working life that you’ve only now realised are problematic. Even if it’s just a small step, it can make all the difference.
Arrange to work a few days at home per week (lockdown has proved it’s feasible for many industries). Set a strict cut-off time for work each evening, and cut a dash to spend time with your loved ones. Stick two fingers up to London’s ludicrously priced transport network by buying a bike and using it. Always yearned to run your own business from your bedroom? Now, in this time of great flux and brave new opportunities, is the moment to act.
You too can push back at London for a healthier, happier relationship. It is, after all, one of the greatest cities in the world.
Images: Getty, Unsplash