Breaking the brick ceiling: why the housing crisis is putting lives on hold

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New research shows that sky-high living costs mean 59% of 18- to 44-year-olds feel their lives and careers are on hold. Stylist sizes up the new glass ceiling

Words: Catherine Gray

Look up. As well as the glass ceiling, we now have a different one to sledgehammer through. A brick one. The one created by the housing crisis. An estimated 13 million people aged 18-44 now feel like housing issues are delaying them from reaching milestones. This shocking figure comes from new Shelter/YouGov research, which shows that a fifth of those questioned believe their career plans are stuck because of housing.

Megabucks rents and property prices are not news. But this ‘paused’ effect on our lives and professions is. Research from credit rating company Noddle shows that a quarter of us live month-to-month, without savings to fall back on, making us a generation of wage slaves. Prohibitive living costs mean we cannot afford to take a pay-cut to re-train, go freelance or set up our own businesses – with eye-watering rental payments and mortgages limiting our options and stifling our dreams. Literally bricking and boxing us into jobs we don’t love and relationships we’re not happy in – just to keep a roof over our head.

As a writer, I have always spent 50% of my salary on rent and bills, and I still flat-share at the age of 36. The chances of me pulling together a house deposit are the same as the chances of me sprouting wings and flying to the International Space Station for a minibreak. In the past, I’ve lived with a man who never stopped talking for more than 10 seconds during a film and been saddled with a series of dubious flatmates who let random friends sleep in my bed while I was away. As my better-paid or parent-funded friends buy, I feel distinctly stuck – unable to live the fully independent life that I crave.

The harder we work, the less time we are able to spend in the homes we are funding. And so begins a psychological hamster-wheel – of running hard all day but feeling so trapped in our job or housing predicament that we simply can’t hop off and catch a breath. “People come to cities with fantasies of earning a decent salary, doing a great job and living somewhere they love, but the reality is very different,” says psychotherapist Charlotte Dunsby-Ferguson. “I have clients who won’t let their family visit their city flat as they are embarrassed and expected to be in a different position by now. They feel anxious, sad and inadequate.”

Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre, says there’s been a rise in people aged 20-40 coming to see him with addictions or stress because of this ‘brick ceiling’. “Feeling trapped causes psychological problems. This is particularly toxic if you feel that at home and at work. Balancing job satisfaction and income is nothing new, but choices are starker than ever these days,” he says. McLaren argues that feeling that home is a sanctuary, rather than a cage, is extremely important, as is seeing a way forward. “Financial traps are keeping people in unfulfilling job roles,” he says. And we just cannot see a way out. Get back on your wheel, hamster, or you’ll lose your cage.

It’s also not just our jobs that we’re feeling bricked into. Brand new research from online marketplace Ziffit has found that almost one fifth of Brits are staying (or have stayed) in a relationship purely for financial reasons, with 35% of those questioned saying they don’t think they could cover costs of living (food and bills) without their partner’s financial support. It all feels distinctly like the Fifties. Although not quite like the Fifties because while our grandparents and parents were able to smoothly go from getting married, to buying a house and having a family, our generation has to put some, or all, of those dreams on hold due to affordability. Life progression can seem an impossible dream.

Why is the brick ceiling there?

In short – it all comes down to supply and demand (more specifically, lack of the former). “The demand for new homes is double that of the amount being built, so house prices are rising six times faster than wages,” says Anne Baxendale, head of policy and research at Shelter. “A decade ago, 57% of 25- to 34-year- olds were homeowners. Now only 37% are. And renting is so much more expensive. Renters spend 43% of their income on rent, while homeowners only pay 19%.” According to Baxendale, it’s a cause for concern when people’s housing costs spiral above 30% of their income, (what’s deemed the ‘affordability’ marker).

“The reason people are having to find inventive solutions like sharing mortgages, living in dormitory-style outfits like The Collective [a co-living development in London, where residents have small rooms or apartments and share communal spaces such as kitchens, but also a gym and library], or sharing rooms (known as ‘hutching’) is because the system is broken,” she says. “We beat ourselves up (‘I should have saved more/worked harder’) when actually, the housing system is working against us.”

The average tenant in Britain will have spent £40K on rent in the past five years, with typical monthly rents rolling in at £744. Elsewhere in Europe? The average is £400. And what about in the capital, the epicentre of so-high-you-could-cry costs? Well, according to new data, renters now outnumber owners, for the first time in a decade. The average rent in London is now £1,543 a month, which totals £18K a year. Sums that don’t allow people to accumulate savings, or the freedom to reassess their lives on any level.

One way to try and save is to move further out of the city into less costly areas. A necessity that has seen, since 2004, a 131% rise in UK women commuting for three or more hours each day – goodbye work/life balance.

Is there a silver lining?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Although nearly 9 in 10 of us desperately want to own our own bricks and mortar, actually, things are moving in the right direction. Records show that 95% mortgages have rocketed five-fold since the Help to Buy scheme was introduced three years ago, with 271 relevant mortgage options now available, compared with 56 back in 2013. The government are also doubling the housing budget with the roll-out of Starter Homes, being sold off at 80% of the market rate (although watch this space to see what effect the Brexit has on that).

London is no longer the centre of the career universe either, thanks to employers responding to the rocketing prices and moving offices out of London. In fact, 78% of the UK’s 1,000 fastest-booming businesses are now based outside London. The rental market is improving, too. Labour and the Lib Dems are pushing for right-to-buy privileges for private tenants, as well as council tenants, says Dan Wilson Craw, policy manager at campaigning body Generation Rent. “Renters are growing as a political voice and the government is beginning to wake up. There’s a bill being debated in the House of Lords right now which would abolish expensive letting agency fees for tenants and create a searchable database of crooked landlords. And in Scotland, limits on rent rises are being rolled out, so if they work out up there, we might follow.”

In my lifetime, I worry that the only property I will ever own is the Smurfs’ Castle I was given on my fourth birthday. But Baxendale assures me I shouldn’t see it as a personal flaw: “Most of our generation are struggling and stuck beneath that brick ceiling, which is a sure sign that it’s not an individual failure: the system is bust.” And while that system is being fixed? Let’s not let our homes – or lack of – define us or limit our ambitions or life goals. Because that would be the biggest housing crisis of all.

Our relationship with the brick ceiling

Three women reveal their struggles with finding a place to call their own

“A tiny one-bed of my own would be amazing”

Sarah Morris, 33, is a communications manager from Birmingham

“The plan after my fashion degree was to be a stylist, but I’ve never had the savings to make a go of it. I’ve lived in flatshares since leaving university over a decade ago, but I’m reaching the age where I want my own space and somewhere to decorate my own way.

I’m desperate to move but it would gobble up more than 50% of my pay to live alone. Even if I could put £50 a month away, it would take me over 12 years to save a £7.5K deposit (5% of a £150K house). Or, given lenders generally want 10%, 25 years, by which time I’d be nearly 60. Depressing.

I’ve thought about moving out of town, but any savings would be negated by travel costs. I feel boxed in, with no option of going back to the career drawing board. Just having a tiny one-bed to call my own would be amazing.”

“I may need to put my ideal career on hold”

Eve Kennedy, 24, is a waitress and volunteer from Brighton

“My friends and I are having to get inventive to find rent in London we can afford. Last year, I became a property guardian – a scheme where people live in disused factories and office buildings. I lived in a former retirement home in Peckham Rye for £300 a month including bills. But it wasn’t like a proper home – there were 27 of us in total, sharing one kitchen. I only ever saw it as a temporary solution.

I was doing 30 hours a week interning at a design company, while also working at a clothes shop for minimum wage, which was exhausting. I was living in the retirement home for nine months before the company decided they wanted to demolish it. So now I’m back with my parents in Brighton. If I were to live in London again I’d have to pay at least £600, even for somewhere really horrible. I’d be struggling to get by. I’m now seriously considering putting my ideal career as a design assistant on hold, doing a TEFL course and moving abroad.”

“Aged 33, I’m back in my childhood bedroom”

Aletheia Hunn, 33, from Lancaster, is currently setting up her own workplace-focused yoga company

“Six months ago I was living in a flatshare in Highbury, London, and working for a charity. But I gave it all up to come back to my childhood bedroom in Lancaster.

My job was fulfilling but I felt a pull to be my own boss so I quit in January and trained as a yoga teacher in India. I got a place at a yoga studio here and I’ve also just landed a job teaching at WeWork’s office in London, so I’m back and forth between the two cities.

If I ever doubt why I live with my Mum, I remember that this is about building a long-term future for myself. Sometimes, I admire my friends’ lives, with mortgages and families, but on the flipside they’re jealous of my freedom.

I have a ‘return to London’ timetable and have lined up a London flatshare in a couple of months with a single friend. Luckily, we can club together during these tough times. Buying my own place is absolutely the plan but in the London market, that feels very ambitious.”