London: The Golden Age

Logan: NO! Don't go in there! You don't have to die! No one has to die at 30! You could live! LIVE! Live, and grow old! I've seen it! She's seen it!
- Logan's Run

Readers, I am not a young man. I have a wife, three kids, the personality of Mark Corrigan and an importantish job (if any job in PR can be considered important, which it can't) working with people several generations more advanced than me. I am middle aged and I can admit it - even if journalists in search of a maudlin headline about the death of London can't. For their purposes, I am young.

Last year, hundreds of articles were written about how young people, priced out of London, are abandoning the city in record numbers, seeking fame and fortune in cities like Birmingham instead. The story was based on figures from the ONS which showed that there was a net outflow of 22,000 people aged 30-39 from the capital.

Not only is 22,000 a vanishingly small number in terms of London's overall population, people in their thirties aren't the young. While the headlines conjured up images of an ossifying capital, deprived of the energy, innovation and joie de vivre of Millennial tribes, the truth behind the numbers is the same old story: People get older, start to settle down and crave space and the chance to give their kids a childhood like the one they remember having.

Real young people are still coming here in droves. As this graph from CityLab, based on ONS figures (2009-2012) shows:


London is sucking up the lifeblood of the rest of the country (and lots of other countries). It's only when people hit thirty that we start spitting them out again, as hollow husks that will haunt provincial towns and villages for the rest of their wretched lives. London is, in essence, a remake of Logan's Run.

We heard this week that London's population has hit an historic high of 8.6 million and is forecast to reach 11 million by 2050. That growth won't be coming from the old or the superrich, but from the young. As The Atlantic writes:

"The London-based think tank Centre for Cities provides compelling evidence that, despite its high cost of living, London continues to draw in more young and productive talent from across the United Kingdom than any other city. And it's London’s continued ability to attract talent, the report concludes, that has been central to its economic growth and to the U.K.’s ongoing economic recovery."

Why do they come here, when Birmingham is cheaper? Because young, ambitious people go where the action is. And the action is in London.

A year ago, as part of my day-job, I sat with our client, who wanted to win hearts and minds in New York City. Our lead researcher, who worked for Mayor Bloomberg and knows every block of city, told them what they really needed to understand: Life in New York is hard. People work long hours, live in tiny apartments and put up with noise, crime and brutal weather, among other things. New Yorkers have to believe that their city is the greatest in the world and they expect the best of everything. They are there to seize every opportunity that life throws at them. Compared to that, a double-fronted garage is an irrelevance.

London is a little greener, softer and quieter. Our winters are milder and our summers less sweaty. Our cockroaches are smaller, our transport is better and we're the city that goes to sleep earlier than a megacity really should. But the attitude you need to enjoy London is the same - and it's the young who have it most of all.

As house prices rise, young people will find new ways to compromise, spending less and less time indoors and more and more time out on the streets, enjoying the city. Whether that makes our city better or worse is a matter of opinion, but I've always believed that more density is not only a necessity but a good thing for London. As this graphic, from the LSE (2011) shows, London (top right) is extraordinarily low-density compared to its peers:
As I argued in my last article on this subject, young people aren't retreating, they are finding new areas to enjoy, new places to settle. It may be unfortunate for them that many places are now out of reach, but it has made the city stronger.

Ironically, the oligarchs and global elites that are helping to depopulate certain streets in the fanciest parts of the city are also, thanks to the economic power they bring to the party, helping to make London even more attractive to the young, which in turn has given a shot in arm to many other parts of the capital.

I am lucky. As well as being middle aged, I have a mortgage and home to bring up a family. Consider my privilege checked. This article is not in any way meant to excuse the failure of planners and house builders to create more and better homes to cope with a growing population.

It remains a travesty that so many people feel they need to leave the city to start a family and young people shouldn't have to squash in to ever smaller and more crowded boxes in order to seek their fortune in London. The cost of living in London is not as expensive by international standards as people often think (it's not even in the top 10 global cities according to the latest Economist Intelligence Unit rankings), but the rent is still too damn high.

Social and intergenerational justice is a good reason to address London's housing problem, but don't worry about London - the young will keep coming and making the best of it. What else are they going to do? Live in Birmingham?

32 comments:

Dan said...

Good article.

But if rents keep going up, until living in London becomes so awful that Birmingham seems a better option, it doesn't sound like much fun.

Charlie said...

This is it. If you're spending all your money on housing (whether rent or mortgage) and bills with nothing spare for 'leisure' then there isn't as much point living in the great global city and Birmingham or Manchester will start to look more attractive. There's only so many times you can go to Tate Modern or Greenwich Park after all.

Headhunter said...

You've got three kids now? Wow... I feel like I've seen you grow from a boy to a man in the time I've known you online... ;-) I don't think I've matured at all....

Brockley Nick said...

Sure, that's the calculation we must all make. The numbers suggest that more young people calculate that the benefits will outweigh the costs. Then, more 30-something-pluses make the opposite calculation.

Headhunter said...

Back to the discussion in hand.... I agree that a small outflow of 30-39 year old is hardly massive news. It feels like a lot of 20 somethings come to London straight from uni (if they weren't in uni in London in the 1st place) to begin their careers as this is where the best grad schemes are and it's the place to get work experience. Once they have gained this experience a lot of them move on... It's always been this way hasn't it? Even those who continue to work in London often have families in their 30s and move to the 'burbs (often because they may not be able to afford a 3 bed house near a nice school in zone 2 or 3).


I think it's debatable whether the "oligarchs or global elites" with their economic power actually bring the young to London. I think most of them flit in and out, spending money in Mayfair and barely add anything to the London economy other than empty investment buildings. As far as I can see their presence is generally a negative one on London, unless anyone can persuade me otherwise..... Unless in the oligarch category you're including immigrants who run global companies, hedge funds, banks, private equity firms etc rather that the top 1 or 2%


As for living in Birmingham (or Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool etc), I think it would be great to diversify our economy away from London to these cities as I have mentioned before....

not from London said...

I think there's another reason for the outflow that has been overlooked. The people who are coming to London to seek their fortune are by definition not from London. But the assumption is that they all intended to stay in the first place.


Many young people come to London with no intention of staying staying long term. A bit like how some Aussies come to the UK - they come to try it out - experience it a bit and then return to their home towns to bring up their kids because that is what they always wanted to do. As a non Londoner living in London ( and staying in London) I know many people who have left London because they've 'done the London thing' for a bit but moved out to raise kids. Sometimes for practical reasons because they want to be where the grandparents are, and sometimes because they have issues with raising their children in London - mostly because of the perception that London is somehow more dangerous or not outdoorsy enough than their home towns. You can discuss that on another thread. But I think the assumption that all 'leavers' are forced out is misleading. No?

Brockley Nick said...

Well I had two before I got here, but yes, I arrived on Geoffrey Road a boy and left it a man. Oh, the things I saw there...

Headhunter said...

Yes, exactly... There are lots of transients in London who come here never intending to stay. In some ways this is a problem as many people living in London don't really see the the point in investing time in their local community or feel part of the city.

max doom! said...

is that story written by the tory party cos it reeks of tory values. i lived in new york in my mid-to-late 20s and in london since (now 43). ive enjoyed both without becoming the caricature of an utter gobshite ' we live hard, we play hard. yeah?' suggested above.

Damian said...

I'm not so sure. As a pair of transients, (me from the north, the mrs Australia) we'd live to raise a family here. Though we need both of us working full time just to buy our flat, a house is out of the question. 3 bed terrace' snow start at maybe 800k? Although it's only anecdotal, I don't want to leave London. We will be edged out in a few years when children arrive. Of the people I know who have left, it's been from a desire to be able to buy a house rather than a desire to live elsewhere.

max doom! said...

thats defo my case. this idea that we should welcome our billionaire overlords isnt for me

not from London said...

I'm sure plenty of people have done that but I know one's that had homes and cashed in on them. They chose to leave because of a perception life is better for children outside of London - they certainly weren't pushed out by house prices.

Brockley Nick said...

Well, I'm not going as far as to say that. But we have to acknowledge that one reason why there are so many opportunities in London is because of the enormous power and wealth that is accumulated here. Super rich are part of that, propping up all kinds of sectors, from tech to art to sport, etc.

JosephJohnODonnell said...

You don't need to spend 800k on a three bed house: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/find.html?locationIdentifier=REGION%5E85388&minBedrooms=3&displayPropertyType=houses&oldDisplayPropertyType=houses&sortType=1&numberOfPropertiesPerPage=10

Laura said...

I think that's somewhat disingenuous and I think that some of your information is a little out of date.
Yes there have always been people in their early thirties leave London to have kids, but not in such quantities. You yourself have been able to stay and parent which is a choice that is just not available to my generation. Everyone I know who is in their early thirties and wants kids thinks they will have to leave in order to do so, or if they have kids are trying to manage in a two bed flat, the maximum size most professional couples my age can afford. It's not sustainable. We might in the grand scheme of things be a small demographic, but we are a key one, it's all the people with 10 or so years graduate experience who should be middle management that are going, as people have specialist rolls it's not such an easy demographic to replace if all of it decide to leave and could leave some buisnesses with major recruitment issues.
I also don't think people younger than me are moving to London because they love the city and the crazy lifestyle or have been doing for sometime. The vast majority of people I know in their early to mid 20's that live in London would rather be somewhere else, but have felt the only way they can get any sort of professional training or career is by being here. That goes for people from other EU countries as well as Britain.
Once they get here, it's no longer the live in a shoebox and party hard lifestyle of 10/15 years ago as most of them are so skint after paying for that shoebox they can't really take advantage at all of most of the stuff London has on offer over any provincial city. There's also a sense of despair because they are aware their situation is not going to improve as they get older.
It's all very well to compare London to New York, but it has already happened there, areas like Brooklyn are increasingly off limits to all but the super rich, and young creative types are less and less bothered about being there. And it is a much larger city with areas left to be gentrified and has healthy competition from a load of other American cities. In London there are really no bargains to be had and nowhere else to move to.
The demographic that should be concerning you is the 40% plus of Londoners who say they would move if they could. It is lovely for you that you are happy here and nice that you can identify the areas your age group has had it better than my generation. But reassuring yourself with the theory that we like living like this and enjoy being priced out of all but the most run down areas is kind of a display of privilege in itself. Poverty is not romantic, especially if there's no way out, and for a large proportion of younger people that's what living in London means.

anon said...

Didn't move far though... windfall ;)

Damian said...

You don't need to, but it helps of you would like one with a little space, near good schools and doesn't need renovations (those in the link require modernising until around the 550 mark). Which is why people leave

Guest said...

Also see Laura's comment below, same situation

Brockley Nick said...

"I think that some of your information is a little out of date."


It's the most recent data I can find and no reason to suppose anything has changed dramatically since, but happy to look at any new data and update.

"Yes there have always been people in their early thirties leave London to have kids, but not in such quantities."


But these are not young people. That's the point of the article. As for the quantities, well London's population is the biggest in its history, so every number we talk about will be some sort of record. As I say, a net outflow of 22,000 30-somethings last year is actually rather small.


"You yourself have been able to stay and parent which is a choice that is just not available to my generation."


Firstly, I think we are of the same generation. Secondly, it is not true that it is not possible, but it it is increasingly difficult. If you read to the end of the article, I say that that is a bad situation.


"It's not sustainable."


I agree it's not fair, but I think you are wrong - sadly, it is sustainable, in the sense that for every Londoner who leaves, two more will replace them, which is why the population is forecast to shoot up.


"We might in the grand scheme of things be a small demographic, but we are a key one,"


Agree - if there were lots of articles about how sad it was that the middle aged, middle managers were leaving London, I would have had no issue with it. But the facts were misrepresented. Hence this article.


"I also don't think people younger than me are moving to London because they love the city and the crazy lifestyle or have been doing for sometime. The vast majority of people I know in their early to mid 20's that live in London would rather be somewhere else, but have felt the only way they can get any sort of professional training or career is by being here."


I didn't say that it was because they are in love with London life (although I would argue that you are wrong and that the majority DO love London life - but I have no stats to back me up and neither do you, so let's park that one) I said they were here because it's where the action is. That means many of the best jobs, as well as many of the best places.


"It's all very well to compare London to New York, but it has already happened there, areas like Brooklyn are increasingly off limits to all but the super rich, and young creative types are less and less bothered about being there."


I actually agree that NYC is a bit too bourgeois and lacks London's bohemian quality. It is a danger for London, but the data doesn't show that happening yet.


"And it is a much larger city"


Depends how you measure it.


"with areas left to be gentrified" Like London.


"and has healthy competition from a load of other American cities."


London competes with cities in Europe, Asia and those same US cities. Megacities are in a global race.


"In London there are really no bargains to be had and nowhere else to move to."



Not really true. Inner London has shot up, some parts of outer London have been relatively stagnant.


"The demographic that should be concerning you is the 40% plus of Londoners who say they would move if they could."


I give that about as much credence as the surveys that show lots of Brits would emigrate if they could. Anyone could move if they actually wanted to.


"But reassuring yourself with the theory that we like living like this"


I didn't say that.


"and enjoy being priced out of all but the most run down areas"


I didn't say that. But at least you are acknowledging that much of London is not gentrified.

Damian said...

Completely agree (I had a year of convincing the mrs to move here while watching prices rocket!). Though half a mil for a run down terrace and hope for gentrification? Not appealing to many, IF you have 5/6/700k knocking around. Although this tangent is probably getting away from the original article. I've only one point really, prices are bloody mental! Though I do agree re density. Ban the phrase 'in keeping', build up, good architecture will stand on its own merits

Brockley Nick said...

When I moved to Brockley, people said that this area was rough, crap and had bad schools. It wasn't then true of Brockley and it is even less true now as more people moved in. Areas change.

Monkeyboy said...

ive been watching The Borgias on Netflix, kind of hoping its a bit like that. Warring city states looks cool.

anon said...

I fit in the leaving demographic, it was a hard decision for me to make at first. But reality bites, you stay you loose, you escape you win. I still work in London, but there is no way I could stay with the prospect of paying silly rent for a postcode, just because a very manipulated market dictates it. Leaving was the best thing I've ever done, bar marriage and a couple of other things. Seriously people there is plenty of life outside London and it's cheap at half the price, if you need your LDN, NY, Paris Berlin fix nip back and get it, the world is your lobster ;) don't be a slave.

Brockley Nick said...

"On a practical level it doesn't square with infrastructure - whether it be chronic overcrowding on the trains, the increasing problems with regard to schools, whatever - and yet it should."

Yes, building dense well means adding infrastructure, of course.

"bit unhelpful in framing the inner London experience"


But you don't have to look at the whole area, just look at the centre of the maps.

Headhunter said...

If you still work in London but you don't work here, it sounds like you live somewhere in the home counties? This is fine if you need more space because you have kids etc but once you live out in the burbs, your commute costs increase and you are beholden to rail companies' inflation busting price hikes every year... Personally I'd prefer to live in inner London, suck up the property prices and pay less on my travelcard or cycle/walk/run to work...

Agent Orange said...

If you can live without Victorian you can still get a 3 bed house for sub £500k in SE4: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-48114787.html

Headhunter said...

That needs a lot of work though. Doesn't look like it's even got central heating...

anon said...

Thank for you blessing Headhunter 'This is fine if you need more space because you have kids etc but once you live out in the burbs,' ... Oh Grace Save your money for the children ;)

We didn't do this on a whim and we currently don't have kids... Are you really a headhunter? clearly best in show ;)

As for 'sucking up' 'property prices' we simply could not buy in London, we were completely out priced on every property at every opportunity, like most of my friends and family of a similar age and younger, we have all but a couple moved out to different areas, this has been the case now for several years.

Ferris: Don't worry about it, I don't even have a piece of shit. I have to envy yours.
Cameron: Oh, thanks.

There is a slight increase in my travel cost, slightly longer journey, which i fill being reasonably prudent and time efficient.
All just a drop in the ocean in comparison to greater debt we would need to incur, if we could have ever borrowed the silly amount we would need to buy and live in London as it's just not relative or realistic for us anymore.

We're not massively beholden to anyone, apart from swapping someone else's mortgage for our own, a no brainer really.
Paying someone else's mortgage on a pokey flat, was tolerable for the short term, but it was becoming mid-term and that's not a good place to be in. So we decide it was time to go.

We had only really consider moving out as a long term plan, which in the end we simply decided to bring forward as time marched forward.

One of the greatest bonus is all the properties that fell through are not a patch on our current home, in every conceivable aspect, it need s some work to make our own, but we've gained so much more and wish we could had done it earlier, but couldn't due to commitments.

It works for us now and we enjoy the new found space and freedom from renting. Better to be a slave to your mortgage than someone else's.

Personally I'd prefer to live outside London, start to own my own property sooner by paying a lower price and by having an affordable mortgage and pay a relative small tax deductible increased on my railcard , whilst still cycle/walk/run some of my journey to work... in London.

Agent Orange said...

Here you go then: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-50218073.html

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Oligarchs...where would we be without them? Well Chelsea wouldn't be top to premiership. Housing in London is in crisis you have working class people, young mums having to fight to stay in places like Newham. Something has happened in the last few years, despite a recession, where London has become a hostile place for people on low incomes.
And people don't want to be on low incomes, they are fighting for better, whether it's the Ritzy workers, Bus drivers yesterday who were striking for equal pay across London bus fleet.
To appreciate a Golden Age, it helps if you have a Golden wage.

sam said...

High earning white man says everything is all right and people need to pipe down

Brockley Nick said...

Illiterate fails to read to end of article and tells author to check his privilege for reporting facts accurately

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