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?