Young, gifted and jobless: a generation in the red

The under-35s are the most vulnerable

The current financial landscape is bleak for anyone. But the culture shock is biggest for the TIMIs: the increasing numbers of those in their twenties and early thirties who find themselves indebted, mortgaged and insecure about job prospects. TIMIs are the first generation to get easy loans, starting with student loans. In fact, because of booming numbers of credit providers, the average under-35 now owes more than £9,000 in credit-card debts, student loans and other borrowings. Their repayments average £206 a month, three times as much as the archetypal TIMI is investing in a pension.

Now they find themselves in the front line for redundancy.

Sarah Walker, aged 23, and one year into her career as a strategy consultant, was made redundant a week ago. Having worked hard and received positive appraisals in her City position, Sarah thought her job safe. It was not.

"They didn't explain why they'd picked me. At the time I was too shocked to ask. Now I'm starting to feel angry. After we'd worked so hard we deserved an explanation." About a third of Sarah's colleagues were made redundant on the same day, but those in the early years of their career were hardest hit. This is emerging as a pattern.

These twentysomethings, graduates, often with excellent degrees, high-achieving and socially successful, did not foresee misfortune. Graduating from top universities, many achieved Firsts, presided over the Union or captained the rowing team.

People who lived through the three-day weeks of the Seventies, or who remember the blight of the early Nineties, know what to expect. But these young workers believed their careers in the finance sector to be stable and lucrative. After all, they were prepared to work 80 hours a week.

Lucy, a 33-year-old buyer for a public museum, has at least had a decade of relative stability. But even she has been given a stark choice: either take voluntary redundancy or a role with "more work for the same amount of money".

Until recently, she says, the decision would have been easy: "There have been so many jobs out there. But maybe now there won't be. What's it going to be like out there if you don't get a job?"

Lucy's mortgage on a London flat has not gone up "too much" in recent months, but she has an outstanding £1,000 credit-card debt. "I'm throwing everything I have at it, because I don't want that burden."

Many would envy her, including 28-year-old Lisa, who works for an events company in Edinburgh. She cannot afford to pay off more than the minimum on her credit card now that her mortgage is up by £250 a month.

Nina, also 28, has been similarly hit by an increase in her mortgage payments. She left her job as a mortgage broker to go travelling last November. Two weeks ago she returned to find her trade in disarray. "The office I worked for had closed down and the only mortgages being sold are remortgages. People aren't buying," she says. "So I'm working in a call centre for American Express - I'm working in debt! When someone defaults on a payment I call them. That is one area still recruiting, so my job is secure for the time being."

But as with 20 per cent of her peers, Nina earns less than she spends. "I'm still training so I take home only £450 a month, and my outgoings are about £600 . . . in recent weeks I've been to one pub, to have one drink."

Still, she has company for evenings in front of the television: her flatmate Paul recently took voluntary redundancy. His firm, a car rental company he describes as "a sinking ship", offered redundancy to all employees. "I was in middle management, so I reckoned I'd be one of the first to go in a second round," he says. He was right: "I've been out for five weeks, and two or three weeks ago they made all their managers and supervisors redundant. And I don't think their redundancy packages were as good as mine."

Soon these sackings will be making their appearance in the national statistics, with many more expected. The TIMIs are on the verge of having to survive in a very different world from the one in which they grew up.

The under-35s who lose their jobs will inevitably find another, suggest some. But it could mean months, or even years, of struggling financially, of having to take a job way below their qualifications.

The generation which, since 1998, took on loans of £20,000 before it had even graduated has been ill-prepared for insecurity and poverty. It has been dealt a hand far different from the one it was promised. As these TIMIs take their place in the dole queue, with their pride sorely damaged, they feel let down. As one redundant banker put it: "It's a job that leaves no time for anything else; it becomes your life. Losing that overnight makes you think again about your choices."

Alyssa McDonald and Liana Wood

The Britain that isn’t working

  • 1,825,000 number of unemployed, the highest since 1997
  • 1,000 number of workers joining the dole queue each day
  • 2,500,000 predicted number of claimants by 2010
  • 3,000,000 predicted number of unemployed by 2010
  • 540,115 number of under-35s claiming Jobseeker's Allowance
  • 494,180 number of under-35s claiming Incapacity Benefit or Severe Disablement Allowance
  • Research by Nick Stokeld

    Sources: ONS, TUC, ING, ING, DWP, DWP

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?