Drowning in debt

Today's twentysomethings were brought up to spend today and forget about tomorrow. But now the loans

Two different lives - same looming crisis. Damien Core, 20, is a student from Kent, studying biology. Lisa Rice, 22, works for a technology company in Yorkshire and has done since leaving school. Damien plays in an indie band, drinks at the student union and has a steady girlfriend. Lisa is single, likes to go clubbing and spends her Saturdays in Leeds, shopping with mates. Last month both faced the same problem: they'd been bouncing their increasing debts from one zero per cent credit card offer to the next. In April, the credit crunch hit home. No zero per cent offers came through the door. Suddenly, each had to start paying interest on debts that had been growing for years. With their income spent on rent, bills and food, neither had spare money to meet the credit card companies' demands.

Damien and Lisa are far from alone. According to a YouGov survey commissioned by the charity Rainer and published in May, 90 per cent of the 4,000 young people polled were in debt by the age of 21. Almost half of the 18- to 24-year-olds have owed more than £2,000 and one in five have owed more than £10,000. One in five young people said they were left with less than £50 per month after bills and debt repayments. One in ten were left with nothing. Some use loan sharks to fund pub crawls and new clothes.

Although student loans formed a significant part of higher debt levels, credit cards, store cards and catalogues were widely used. Unlike their parents, this generation has been borrowing heavily for the past five or six years simply to finance everyday expenses. While tabloid headlines scream about the effect the credit crunch is having on mortgage owners, many of these young people find themselves blacklisted before their lives have really begun.

"There used to be a sort of social stigma attached to being heavily in debt," explains David Chater, head of policy for Rainer. "In the past five years I've seen that stigma vanish. Young people are sold the idea of borrowing so heavily these days - on TV, online, on the high street and even by their mates - that they think nothing of it. In part, student loans are to blame. Students themselves think: 'I owe so much, what does another grand matter?' Even those who are not in higher education know someone who is, so they see the £2,000 they owe as nothing compared to their mate or cousin."

Linda Jack, youth adviser and head of the Financial Services Authority's working group on young adults, reinforces this: "I've worked with youth for over 20 years and I've seen young people's attitudes change more and more into passive consumerism - I want it, I want it now and I can get it now.

"The link between effort and reward has disturbingly been lost for a lot of young people. Trying to get through to them that if you put the effort in and save, you have that sense of achievement, as opposed to paying more for it in the long run by putting it on your credit card because you wanted it now . . . There is a cultural issue here: we have changed culturally in terms of expectations."

Rainer, which works with socially excluded young people such as those who are dependent on benefits, are homeless or are otherwise struggling to get by, warns that the hardest-hit are, inevitably, the poorest. Two-thirds of the young people it works with are in debt - rising to 83 per cent among those living in supported hostels.

"I suppose you'd call this the sub-prime market," Chater says. "They wouldn't have been able to borrow such large sums a few years ago, but now you have stores and loans with cripplingly high interest rates which are prepared to lend money with no credit checks or proof of employment. Often we find kids who've had to borrow from their mum or dad to cover loan payments, then having huge rows within their family over these supposedly friendly loans. When you think that it's family conflict that causes most teenage homelessness, this is literally driving young people on to the streets."

And yet the inability to recognise the downside of borrowing isn't restricted to any single social class. "With this age group it's almost as if a white mist descends when you start talking to them about things like APR," says Neil Almond at the youth charity Kikass. "I've even talked to kids who think that the higher the APR, the better the deal. This is the most internet-savvy, clued-in generation when it comes to online, but none of them have online bank accounts. It's as if there's a missing part of their profile where money and debt is concerned. These are smart kids. They know that they don't know, and they literally don't want to know."

The New Statesman conducted a straw poll of 18- to 24-year-olds to test Almond's thesis and found it depressingly accurate. "I despair at how much attention my dad pays to these things, because it's very dull to me," grumbles Phil Teach, a 24-year-old from London. "He keeps saying you should take your money out of here, or watch out for that. I'm like 'OK, Dad, can you sort it for me?' It's a hassle when you haven't got time."

"The thing is, if I lived on the money that I got from my job, I wouldn't even be able to go out," explains Jim Davis from Carlisle. "I'm 22 years old and I should be having fun. If someone wants to lend me money to do that, why shouldn't I?"

Sense of entitlement

The research company Synovate surveyed 18- to 24-year-olds' attitudes to debt and money at the end of 2007 and found a generation used to easily available credit, with a live-for-the-moment attitude and the belief that money is to be spent for pleasure. "The majority of 18-24s spend automatically and frequently, fuelled by a sense of entitlement to their standard of living," explains Becky Connell, who conducted the research. "The problem is that social and peer group pressure makes it harder for young people to curb spending. As well as the cheap credit and glossy lifestyles marketed to them by a celebrity-dominated culture, there is the feeling of being 'left out' if you miss even one night out. So something as simple as socialising is driven by compulsion as well as enthusiasm."

Disturbingly, Connell describes a conversation between a group of twentysomethings in Leeds who were considering taking out loans to pay for plastic surgery. One 24-year-old had borrowed to fund his wife's "boob job" and another was considering liposuction, while Amanda, 23, told the startled interviewer: "You can get plastic surgery on credit; you can pay monthly for it now. With Transform you can get liposuction for £60 a month. When I saw that I was like, 'Ooohh'."

"You have so many kids who want to look like Jordan and Peter or Posh and Becks," warns Jasmine Birtles, author of The Money Book: Control Your Money, Control Your Life. "They take store cards to buy the clothes they see in magazines, they spend on sunbeds and cosmetic surgery and they're constantly opening up new credit cards to pay off the old ones. There's simply no sense of the debt that's gradually being accrued. It's as if this is just free money."

And there is little sense of the future offering any great threat: "There was a recent survey that suggested young people aren't saving for a pension because they're relying on buying a property and hoping that the value of the property will rise," explains Andrew Oxlade, editor of the financial web-site www.thisismoney.co.uk. "Inflation paid off their parents' mortgages, but we are in a low-inflation environment. Not only do we have bigger debts, we also have this economic kick in the teeth that you have to pay off every bean yourself."

With unemployment rising for the third month in a row in April and Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, warning that the full effects of banks' credit problems have yet to reach the consumer, this may prove to be the first recession that hits the young - a group that usually survives tough times because its salaries are as low as its expenditure.

Birtles has already encountered students who are considering declaring themselves bankrupt the moment they graduate. "That can mean they will be unable to get a mortgage or even a current account years later," she warns.

"The only kids from this generation who have absolutely nothing to worry about are those with very rich parents who don't mind paying off everything their children owe. For the others, I shudder to think how they're going to cope over the next 12 months. The banks are tightening things because they've lent money to the wrong people, so they're going to face very hard times indeed."

According to Chater: “There are already 1.5 million 18- to 24-year-olds in poverty in England and Wales. Initiatives such as the working tax credits have helped families and children but, by design, have had little impact on this age group. Fuel poverty measures have understandably targeted older people but rising fuel prices also appear to be having a significant impact on young adults living independently for the first time. This group falls between policy agendas: too old for initiatives targeting under-18s and unaffected by those for parents.”

Ignored by the government, seduced with cheap credit into taking on debt, and facing the same price inflation as higher-earning late-twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, an entire generation of Britons runs the real risk that bad debts could write it off – young, gifted and broke.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other woman in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming like males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack