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3 October 2022

When will we be able to hope again?

Anyone in their early thirties has known bust without boom for their entire adult life.

By Hannah Rose Woods

Are you feeling hopeless? It was a theme that permeated Liz Truss’s tour of local radio stations last week. Moments before her appearance on BBC Leeds, the host Rima Ahmed read out a message from a listener, Sophia, a former servicewoman: “I would ask the Prime Minister, when will I ever feel hope again? I feel I will never own a home, I feel I will never feel comfortable. I feel I can’t get a secure job. I’m a British army veteran and I’m no longer proud to be British.”

Hopelessness bookended the interview. Truss was played a clip from Lee, a food-bank user, who described his and his wife’s mental health difficulties, as they struggled to pay their bills and feed their children despite “working harder than ever… I’m not really well, to be honest with you.” As Truss reiterated her faith in her plan to “get the economy growing”, Ahmed concluded the segment: “I don’t know whether that answer will help Lee in the short term, I don’t know whether that will give Lee any hope for the long term, but thank you for being here nonetheless.” 

Social media provided a similar litany of hopelessness. Jon Stone, the Independent’s policy correspondent, tweeted: “Wages haven’t gone up in a decade. Inflation is 10 per cent, you can’t get an ambulance, GP, or dentist, energy bills have doubled, interest rates are heading to 6 per cent, the rental market has gone mad, rail fares up, childcare is bonkers, and a pound is now worth one dollar. What did I miss.” Answers in their hundreds ranged from a legal system in crisis, to the crisis in social care, corrupt government contracts, collapsing democratic norms, welfare cuts, and – the most popular answer by some margin – sewage in our rivers and coastlines. 

What might we feel hopeful about when it feels as if, by any available metric, things are getting steadily or precipitously worse? If you are fortunate enough to be among the highest earners in the country, rising inequality means that you can reasonably look forward to a growing income irrespective of today’s cancellation of the top-rate tax cut. For everyone else, putting faith in the prospect of significant political solutions would require the triumph of hope over all recent experience.

For anyone, like me, in their early 30s, it is hard to know what meaningful democratic change would look like. I turned 18 with Gordon Brown as prime minister, and, since then, the UK has not had a leader able to form a majority single-party government and serve a full term in office. Media reports still compare wages to levels before the 2008 crash as if the best that can be hoped for is just a lost decade and a half. Every time there has been a glimpse of optimism on the horizon, another crunch has come along – Brexit, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, the inflation surge. I have only known bust – without any boom – for my entire adult life.

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[See also: Why the King must speak at Cop27]

It would be nice to forget about the news sometimes and find more personal reasons to be cheerful about the future. But the personal is political, and it’s hard to disentangle macroeconomic despair from the micro of our emotional lives. Psychologists will tell you that an inability to imagine a better future is one of the defining elements of depression, and that what would help more than anything is to connect with others. It doesn’t help that we spent most of 2020 and 2021 in varying degrees of social isolation. But now the cost-of-living crisis is also having a real impact on our ability to spend time with friends and loved ones. At a time when most people are seeing steep falls in their disposable income, two in five respondents to one survey said they are cutting down on travelling and socialising outside the home. Economic insecurity is profoundly isolating.

We are having a terrible time of it, trying to manage our collective hopes and expectations. Amid protests that millions of people can no longer afford to eat or heat their homes – let alone leave them to socialise – commentators gain mass followings on social media by vying for the cruellest ways to recommend a kilo of value-brand oats for survival. 

The Financial Times recently highlighted that income growth is so low, and inequality so high, that the average UK household will be worse off than its Slovenian counterpart by 2024. Unfortunately, the tenor of discussion has been less about whether one of the world’s largest economies should provide better for its citizens than incredulity that life could be nice in Slovenia. Meanwhile, we are invited by the government, again and again, to celebrate the fact energy bills will only double this year, when they might otherwise have climbed to a rate that would have broken the country beyond comprehension.  

According to the Levelling-Up Secretary, Simon Clarke, this is comparative heaven to what lies ahead. For too long, he warns, Britain has been living in a “fool’s paradise” and we must find more “fat” to be trimmed from the welfare state and the civil service. At the same time, plans are being drawn up to train front-line civil servants to help suicidal members of the public, as Whitehall prepares for an expected increase in suicide rates. No wonder the rallying cry currently gaining momentum is that “enough is enough”, in every possible respect.

[See also: The cost-of-living crisis is pushing disabled people into poverty]

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