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Introducing... Generation Rent

The first rung of the housing ladder is unreachable for too many people.

An Englishman’s home is his castle, the adage goes, but increasingly it feels as if many of us in “Generation Rent” will never know what it is to own a home.

No Place to Call Home is the fitting title of a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which reveals “the social impacts of housing undersupply on young people”. The report shows that, although most young people want to own their own home, they are “unable to see how this aspiration can be fulfilled” and “a sense of frustration has set in”.

The report highlights how difficult the “search for stability” has become. Such rootlessness can affect all areas of life, from work to relationships, leading to what IPPR calls a “stifling of potential”.

The challenge of securing a rented room is becoming ever greater as the competition for accommodation increases, especially in cities such as London. Illustrating what a charade the whole thing has become, an email pops into my in-box advertising a “speed flatmating” event in London. You are invited to meet multiple potential flatmates in a single evening; the service clearly caters for a city as time-poor as it is money-poor for many.

On some room-hunting websites, you’ll find the rotten underbelly of exploitation to which the unlucky might fall victim: conmen trading on people’s desperation to avoid homelessness and taking money for what turns out to be substandard accommodation.

I am part of a generation with both feet firmly off the property ladder. Members of Generation Rent have lives that, rather than following a linear trajectory, take a “boomerang” shape: many of us are forced to return to the childhood home in early adulthood, having struggled to find independence. “Flying the nest” used to mean for ever but it no longer does, given the economic crisis, rising rents and student debts. (There are half a million more young people aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents than in 1997 and three million in total, according to the IPPR report.) The pattern and shape of adult lives are indeed a-changin’.

The future does not look bright. According to a 2011 study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.5 million more young people will live in the private rented sector over the period to 2020. Statistics also show that large numbers of first-time buyers receive financial help from their parents or grandparents. But not all are lucky enough to have the Bank of Mum and Dad to call upon, thus entrenching social inequality.

It took generations for some families to raise themselves out of poverty to a decent standard of living. Now, their children are either stuck on the same rung or falling back. What can be done to overcome such noxious, systemic problems?

The IPPR report recommends solutions that could carve “sustainable pathways towards home ownership”, from tackling housing undersupply and creating more homes to ensuring “a job guarantee for young people to mitigate the long-term ‘scarring effect’ of being out of work for a significant period of time”.

At present there is little in the way of a safety net to catch many of those who are falling into the private rent trap or worse. With loans, debts and the toxic cuts to welfare benefits further hampering young people’s movement, the first rung of the housing ladder is destined to remain unreachable for many.

Yet, with the ground so shaky beneath our feet, it is worth remembering that it shouldn’t be a luxury to have a roof over your head – it’s a necessity.

Anita Sethi is a literary journalist and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez