There’s a type of tabloid story that goes viral every few weeks: a first-person article written by someone explaining how they managed to buy a house in their early twenties. These articles typically have an admonishing headline, such as “young people just don’t want to make sacrifices like I did”, or “I bought my first home at 23 on a low income… you can too” (both from the Sun this year). They are heavy on tips on budgeting for a brutally frugal lifestyle, and argue that the main barrier to young home ownership is extravagance and laziness.
But always – always – buried in the piece is the confession of significant financial help from family. Many eventually admit they saved money by living rent-free or close to it with their parents; some admit to receiving large sums of money from living relatives or an inheritance. This is ultimately why such pieces go viral – as a chorus of people point out the obvious: generational wealth is the reason some people can buy homes, and many more can’t.
In the media, the family money driving housing inequality is presented as a “dirty secret”, one that isn’t spoken about openly. But for those without wealthy relatives the inheritance gap isn’t a secret at all. It’s glaringly obvious who has generational wealth and who doesn’t.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Exceptions aside (for example someone in possession of an extremely high-paying job, no student loan, a brutally frugal lifestyle and a partner of similar means), the typical urban millennial isn’t likely to have the deposit or even the salary to afford a home on their own without some form of family help. There aren’t many other ways someone making £30,000 a year can suddenly own a flat in a major UK city.
Many millennials are transparent about the support that enabled them to buy a home. Though some may try to obscure their privilege in the press or on social media, few are keen or able to hide the fact from their immediate community. I don’t have a single friend who has bought a home with family help – or even one who knows they eventually will – who doesn’t say plainly that that’s how they’ve done it. Most wealthy millennials seem aware of their financial privilege.
So why is the homeownership divide framed as a great taboo? Perhaps this approach is easier than exploring how this complex structural problem might be solved. For all the focus on intergenerational wars in the last few years – manufactured ones, such as Gen Z versus millennials, and very real ones, such as that between younger generations and baby boomers –people under 40 are regularly presented as a single broke, struggling group. In fact more than half of first-time buyers under 35 purchased their homes with family money and 71 per cent wouldn’t have been able to buy without some form of financial support. The inheritance gap among millennials is vast. As they face far worse conditions than previous generations, many young people need family money to achieve any financial security.
Despite the reductive, naive narrative in popular media, young people are not oblivious to the inequality that defines their generation. On both sides, millennials confront the divide daily, when checking their bank balances, paying their rent or planning for their futures. And if we continue to insist that the inheritance gap is taboo, we have an even slimmer chance of closing it.