Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Death by a thousand sandwiches


Today it was reported that Millennial couples priced off the London housing ladder could save enough for a deposit in five years by giving up six “luxuries” ranging from phone upgrades to sandwiches and overseas mini-breaks.

Strutt & Parker's original analysis applies to a couple saving for a house over a period of five years, so the figures are a lot more reasonable than they appear, even if it still seems a bit steep for a weekly spend. Their analysis focusses on the potential savings that could be made by a couple cutting back on: coffee, gym membership, takeaways, lottery spending, and not going out once a week.

Naturally this triggers howls of incredulity as hard pressed young things compare their meagre habits to those presented but there is certainly some truth to it. Even in this time of so-called austerity our buying habits have trended ever more toward convenience. Over the last decade we have seen an explosion in supermarket brand express shops opening wherever there is a vacant lot.

A quick look at the refrigeration units tell us that it's geared for luxury and convenience foods. It's a peculiarly British thing to see fresh made sandwiches in petrol stations and corner shops. I do, however, think that the report has it wrong. Millennials are not priced out because they spend on luxuries. They spend on luxuries because they are priced out. Cash rich and asset poor. There is a certain sense of futility and a refusal to live an austere life in pursuit of an ever more unlikely goal.

It is this same spending pattern which in turn fuels the demand for service sector workers - which in turn sustains a lot of growth. This I believe leads to much more transient lifestyles, a higher turn over of people and a wholly different set of cultural attitudes - and I think this goes some way to explain the demographic shift in the Brexit vote.

This goes back to a recurrent theme of this blog; that we are becoming a nation of overindulged children with little in the way of adult responsibilities, no stake in society and unsurprisingly it drifts away from the home owning social conservatism upon which UK post war culture is built. The speed of transition also goes some way toward explaining the Brexit vote.

Meanwhile the narrative has it that the structural problems of an ageing and property-less country can only be served by maintaining current levels of immigration. We are told that we must not blame immigration for any of the problems, rather it is a short sighted government failing to invest in health, housing and infrastructure. Which to a point is absolutely true but the growth in itself is its own pull factor. Development can never hope to keep pace this exacerbating the problems with availability of housing and strain on transport infrastructure.

As much as this dynamic explains the vote to leave it also explains youth opposition who would rather not experience austerity for real, and have grown accustomed to the conveniences of a hyper-charged services economy. One side thinks the other are gammon-faced old Tory bigots who in turn think the young are limp-wristed metrosexual leftist wastrels - and if The Guardian and Vice are anything to go by, they are not wrong.

The kids do have a point though. There's lot to be celebrated about a consequence free nice life with nice things and no commitments where liberal attitudes mean people are free to be whatever they want. The snag is that it is not consequence free and the current model is not sustainable, and because it works just well enough for those who didn't miss the property boat we are not going to see any serious attempts to remedy the problems.

And this is where I see Brexit making a difference. Changes in the supply chains are going to have an impact on consumer habits, we will see a drop off in convenience products and subsequently a decline in the kind of service jobs which have traditionally attracted migrants. I can then see the housing bubble finally popping and we return to a state where frugal habits allow for saving.

As is, policy is geared for ever rising house prices to protect the investments of those who have the power. If that is to be permanent I can see why kids would want freedom of movement so that they can bugger off elsewhere. I don't blame them - and I expect the EU loves that idea.

The trouble is we have to build a country that does work for everyone and a model that promotes rootlessness and transience basically demolishes any kind of civic ethos. Not for nothing do Ukippers call the EU a Marxist enterprise - and this is why Mrs May's "citizens of nowhere" riff resonated well outside of the media bubble. A clever piece of rhetoric.

That is what makes Brexit a culture war. We are told that the old fogies should shut up because the future belongs to the children of the European Union - as though the experience and wisdom of age counts for nothing and elder voters are not entitled to a legacy. Hardly surprising then that the debate has become visceral.

Being statistically between the two camps I can see merits in both but ultimately I think Brexit is going to make a lot of things better in the long run. Brexit arrests a number of trends which are out of control and it is a yank on the leash for our politicians. As much as I know it's going to bring economic and political turmoil, all my best instincts tell me Brexit is still very necessary and it is going to be worth the sacrifice.

If by some means the politicians manage to stop Brexit, they will rush to put this whole sorry debacle behind us and pretend the rifts have simply evaporated. They will make a few token adjustments and patronising gestures in the direction of leave voters and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

Some predict riots and civil unrest if we do not leave but I don't think so. I think it would just lead to the quiet death of democracy. All the while the civil, cultural and infrastructural decay would continue unabated until that one day when the system cannot cope and folds in on itself. I rather expect the consequences of that would make Brexit look like a walk in the park. 

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