I remember, during one of my last classes at UCL, the topic of conversation turned from the cultural implications of Algerian independence to the subject of life after university. Our lecturer, a grumpy ‘progressive Hoxhaist’, told us that things had never been worse, and out of the 20 or so students in the room, only one or two would have found any kind of full-time employment by the time the year was out. ‘But it’s not fair!’ cried one girl, ‘we’ve all worked so hard over the last four years, we’re all clever [speak for yourself, I thought], we all have debts and we’re just going to be ignored!’
‘Who are you going to blame, then?’ responded the lecturer. The question was a pertinent one: who were we to blame? The government and the banks? No, too simplistic, particularly for a class of ‘clever’ soon-to-be graduates. Our parents? Again, not an option, given that most of us would be living off their generosity for the foreseeable future. Ourselves? Well, maybe, as our lecturer went on to tell us, we were just a bunch of pampered bourgeois keener on whingeing than getting stuck in.
He had a point. Two years later and I am still a contributor to the youth unemployment statistics. In fact my generation of over-educated, underemployed twentysomethings has come almost to pride itself on its plight. Just as we remember the 1920s for its ‘Bright Young Things’, the 1960s for its Hippies and the 1980s for its Yuppies, we’ve decided that we are Yuffies: young urban failures. Future generations, we think to ourselves pompously, will look back and pity us.
So what entitles Yuffies to think of ourselves as particularly hard done by? We’re not the first generation to find ourselves out of work. In the Thatcher era, the educated offspring of the bourgeoisie actively chose to drop out en masse. Geoff Dyer’s essay ‘On the Roof’ describes a decade spent during the 1980s living in Brixton in benefit-sponsored bliss. ‘I now realise what a privileged historical niche I occupied,’ he writes of his twenties, ‘free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a free maintenance grant and then — the icing on the cake — the dole!’ Or, as Wham! so succinctly put it, ‘I may not have a job/ But I have a good time/ With the boys that I meet down on the line.’
But what makes Yuffies different is that we’re not electing to be unemployed; it’s not a political thing. We’re beyond anger, politics and collective action, united only by the fact that we feel victimised and a bit pathetic. One thing we are good at, however, is living a reasonably high life, well beyond our pathetic means. It’s scrounging, yes, but it’s a useful skill and one I suggest you recommend to any unemployed graduate children. It’ll get them out of your house at least.
When I left university my student council tax exemption came to an end, and I found myself living alone and completely penniless — too strapped to buy proper food. So I began to survive on the free samples in supermarkets (a routine which, for a time, saw me ejected from the Waitrose in Westfield shopping centre more regularly than the rubbish). But the food was healthy and nice, much better than living off sliced white.
And what to do at night? Well, my friends and I became art-world parasites, crawling from gallery opening to gallery opening, turning our noses up at people in pubs for doing anything so tasteless as, y’know, paying to get drunk.
If you buy your clothes at secondhand shops (which I’d also recommend — old tweed jackets, cords, silk ties) you fit right into the opening night circuit. You get to know the regular crowd and after a while they think they know you too. They become friendly and invite you to other parties — you become almost legitimate. Then the art crowd begin to imagine that you too are an artist, or a hip young critic. All you need to fit in is the ability to talk pseudo-intellectual drivel about conceptual art as you knock back gallons of cheap white. Which is, after all, what we’ve been educated to do, and is basically my idea of paradise.
I was so broke this summer that I often couldn’t afford a bus fare, and would regularly stumble the five miles back home from Mayfair. I once spent the night in the exit of Hyde Park Corner tube station — very Yuffie to slum it in Knightsbridge. But there’s a more sober point to be made here: if you’re used to wandering the streets in the early hours, you notice that the genuine homeless, in the subways and shop entrances, seem to be getting younger and younger. They’re a reminder also that, however hard done by you might feel, no one with a decent education and a family to fall back on has anything really to complain about.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 November 2013Tags: Graduates, homelessness, Youth unemployment