The rental crisis isn’t a generational problem anymore—it’s a class-based one

Owning property has become the ultimate form of stealth wealth for millennials

May 20, 2023
Young people are becoming less likely to brag about buying their first home. Image: Roger Bamber / Alamy Stock Photo
Young people are becoming less likely to brag about buying their first home. Image: Roger Bamber / Alamy Stock Photo

Property ownership—or rather, the impossibility of property ownership—is usually discussed in this country as though it’s perhaps the only remaining source of generation solidarity for millennials. It’s a nice idea.

As the housing crisis goes on though, it’s gone beyond a generational issue, and become a class one. Owning property has become the ultimate form of millennial stealth wealth. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to spiral out of control, as rents rise and wages stagnate, we’ve reached the point of the housing crisis where admitting you own even a tiny, teeny, poor-little-you, one bed is perceived as gauche as Succession’s ludicrously capacious bag. As a result, young or young-ish people in London with the ability to buy have become more sheepish about it. But complaining about the size of their flats, or the fact they can only buy a one-bed and not a house, or about the rates of their mortgage, or taking pains to mention in a tortured, self-conscious way the help they were so lucky to have, does not transform that vulgar display of privilege into something chic and understated. So better not to mention it at all. 

If you’re young enough to be in the trenches of the rental crisis in a city, you may have noticed this change already. It’s becoming more and more rare to see the kind of “first home owner” posts that once littered the Instagram grid, of smiling couples standing in front of a new-build or in an empty flat, proudly holding a set of keys. Think about it: when was the last time you saw one of these in the wild? Or perhaps the better question is: when was the last time you saw one in the wild and didn’t immediately screenshot to surreptitiously send down a groupchat asking, “where is the money that she went to work and got herself—not her dad’s money or her grandparents’ money?” Instead, it's all become very hush hush, wink wink, hidden privileges. 

Nepo baby discourse may have dominated the headlines at the beginning of the year, but now the discourse is moving on to the privileged children of non-celebrities. “Should we accept we are a nation of nepo babies?” asked the Sunday Times last month, after polling found that eight to 13 per cent of us have jobs thanks to help from our parents. The answer, I think, is yes, but to reduce nepotism in the UK to celebrity or profession is to overlook the reality that it’s simply money itself, or at least, money through the conduit of property, that is passed down from one generation to the next. It has to be, when the cost-of-living crisis means that we’re not able to get any for ourselves anyway: recent statistics found that a quarter of young people in the UK now stand to inherit more wealth than they will ever earn in their lifetime. What’s most infuriating about this is that many of the older generation know it’s happening too—that the rental market is “destroying their children’s futures”—but feel either powerless to stop it, or implicit in its continuation, as long as it doesn’t happen to their children. 

Part of the reason we’re so obsessed with the rental crisis is not even the desire to buy a home, but the unfairness inherent in that process, one that’s becoming more and more obvious as ownership breaks down from a generational problem to a class-based one. If it was all less impossible, less unfair, then we wouldn’t need to talk about it as much. If the rental market was less exploitative for those left languishing within it, we wouldn’t need to turn on each other out of envy or spite, nor would we need to revere the idea of home ownership. “I don’t have any desire to buy a house. If there was an option for stable, long-term renting in the UK, I’d take it,” Jason Okundaye wrote recently in the Guardianlamenting this same impossibility. “I can’t help but feel that the cult of home ownership is an imposition on young people: when you get down to the real reasons people want to buy homes, how much of it comes down to genuine desire, and how much of it is force of circumstance?”

Recently a friend complained to me that our generation is obsessed with the unfairness of renting. “It’s so boring” they said. We were in a novelty cocktail bar, which kind of ruined the effect of this tortured complaint. “I’m so sick of reading about it. It’s all anyone complains about.” They are right though, to a degree, although I didn’t admit this at the time. It is boring to complain about this. I wish we didn’t have to spend our time talking about it. But it’s also unfortunately omnipresent, and as it gets worse we become crueller to each other. It’s easy to point out other people’s privilege, whether it’s complaining about their home ownership (mea culpa) or pointing out that their parents paid for their education, and much more tedious and more arduous to direct that frustration somewhere it might actually make a difference. Of course, it’s not helpful or progressive to focus solely on class unfairness without going any further than this, but it’s also an oversimplification to pretend that our home ownership crisis is still simply a generational one. Perhaps in acknowledging that, we can at least try to steer the conversation towards actually undoing that reality. 

It’s accurate to say the cult of home ownership and the inherent inequality embedded in the housing crisis is an imposition on our generation. It turns us against each other when really it should be turning us against property managers and politicians who refuse to address the lack of affordable housing, or bosses who refuse to raise our wages, or landlords who have no problem raising the rent. The problem is though, that as we age up, some of those landlords have stopped being shadowy, middle-aged figures and started to become… our peers, or at least, our stealthily wealthy mates. Easily digested headlines might still be telling us that millennials will never own a home, but the fact is some of us will, or indeed already do—as long as we have inherited wealth.