“I’m glad your house isn’t tidy,” Michele says, not aware that I’ve spent the previous hour frantically cleaning up. She has come to collect me so we can walk her dogs – Violet, Michele’s longstanding companion, and her daughter’s dog, Ernest, who seems to have some kind of hyperactivity disorder. I try to look calm as Ernest chews my boyfriend’s New Balances, and for a moment feel privately thankful that I am not subject to the commitments that come with a pet.
When I agreed to swap lives with Michele, neither of us realised she lived just around the corner. Just how different can the lives of two north London-dwelling, Corbyn-loving freelance writers actually be? Then again, our similarities provide a good control when it comes to highlighting generational differences (I am 28, Michele is 73). Not only does Michele have a pet, she also has a car, both expenses that are completely unfeasible for me. And she owns her own home, an impossibility for me in a gentrifying area that has rapidly become host to property millionaire baby boomers, as young people and social tenants are priced out.
We take the dogs to a local park for their morning walk, and it strikes me how much more rooted in our community Michele is; she says hello to every other person. This is partly because she has lived in the area for years, but also because she spends much more time out and about. It’s half past 10, and ordinarily I would still be in my pyjamas, drinking a coffee and sitting in front of a tablet or laptop, wasting my life on social media. A quick look at Michele’s online presence reveals she tweets much less than I do, but has a forthrightness that I lack (sample tweets include: “Andrew Marr is trying to explain our housing problems to Cameron, but poor David just does not understand. He is so thick. Or he’s fibbing”; and “I’m getting a bit sick of Angela Eagle. Is she a secret Blairite mole?”). It strikes me that, despite spending hours looking at it, I am actually afraid of Twitter. Michele, meanwhile, seems connected enough to the real world to say exactly what she thinks and not give a toss.
After leaving the park, we go to Michele’s for breakfast. Her flat is lovely, and I vow that if I ever have a place I’m allowed to paint, I’ll opt for similarly mood-lifting colours: bright green walls; an orange bathroom with deep blue tiles. As she and the photographer discuss property prices (her first house, around the corner, was £71,000 in 1981), I can’t help but feel a stab of envy. One more rent increase on my shared flat and we’re out of the area. The only reason we’re still here is that our landlords are kind enough to keep the rent just about affordable. In a street where rooms can be as much as £800-£900 a month, we are an anomaly. (“That’s so much money!” Michele says, nonetheless, when I tell her how much we pay.) London today feels like a city in its death throes and I am increasingly tempted to move out; but I’m worried it would mean kissing goodbye to my career, which partially relies on shift-based office work. In contrast, Michele’s life seems so much more stable: what a weight off her mind owning a place must be.
Property prices have skyrocketed since Michele’s day, but she also had a debt-free start in life. At 16, she attended Ealing art college for two years, then the London College of Music and Trent Park Training college, all for free. In contrast, I left university £36,000 in debt. Michele started her career as a teacher without the Student Loans Company looming over her, took an affordable music therapy course, then started to write. A BA and MA in English followed in her 30s. Both had affordable fees, manageable because she had carefully saved and rent was cheap. To anyone who attended university for £9,000 a year, this sounds like the educational promised land, but it’s worth pointing out that Michele worked hard. She had her daughter, Amy, in the middle of her degree. She had a stall on Portobello Road market and waitressed, and Michele’s father gave her £100 a week; it was “easily enough to live on”, she tells me.
As for relationships, Michele lived with her boyfriend in secret. “He was 19, I was 22. My parents didn’t know. I don’t think they wanted to know.” My mother let me have boyfriends to stay at the house from about 15, and I have lived with my current boyfriend for nearly five years without anyone – apart from me, occasionally – asking when we plan on getting married. In some ways I think I may be more traditional than Michele. I crave marriage and our own house one day, perhaps because they seem so off limits. If these things were not only expected of me but also easy enough to attain, as they were in Michele’s youth, perhaps I would reject them.
As it is, rental prices mean my boyfriend and I have to share our flat with other people. And what happens when you have a baby? Michele tells me she found people who were happy to share housing with her young daughter, but I don’t know anyone who would put up with a screaming baby as a flatmate. Perhaps my generation is more precious about this sort of thing.
After 10 years of living with and caring for her mother, Michele now lives on her own and says she loves it. Her pace of life is certainly appealing. It isn’t until nearly midday, after breakfast, a walk and a read of the papers, that she turns on her computer to check her email – and, being an ancient Windows PC, it takes a further 20 minutes to start up. “Why should I get a new one?” she asks, crossly. She hates the idea of an iPhone, too.
Michele sees technology as an inconvenience. “I used to drive down to the office and file my columns by hand,” she says, almost wistfully. The fact that she is not umbilically attached to the internet means she has plenty of time for other things, such as playing several instruments and seeing friends. She plays in a learners’ orchestra, and when I come along to watch them practise in a nearby church hall, I’m struck by the fact that, even in the tea break, I don’t see anyone checking their phone.
On the drive back, she tells me she worries about the psychological effect of all this screen time on younger people, and it’s not just that: “Your jobs are being taken over by machines,” she says, venting her frustration with self-service checkouts and internet banking. Couple this with a housing crisis, low-paid, insecure work, mounting student debt and an indifferent government, and she concludes angrily that my generation are “basically fucked”. Sitting in her car in the dark outside my house, I feel slightly tearful. Our generations are so often pitched against each other that having an older person acknowledge how difficult things are is not only an unexpected succour, but confirmation that we are not just a bunch of whiny, entitled special snowflakes who don’t know we’re born, but a generation that is slowly being robbed.
Which brings me to a topic that is difficult for me to talk about. At the time of my life swap with Michele, I am going through a period of intense anxiety. It is sometimes so paralysing that I struggle to leave the house. This is, of course, a mental health issue, but one that is not helped by everything from my housing situation to my career feeling so unstable. How will I ever afford to get married, have a child, own a home? Sometimes, it feels as though the dream of a bright future is slowly slipping away from me. We often hear about the mental health epidemic sweeping Generation Y, but Michele confesses that she is also a worrier and a catastrophist, and that playing her instruments helps calm her down. It strikes me that perhaps I need something more than a meditation app and a handful of beta-blockers to feel better.
A couple of days later, I take Michele for drinks with three of my closest friends, so she can see I’m not the only one navigating this generational quagmire. We meet in Ladies & Gentlemen, a subterranean north London cocktail bar that used to be a public toilet, and is now full of young clientele enthusiastically sipping (and Instagramming) their £10 cocktails. We can’t afford to drink in places like this very often but, despite the expense, I drink several. I was out at a party until 6am the previous night and need something to get me through. Michele, meanwhile, takes one sip of hers and makes a face. She hates bars and doesn’t really drink, but is fascinated and horrified by my friends’ tales of employment targets and management speak. To her, they inhabit an HR-dominated universe of performance scrutiny and meeting-based drudgery.
In contrast, Michele’s friends, whom I meet when I follow her on to a dinner party, are retired and came of age at a time when young people could still afford to go to art school. They’re all friends from when they had stalls on Portobello Road. Here I am, sitting around a table with seven women and one man at least four decades older than me, and it feels as though they have more countercultural rebelliousness in their little fingers than I do in my entire body. They seem much more comfortable in their own skins and at home with their eccentricities than me and my friends. For us, work (and its stresses and anxieties) is a frequent topic of conversation, while Michele and her friends no longer have that pressure, so tend to talk more about art and politics.
Michele has known some of her friends for 55 years, and sees them regularly; she meets Carol every week. “I also go for walks with Jennifer every Saturday, and see my friend Clare weekly, because we’re writing a book together. I have friends round to dinner, or go to theirs. But I don’t really like going out much, unless it’s nearby.” She sees her daughter, Amy, a lot, too.
I’d love to see more of my friends, but some of them work insane hours and it can take weeks to arrange a suitable day to meet, usually via text or email. Some people I only ever see at parties. We’re all so busy, and tired, not to mention skint. We often put off meeting up until after payday, so we can afford to buy drinks. Not only does Michele see people face-to-face much more often, she doesn’t seem to need to do it in a context where there is alcohol. She doesn’t really text, preferring to talk to a couple of her friends daily on the phone.
I leave the dinner for a party, just as a few of Michele’s friends, with the characteristic openness of those who lived through the 1960s, are discussing the fact they have never tried cocaine. “They should come along,” I think to myself, as I Uber it to a flat in east London complete with visible pipes and concrete ceilings.
As I collapse into bed at 5am, it strikes me that I’m going to miss Michele. Simply knowing someone older in my area gives me a bit of perspective. It’s not as though she lives a gilded life – she was 39 when she got on the property ladder, and a single mum. Like me, she worries a lot, probably too much. She’s frustrated by the current government and its policies, encouraged by the alternative offered by our local MP. In some ways we have a lot in common, but in others we are worlds apart. To me, her life seems lovely and stable. Quieter, yes, but what I wouldn’t give for that. She makes me look at the chaos and instability of my own existence and feel suddenly tired. Not to mention far, far too old for it.
Rhiannon lives with her boyfriend and a flatmate in a warren of a flat near me, in what is now a swanky area of north London, though it hasn’t always been so desirable. She was born very close by, in a cooperative household near Archway, which back then wasn’t swanky at all. And I’ve lived here for 35 years. So this is our home, more hers than mine. I’m all right – I own my flat – but she is not.
“I have links to this area,” she says. “It feels like home to me. But I can never, ever afford to buy anywhere round here.” Their rent has recently shot up, from £1,100 to £1,500 a month, and I am horrified by the gigantic chunk it takes out of her income. Rhiannon has lived in this flat for five years and had 10 different flatmates. One became her boyfriend, one lived in the windowless airing cupboard, sleeping on the floor on a duvet.
When I was Rhiannon’s age, in 1971, I shared a three-bedroomed flat in Holland Park, for £11 a week between three of us – a tiny fraction of what I earned as a teacher. I moved frequently, sharing with friends and my boyfriend, mostly just him and me – somehow managing not to let my parents know. But rents were comparatively low and homes easy to find, as long as you weren’t black. In those days, we had appalling racism, homophobia, slums, the Gorbals, Rachmanism, Cathy Come Home, the family squatting movement; but landlords and letting agents were not generally able to be as staggeringly greedy as they are now. And so I could save up, and with money left to me by an auntie, and more from my dad, I was able to buy a shared house in 1981. But I was one of the lucky ones even then. Not everyone had a dead auntie and a father who could afford to help. Now, what I paid for that whole house would barely be enough for a deposit.
Life seemed much easier then. My friends and I were terrified witless of nuclear war, but we didn’t have to panic about finding a home or work. I left my stuffy girls’ grammar school rather rebelliously at 16 and went to Ealing art school for two years. Free. The suburbs, where my friends and I lived, were stultifyingly dull, we thought. Everything closed on Sundays, Ruislip High Street was stone dead, our parents totally square, and art school was the perfect escape. No more twinsets and blow-waves. We wore elephant cords, striped Madras cotton bedspread dresses and tights in thrilling new colours like purple and ochre. Several pop stars emerged from Ealing art school, the Stones were beginning to play in a club up the road, and sex and drugs was going on like mad, although not for me. I was rather a repressed late developer, and horribly self-conscious, with my long nose and pinhead, which made my time at art school, surrounded by boys, fairly tortuous.
I went on to music school, then a teacher training college. All free. Job possibilities seemed more varied and exciting: my boyfriend dropped out of school, became a rag-and-bone man, and found us a stall on the Portobello Road, where I sold tailors’ trimmings – a heavenly relief after a week teaching music in Tower Hamlets. But whatever we did, we could still afford the cinema, clubs and the pub every night, and most of my friends smoked dope (I didn’t – I was scared stiff).
What does Rhiannon do? “We stay in, sit in front of Netflix under the duvet and get drunk at home,” she says. “Or go to friends’ parties. It’s too expensive to go out.”
But, because I need to see what the young do now, we go out together to meet three of her girlfriends in a small local bar. It’s charming, the music isn’t too loud, our cocktails are rather thrilling, but this can only be an occasional treat. Debbie and Suzie live in rented “shoe boxes”, and Anna has bought a small flat in a distant bit of town, with help from her parents. I’m very impressed by their fortitude and cheeriness, with what seems to me like a hell of a life, burdened with debt, insecurity, information overload, constant testing, intern culture, digital devices, anxiety and general frenzy. They chatter wittily and robustly about all these horrors.
“We graduated into the recession,” Rhiannon says. “My friends are cobbling together some sort of profession, waitressing or tutoring rich oligarchs’ kids. I was very lucky: I did internships while I was at college, used my student loan, worked on and off through university, waitressing. But it can mess up your studies, because you’re knackered. If my mum hadn’t helped me to pay off my debts, I wouldn’t have had a career.”
At least Rhiannon is doing what she always wanted to do: writing. She had an ambition and a plan, and she stuck to it. Luckily, I could afford to diddle around, changing my mind, doing what I fancied: art, music, markets, part-time teaching, screen-printing, bits of this and that. I didn’t start writing until my mid-30s, then went to university at 35, in the late 1970s, which I could still afford to pay for myself. Today’s young people can’t mess about. They must take whatever jobs they can get, and it’s often not at all what they have dreamed of.
Debbie works in customer services, dealing with complaints. “Nobody grows up thinking, ‘I want to be a customer service adviser’,” she says without a smidgen of bitterness or self-pity. She’s just relieved that she has a fairly secure job with a contract, and doesn’t have to look at a screen all day.
This is another part of their lives that I don’t envy: the almost nonstop staring at screens. We had one phone in the hall, wirelesses and typewriters; we wrote our essays by hand and we weren’t forever on call, stressed, agitated, panicking and with a squillion, brain-mashing choices to make.
Rhiannon is glued to a screen as soon as she gets up in the morning: “I don’t get dressed, sometimes I don’t even draw the curtains. From nine I’m on Twitter for about two hours.” To her and her friends, social media is a part of normal life. I suspect that she glares at her mobile day and night, texting, diddling with apps or whatever, never really off duty.
Luckily we never had to cope with this technology or use all this meaningless jargon: personal development plans, aims and objectives, fulfilling goals, assessments. This lot are forever being marked, graded and tested. They even have to assess themselves. For me, it began with the national curriculum and hastened my exit from teaching, but they’re stuck with it, for life. My generation seemed to have far fewer rules and regulations. I may be looking back through rosy glasses, but the country seemed to us to be brightening up – we saw opportunities and improvements ahead. The “millennials” are like rats caught in a trap, especially the poorer ones.
The 1950s and 60s had their downside. I suspect that art school was exceptional – a colourful, liberal bubble in the middle of a drab, rather suffocating and mad world that we thought was about to be blown to hell. Most parents knew nothing of positive reinforcement: my father called me “coconut bonce” and “pointy head”, my friend’s father called her “fish face”. I don’t remember any of our parents declaring their love out loud – you had to guess what they felt. Looking at my own daughter and Rhiannon, and their girl friends now, they seem more physically confident and braver. I envy their openness. They can talk out loud about sex and periods, even in front of men.
I still find old age easier than youth. My life improved when I had my daughter, and went on improving, although it’s becoming more scary, what with general decrepitude, the approach of death, your parents and friends pegging out, leaving you on the frontline. I often wake up sick with fright, about anything and everything, I wish I had more energy but, on the whole, I don’t envy the young.
Rhiannon’s life, compared with mine, seems very wobbly. She can never feel quite safe in her home or work; she is generally anxious and suffers from what her mum calls “impending doom scenarios”. “This month I’ve thought I had lung cancer, MS and a brain tumour,” Rhiannon tells me. I’m not surprised. I’m only surprised by her and her friends’ general determination and resilience, and their lack of animosity towards people of my age. They confirm my belief that much of the “antagonism” between our generations has been whipped up by whoever labels us and lumps us all together as baby boomers or millennials in the first place. Those ridiculous terms are not helpful, and I can only wish Rhiannon and her friends luck. They’re going to need it.
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