To me, the progression of the cost of living crisis has felt like a slow process of being gradually gaslit. Is this normal? People used to be able to afford stuff, right? Why can’t I seem to sort my life out the way my parents could? I try to hold on to reference points, but end up questioning myself. When I first moved into my flat nine months ago, my electricity bill was three times less than it is now. The price of the biscuits I like rose by 30p literally just this week. But maybe I just need to get better at turning my lights off and using the oven less, and maybe those biscuits were just on offer previously (and anyway, I should skip buying them).
Communications from above don’t help. My water company emailed me a few days ago to advise me that I could save money by switching out baths for showers (I don’t have a bath; my bathroom is less than six square feet) and only running my dishwasher when it’s full (I don’t own, and would not be able to fit, a dishwasher either). Similarly, my energy company would like me to know that I could save up to £72 a year by using the correctly-sized pan lid when cooking, and that if I turned my thermostat down one degree I could save £15 over the next three months (I’ve actually only been heating one room in my flat this year; it was pretty frequently cold enough for me to see my breath inside while cooking until last month.) Huw Pill and Andrew Bailey have become the most recent in a long list of people to advise consumers that they simply need to accept that they are poorer (Bailey, incidentally, was paid exactly 1000 times my monthly rent at the time he made these remarks). The Wall Street Journal suggested last year that people should simply skip breakfast to help combat inflation – although, unfortunately, the cost of the average cheese sandwich for lunch is also up 37%, so maybe it’s best just not to eat at all.
Fortunately, I have been able to find one solid point of reference. In 2001, shortly after I was born, my dad worked briefly as an unqualified supply teacher. Now, age 22, I work almost the exact same job. In some ways things have changed, but in practical terms the two jobs are extremely similar.
In 2001, my dad was paid £100 a day. In 2023, I am paid £80 a day. The Bank of England’s online inflation calculator tells me that £100 in 2001 is the equivalent of about £175 now – more than double my pay. At that time, my dad’s living situation was very different to mine, and finding information on what one-bedroom flats cost to rent in the early 2000s is surprisingly difficult (for one thing, far fewer people rented), but on average it’s clear that rental prices in cities have doubled or tripled in the past 22 years. In London, average weekly rent in 2000 was around £200 – it is now £600. In real terms, if my dad was in my situation at that time (renting a one-bedroom flat alone), he would be paying half as much, while earning double. He would have had significantly more money to hand to spend on frivolous luxuries like eating breakfast or cheese sandwiches.
Despite that, I’m okay, I’m (currently) stable. My rent is technically significantly ‘unaffordable’, but manageable, as I don’t have any dependents, no kids, no car, no pets, no partners, and no debts (except student debts, which are unlikely to ever be paid). And, as I find myself protesting to my friends, I don’t do anything. My hobbies are free, I don’t go out, I don’t go on holiday, I don’t buy new clothes. That’s what I find so frustrating about being given ‘advice’ by bankers or energy suppliers. It also reminds me of a quote from Marx’s Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property.
The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save […] the less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being. […] All passions and all activity must therefore be submerged in avarice. The worker may only have enough for him to want to live, and may only want to live in order to have that.
I think what Huw Pill and Andrew Bailey actually mean, when we’re told to accept being poorer, is that we’re supposed to be cool with this situation. But even though I can’t do much about it, I think it’s worth holding in my head that this is a very new situation. Twenty years ago, if he was in the same job and the same flat, my dad could do much more than me, and was being asked to alienate himself much less. When I feel absurdly stuck, it’s not just me, and it’s not the way things always were.