The Spareroom at the Top: London and Social Mobility

Charlotte Tosti discusses class divides in society, in context of the London bubble.

Education is the widely doted upon as the solvent of class divides.

To the political philosopher and sociologist, Adam Swift, education is a ‘positional good’, how well you do in it determines where you sit on the class ladder.[1]

But in practice, breaking the ‘class ceiling’ isn’t quite so simple. So long as most roads to graduate jobs lead to London, if we continue to see education as the main driver of social mobility, we overshadow the extent of financial support those from low income backgrounds need to be meaningfully better off.

As it stands, getting a degree and completing the marathon of situational judgment tests until you get a graduate job, puts most of your first payslip in the hands of a London landlord. An average of 45% of a Londoner’s income is spent on rent alone[2].

Notwithstanding almost a decade of ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric, the capital still provides a disproportionately higher number of graduate jobs. Last year, just under 40% of all vacancies were advertised in London[3].

One might imagine the rise of remote-working triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic to have weakened the magnetic pull of London, yet it has intensified it even more.

Beyond towns like Luton and Crawley that are heavily reliant on the aviation industry, London and the surrounding South East have witnessed much smaller increases in unemployment than the rest of the country. With many firms postponing graduate schemes due to the difficulties of training new recruits remotely, it appears as though new starters will still be required to show up to the office in future[4].

The problem, is that these graduate jobs are unlikely to attract those from low income backgrounds. The extortionate cost of the private rental market in London is a major deterrent to young graduates from lower-income backgrounds who don’t already live in the capital. They may find a cheap room, but the room doesn’t stay cheap for long.

For those working in entry level jobs and on lower incomes, the proportion of housing costs as a share of income is increasing faster than for those on higher incomes. Among those qualifying for Housing Benefit, 90% of low-income renters find that their housing benefit does not cover all of their rent[5].

The unaffordability of housing in the private rental market forces those on lower income to move regularly. They chase the cheapest properties, spinning the wheel of misfortune yet again to rent a just-about affordable room and pray the local supermarket is either Lidl or an Aldi, all the way until they reach Zone 6 and wonder if you actually live in the home counties.

To low-income graduates, London is like Hansel and Gretels’ gingerbread house: a city whose wealth of opportunities is alluring, but once you make the move in, the merciless cost of living turns the experience from sweet to sour. London is really a land of gentrified ‘box parks’ and mould-ridden box rooms. You can roam it full of cultural capital, but your pockets will stay empty.

It is those who do not need to make giant leaps, but small steps into the city, that soak up its opportunities. These are graduates whose parents already live in London, or have well-off parents to whom London rent is but an annoying, but manageable expense.

This explains why many London-based industries are almost entirely composed of people from white, privileged backgrounds. PR Week reported that BAME people are underrepresented by between a half and a third in PR firms[6]. Create London found that a mere 12% of people working in TV and radio grew up in working class households[7].

So why not just move these jobs out of London?

Creating jobs outside London is important, but we shouldn’t resort to using that as an excuse not to resolve the glaring problem of the capital and the opportunities that lie within it being increasingly inaccessible.

This merely keeps the same lucky individuals in the same places, and limits efforts to ‘diversify’ workplaces to the circus of garish corporate banners and free tote bags at careers fairs.

Finding solutions to inequality of opportunity will always be difficult, but it isn’t impossible.

A meaningful dedication to equality of opportunity requires us to think beyond improving access to higher education.

If we want to create ‘room at the top’ in London, we need to think less about the politics of the classroom, and more about the politics of Spareroom: how we can modernise London’s rotten private rental market and extend access schemes to the workplace, to make living in London affordable and sustainable for all, no matter where you come from.

Charlotte Tosti is a writer and parliamentary assistant to a Labour MP.

She tweets at @miss_de_tartine. 






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