I understand the frustration with millennials, really I do. We don’t have great PR. Our messages are muddled, at least from the outside. I understand why boomers and Gen Xers would be perplexed and annoyed to hear us moaning endlessly about not being able to buy houses, have children, get married, afford utilities and stop living in our overdrafts – after all, doesn’t research show that millennials are on course to be the richest generation ever? Surely we all just need to grow up, stop whingeing, give up on the matchas for a few months and we could glide into middle age in luxury, financially safe and sound? Well yes, sure, if we started out rich already.

The same research that tells us millennials will become the wealthiest generation hides the growing chasm between rich millennials and poor millennials. It’s not even a chasm of means, but one of class. As well as being the richest, we’re set to become the most divided generation ever, along class lines.

Thanks to stagnating wages and that ever ubiquitous housing crisis, millennials are set to inherit more than we will ever earn in our lifetimes. Recent research from Knight Frank found that in the US alone, $90 trillion dollars will be passed down to millennial children when their parents pass away, thanks mainly to property accumulation. For those of us who weren’t accumulating property in utero, however, the future looks bleak.

It’s hard not to see this for what it is: a return to some sort of feudal, primitive, class-based society, where our peers become metropolitan landowners and the rest of of us live like medieval serfs subsisting off the wealth they’ve siphoned off their dearly departed mummies and daddies.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly given my generation grew up in a world that told us we could do whatever we wanted as long as we worked for it. That kind of blue sky meritocracy, if it was ever realistic, was shaken by the 2008 financial crisis – which hit many unlucky millennials right at the point of reaching adulthood – and has in the years since been exposed for what it always was: a myth. A fairytale to make us work harder and believe in a system that has continually let us down. We thought we were graduating into a technologically exciting modern world, when in actual fact we’ve stumbled back to Victorian Britain.

For those of us who weren’t accumulating property in utero, the future looks bleak

Class solidarity in Britain has been a historically thorny issue. Successive New Labour and Tory governments have decimated the idea of a strong and connected working class, turning us against each other on the battlefields of benefits, Brexit and the culture wars. There’s a discomfort now with identifying as working or middle or upper middle class; nobody actually knows what it means anymore, and even when they do, they’re keen to differentiate from each other, to compete with one another.

Britons, even young Britons, are uncomfortable talking about money. Union membership continues to decline; in 2022 just 6.25 million people in the UK were a member of unions. As a proportion of British employees, that’s 22.3%, down from 23.1% in 2021. That’s probably not surprising, given that Britain is a nation of nepo babies; one poll from the Sunday Times last year found that between eight and thirteen per cent of millennials have jobs thanks to parental help.

As a result, millennials have begun to embrace a sort of stealth wealth. Millennials are secretive about becoming landlords and there’s a steady decline in the kind of joyous “we just bought a house!” selfies you once saw on Instagram. Nowadays nobody poses outside new-builds, grinning with their partners and puppies, jingling their keys. It’s too exposing, especially now we know the only way of getting there is with a healthy deposit injection from the bank of mum and dad.

We like to think of ourselves as being above class as millennials (and as Gen Zers). We like to imagine class as some sort of historical hangover, something that couldn’t possibly be important to us modern citizens of the world. But now millennials are losing their status as young adults and lurching uncertainly towards middle age, it’s time we faced up to the fact that our societal faultlines are no longer generational, but class-based. That we can no longer direct all our anger towards baby boomers and must instead start looking reluctantly at their descendants, our secretly wealthy peers. That class inequality is not easing at all but becoming more deeply embedded than ever.

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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June / July 2024, Main Features

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