Hannah Sutherns’s life should be following a time-honoured path. A graduate, aged 29, she works as a personal trainer in west London and has been with her boyfriend Rob Pittaway, a maintenance manager, for five years.
“I thought that my life would go a certain way: leave university, meet someone, get married, buy a house and start a family,” she says.
Yet, while Sutherns has attained the first two of these five goals, the last three remain far out of reach. Even though she and Pittaway earn “fairly decent money”, they live in a rented two-bedroom flat in Teddington, south-west London, and their chances of clambering on to the property ladder are virtually non-existent.
“There’s no hope of us finding the money to buy a home. Even if we looked in a worse area, the cheapest place we’d find would be around £250,000 and we’d need to put down a £50,000 deposit, which is just impossible. Rob and I would like to get married but the average cost of a wedding is now £16,000 and there’s no way we’re spending that when it could go towards a house. We’re starting to save but we’ll definitely be 40 before we have enough for a deposit.”
Hannah is far from alone. The recession may have been tough for most of us, but for those dreaming of buying a home, its effects have been devastating. Lenders are cherry-picking low-risk customers with impeccable credit records and demanding huge deposits. Ten years ago, an average first-time buyer needed a deposit worth 16 per cent of their annual income. In 2009, that figure was 64 per cent.
The result, as David Miles, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, pointed out last week, is that many people will wait until they are in their forties to buy their first home.
No wonder that one third of those surveyed recently by the Moneysupermarket website said they had resigned themselves to never owning a property, while 80 per cent of first-time buyers under 30 access the bank of mum and dad. One in three British men aged between 20 and 34 still lives with his parents, and one in five women.
The shift has brought an entirely new meaning to the phrase “Life begins at 40”. A generation ago, we applied it to professional couples who, having reached that milestone, could expect to be living in a large house with a garden.
Their mortgage would be nearly repaid, their children teenagers or students. Middle age might be approaching, but they were embarking on a period free from financial and family cares.
Today, however, our reluctant Peter Pans can mark their fifth decade by shackling themselves with a huge debt. Rather than looking forward to being grandparents, this generation is increasingly unlikely to have started families at all.
By the time they do have children, their parents’ health may well be declining, creating a growing “sandwich generation,” with parents caring simultaneously for the very old and the very young.
This generation also have little chance of recreating their own comfortable childhoods. “I grew up in a large house with a lovely garden that my parents bought in the Sixties and quickly owned outright,” says Sutherns.
The comparison between my situation and Sutherns is harsh. Because I was born 13 years before her, I graduated with no debt bar a small overdraft. She, on the other hand, left university with a large student loan to repay before she could start saving for a deposit.
My first flat in central London, bought during the Nineties slump, cost around three times my salary and required a 10 per cent deposit. I negotiated a mortgage in 15 minutes. The boom allowed my husband and me to end up in a family house similar to the homes we grew up in.
My contemporaries have similar stories, though there’s still an uncomfortable gap between those who bought young and those who delayed. The first lot are now living in expansive Georgian piles in fashionable squares. The second have found themselves on the verge of middle age, squashed in minuscule terraced houses in insalubrious suburbs.
That situation, however, is luxurious, compared with the plight of today’s young professionals. Oxford graduate Edward Foster, 35, an artist, is keen to start a family. But he and his partner, who works in theatre administration, live in a studio flat in Southgate, north London.
“The only friends I know with their own places have had their parents pay the deposit,” he says. “My father’s finally said he’ll help us with that, but as my work’s precarious I’m not sure we’ll be awarded a mortgage.”
Meanwhile, his partner is desperate to have a baby. “She’s 36 and broody and panicking about reports of fertility declining with age. But I say to her: ‘How can we have a baby; we haven’t even got room for a gerbil?’”
In the past 10 years, maternity wards have seen a 70 per cent rise in babies born to women aged over 40. Last week, the Royal College of Midwives warned that this was stretching maternity services to the limit, as births for women in this age group have a far greater chance of needing medical intervention.
Even couples with homes and children are adjusting their expectations. Charlotte Woodward, 33, a registrar, bought a small, two-bedroom house in Cheltenham with her husband James, a communications officer, in 2006, the peak of the housing boom.
“I don’t want to whinge because I know we’re very lucky to have a house and children at all,” says Charlotte. “We never envisaged staying here for more than 18 months but then the market collapsed and we’re unable to move. It’s put paid to us having a third child.
“My parents’ generation were all living in big houses by the time they were 40, but now they’re holding on to all the money and making it impossible for our generation to afford any of that. We’re just making do.”
So what will be the psychological effect of being denied these rites of passage? According to the National Health Service, prescriptions for antidepressants have risen by more than 40 per cent over the past four years, the result – mental health charities believe – almost entirely of economic pressures.
Steven Sylvester, a coaching psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society, has several clients who are finding it hard to reconcile the difference between their professional status and humble living arrangements.
“I have clients who are doing life-saving surgery but living in tiny rented flats,” he says. “If our system isn’t giving us what our parents had, it shakes our confidence to the core.
“People in their twenties and thirties can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We need to make the transition from young adult to fully functioning member of society, but if you can’t buy a house before 40 then that transition is delayed.”
Penny Anderson, who has been a tenant in Glasgow and Manchester for more than 20 years, and writes about her experiences in her blog Rentergirl, says she would love to own her own home.
“I’m around 40, certainly at an age where that ought to have happened, but it never will,” she says. “My employment is precarious, I don’t have family who can bail me out or a nest egg or trust fund. It makes me feel insecure that I’m always living in a place that someone else regards as their home and that I may have to leave with two months’ notice.”
Perhaps the answer, then, is to foster a new culture. In Italy, 59 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds live – seemingly happily – with their parents. In Germany, famously, almost two-thirds of private homes are rented with no stigma attached.
“In Germany, the culture is completely different,” Anderson says. “There you move into a completely empty flat but you can do whatever you like with it. Here, I’ve heard stories via my blog of landlords going through tenants’ underwear drawers – they can arrive at any time without notice.”
Damian Barr, author of Get it Together: Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis, believes that embracing the European way would merely infantilise us. “You may be nearly 40, but how can you feel like a grown-up if you’re having to ask your landlord about painting your walls or telling your mum what time you’ll be back? When you feel you can be moved at any time, that you can only have enough belongings to fit in the boot of a car, you are not in possession of your own life and it leaves you disenfranchised.
“People shouldn’t live in such high density, they need space and privacy,” he continues. Some people have been so lucky and bought their houses and can relax, while others are standing outside the gates totally disempowered.
“It sounds juvenile to say the situation isn’t fair. But it isn’t, it just isn’t.”
By Julia Llewellyn Smith of The Telegraph