Dirty Little Secret

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Words: Matthew Johnstone (he/him)

The flat search. Woodlands? Partick? Finnieston? Dare I say it… Hyndland? The West End of Glasgow is filled with beautiful tenements available to rent. You find one you like, go for a viewing, fall in love, but then you divide the monthly costs and realise it’s just out of reach – unless of course your parents can cover the costs for you. 

This is not an available option for the majority of university students in the United Kingdom, and reveals a much wider trend within UK society. For many, the ability to climb the property ladder is a result of financial help from the bank-of-Mum-and-Dad. For those without such a luxury, trying to find somewhere to live is a challenge which feels unattainable. Where then does this leave the regular everyday person? For some, they may have to move to a less desirable location, further away from their work or where they study, or move to another city altogether before resorting to moving back in with their parents. On a broader scale, it means making tough decisions about a host of things like whether or not to go to university, working in an industry you don’t like, and generally having to organise your entire existence around simply surviving. 

Many of these people who have inherited financial mobility are not from super-rich, mega-wealthy families who live in grandiose mansions in gated communities. They are the children of middle-class boomers whose parents may have grown up working class and climbed their way up the career ladder, started a business or bought a house in 1990, only to see its value rocket over the last three decades. They may not feel wealthy in a materialistic society rife with competition and comparison, but their reality is far from that of the average person in the UK today.

Generational wealth is a problem all too prevalent in society today and reflects deep entrenched inequalities which define our social world and beyond. Having the ability to choose where you live, study without relying on a part-time job, and not worry about paying the bills is a sure-fire way to ensure an improved quality of life. We need to start being open about how generational wealth allows some people the ability to have a better life from the moment they are born and what this means for those without a genetic leg up in the world. 

Beyond the example of university, the creative industry is an exemplification of this issue of the generational wealth gap and the knock-on effect it poses. A large number of actors, musicians and artists come from upper-class backgrounds, largely because the ability to explore their chosen medium has been unhindered by the need to rely on a job or skill to earn money. In 2016 the Sutton Trust found that 67% of British Oscar winners had been privately educated which is shocking given that a 2019 Sutton Trust study reported that only 7% of British people were privately educated. How can individuals from working-class backgrounds ever break into an arena dominated by those from the middle and upper classes? An arena which is not representative of people from working-class backgrounds at all. 

According to a report by the Kings Court Trust it is estimated £5.5 trillion will pass between generations over the next thirty years in the UK. To add fuel to the fire a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlights the fact that inheritance wealth is growing and will continue to grow faster than earned incomes. However, we need to ask ourselves: who are the benefactors of such a transfer of wealth and what does this mean for society as a whole? These statistics become all the more concerning when you look at another recent IFS report which showed young white adults were much more likely to receive a substantial gift, whether it be a house, large sum of money, or other high-worth item, from their parents than young black adults. If the people who are going to benefit from the massive transfer of wealth all come from white middle-class backgrounds, then those who are able to climb the property ladder, access better education, and have a better quality of life will reflect this racial and economic barrier. 

The main problem with hidden generational wealth is not necessarily the money itself but more so the secrecy and reluctance from those who benefit from it to talk about it. It can be easy to think that someone is more successful if they have bought a house, graduated with a first-class degree, or found a job in a desirable field straight out of university. But what if we added context to people’s success? What if people were more open about how they benefited from generational wealth and acknowledged their privilege in a deeply unequal world. By shielding wealth from view, I believe you can only further perpetuate the idea that the UK is an equal, fair and meritocratic society when the reality is far from it.


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