My grandma, who lives in Derry, had never been to England until last year, so it was a great honour when she made the trip to London to visit me and my sister, who have both lived on the mainland (in one city or another) for the best part of a decade. We had “great craic” during her stay. We went to the big art galleries and museums, which everyone in the UK helps fund through their taxes, but many never get to visit; she accidentally attended a pro-Brexit protest; and she charmed the waiter of a pizza restaurant with what she calls her “Derry eyes”, striking because of their unusual blue and orange-yellow irises, which she has passed down to my mum, my siblings and me. She wore a lime green suit for the duration of her stay, like a very elegant leprechaun.
That was almost a year ago and I haven’t seen her in person since. I’m always a bit jealous of people for whom family get-togethers like these aren’t a rarity. As they are for many young people in the UK who grew up outside of the economic hub of the south-east, the job prospects in the region where I’m from are, shall we say, not great. So, like many young people, I moved away for university, then to London for work, and now my life feels awkwardly spread across several versions of home. I don’t see most of my family as much as I’d like and I feel like I move every few years for reasons not totally within my control. Now that a pandemic has prompted this mass experiment in working from home, I have been thinking more about whether it has to be this way.
The well-trodden path of young people moving to London was detailed in a 2016 report, the Great British Brain Drain, which found that almost a quarter of all UK graduates from the three previous years were working in London within six months of graduating. Of course, some of those students would have gone to universities in London, but the report looked at movement between regions too. It found that, of graduates who moved from the city where they studied, more than a fifth were working in London within six months. For graduates with a first or a 2:1 from Russell Group universities, this jumped to 38%, and for Oxbridge graduates the figure was more than half.
The report discussed this “brain drain” mostly in terms of the negative economic impact it has on the regions that young people leave, but there is a social and cultural one too, which is harder to quantify. I’ve often thought about this and discussed it with friends in similar positions, but the first time I saw any reference to it written down was in New Model Island, a book by Alex Niven. In it, he described the “profound emotional and practical difficulties that come with being uprooted from successive locales” experienced by young people from places such as “Liverpool, Newport or Belfast” who move constantly in search of work. It stuck with me because usually this issue is framed only in terms of economics, with no mention of the value of social ties or community. There is an irony here that, while it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”, the neoliberal economic model she pioneered has driven a geographic wedge into families.
Young people from London who aren’t born wealthy fare no better (as Niven also points out), as they are forced out of the boroughs they grew up in (if not the city itself) by ever-rising rents. Communities that were formed by working-class immigrants, who have taken care to preserve elements of their cultural heritage, are broken up to make way for renters, who will likely be replaced by new renters in a higher salary bracket a few years later. Last week the activist group Save Nour, which is campaigning against the eviction of Nour Cash and Carry from Brixton market in south London, released a video in which members of the local community eloquently explained how gentrification had impacted their lives. In this way, London is being hollowed out; a city, as well as a generation, in constant flux.
Professional life in the UK orbits around the south east; and while politicians may speak of the need to regenerate “left behind” areas in the rest of the country around election time, it seems unlikely that this government will affect meaningful change any time soon. But now the pandemic has prompted this mass experiment in home working, it seems a shift in the relationship between UK geography and job opportunities doesn’t have to be led by the government.
Since the UK started taking the coronavirus seriously, in late March, we’ve seen many societal changes that were supposedly logistically impossible implemented quickly and with relative ease. Almost overnight, most people who work in an office were sent home, and it now seems clear that many could do their job remotely, if not all the time, then at least for most it. Several big tech companies (an industry famous for its early adoption of working practices such as flexible hours, free food and the wearing of hoodies by senior staff), including Facebook and Twitter, have already said employees will be given the option to work remotely for good. A set-up in which people work from home or a local co-working space and commute to the main office once or twice a month seems feasible for a lot of “knowledge” work, and if this does end up filtering out to other industries it would not be the worst thing for the UK’s regional divide and the rising cost of living in London.
I won’t say there would be no drawbacks to the atomisation of the workforce; it may make union organising harder, for example, but it could be a way of starting to transition from a society in which so many elements of our lives are organised around what job we want to do. The neoliberal agenda pursued for the past few decades, in which people are encouraged to maximise their usefulness to private companies and property developers by moving to wherever their skills might be most lucratively deployed, has proven itself to be incompatible with forming or maintaining communities. This could be a chance to reset.
• Rachel Connolly writes about technology, cultural trends and politics