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love in the time of precarity

the comics below are excerpts of interviews with millennials living in rented accommodation in hackney. these narratives were gathered as part of a research project that explores the ways that housing and employment precarity is experienced in different types of relationships. the study looks into the connections between precarity as something that is felt and imagined, and as something that frames people’s lives materially. i explain a bit more about the study below the panels.

in the UK, much is said at the moment about millennial disenfranchisement, politically and economically. for several years now there has been a lot of popular commentary about generational inequality – how futures have been disrupted and stolen by the erosion of home ownership, insecure housing, rising tuition fees, brexit. more recently, this sense of generational disparity has started to scale up to global action on climate change. in this time of compromised futures, a sense of what is possible or desired in our own personal lives also undergoes adjustment or transformation. for some commentators, there is even a sense of outrage that the previously secure paths to home ownership and settled family life are obstructed. sometimes this starts to tip into demographic panic around the meaning and impact of birth rates – ‘people can’t even afford to have kids, but should we even be having them because of the climate crisis??’ clearly, our understandings of reproduction are connected to the types of precarity framing contemporary life – aspirations are weighed up, numbers crunched, and the work of reproducing everyday existence often takes precedence over longterm actualisation.

of course, this isn’t a new condition for many millions of people in the UK. although current conversations around millennial precarity often focus on the material disparity between generations *within* families, there are huge – and widening – disparities in experience between millennials. some millennials have kids and contribute to their parents’ rent, some have their rent paid by their parents, some live in inherited homes, others in hostels. in the context of such variation, is the category ‘millennial’ even useful? why bother talking about generational inequality?

before undertaking this research, these questions plagued me! thankfully, the interviews demonstrated that the idea of thwarted millennial reproduction was very much at the forefront of participants’ minds. over and over again, the topic of what ‘used to be possible’ in terms of planning a future – and what was now obstructed – emerged unprompted in the testimonies of people with often very disparate lives. another thing stood out: the varied experiences of precarity had significant implications for people’s relationships in the present. for example, the unaffordability of the private rented sector could mean that participants were still living with parents and could not easily pursue romantic relationships. or fears of a future loss of income might temper people’s plans to leave housing situations where friendships were strained and atmospheres uncomfortable. in sum, there was a sense of obstruction around future relationships, and a sense of struggle around existing ones.

when i began this project in 2016 i had one main research question: how does precarity shape reproduction among millennials? over time this question got tweaked and multiplied. most notably, i began to see reproduction as a) the things people do to actualise their desires around relatedness (e.g. start a family or adopt a bunch of cats), b) the labour of reproducing everyday life (e.g. childcare or cooking dinner for your partner/s) and c) the practices undertaken to maintain advantage (e.g. gatekeeping housing access based on desirability, sending your kids to private school). although it seems complicated to tackle reproduction as involving all of these things, it made my research a lot more exciting – not least because as I began to interview people, all of these components seemed very deeply connected in people’s stories.

i chose to empirically explore ‘precarity’ chiefly through the parameters of life in rented accommodation in hackney where i live. hackney is one of the most proportionally expensive places to privately rent in the UK, but it also has one of the largest social housing stocks. as racialised regeneration initiatives continue to push low-income people out of the borough, people are further fused to households and constellations of care that are precarious. private market renters pool resources, multiple people sharing minimal facilities with threadbare accountability from letting agents and landlords. in such conditions, power, hierarchy, and capital take hold in new ways among families, friends, and partnerships. considered alongside income precarity, unwanted and uncomfortable dependencies easily proliferate. this feeds back into the way reproduction is practiced and experienced – what is ‘settling down’ when nobody can move out? how are the kids eating when no one will touch the food because of the leak in the kitchen ceiling? what types of capital are reproduced by the search for the ‘ideal housemate’? all of these questions are prompted by themes that came up throughout people’s stories.

i’ve made this website as a resource so that i could explain a little bit about what my project was about, and so that i could give a visual record of some of the interviews. i think that for a study that is engaging with material and emotional life as always overlapping, art can offer a flexible and accessible medium for conveying multiple messages. i know that i would rather read a comic strip than read a thesis. this artwork is also partly a way to connect back with the participants who generously gave their time for the study.

documenting everyday life, and the sometimes surprising shared materialities involved, is an important part of writing history, especially at a time when casualisation and transience contributes to a sense of isolation or diminished solidarity. this is why i choose the word ‘love’ and not ‘reproduction’ in the title of this project – because undergirding reproduction, at least in the narratives i collected, generally is a desire to sustain, nourish, and form relationships with other people through compassionately engaging with shared experience. the socio-economic conditions of precarity do heighten the possibility for power – and therefore for abuse – to inflect intimacy and relatedness, particularly as resources dwindle. but in the context of transience, isolation, and casualisation, building a sense of commonality among disparate lives can help to unpick some of those tangled feelings upon which capital thrives.

july 2019

thanks for stopping in!

This project was funded by Queen Mary, University of London, and constituted a PhD supervised by Catherine Nash, Cathy McIlwaine, and Philippa Williams.

My name is Faith Taylor. I work in education, currently at QMUL but also as a piano teacher. I also play in two bands, Suggested Friends and Athabaska. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more!