How old do you have to be to be a Grumpy Old Woman? 50? 60? 80? If I’m not old enough yet, I’ll settle for Grumpy Middle Aged Woman. Yes, that will be it, simple arithmetic: young women 16-39, middle aged women 40-63 and old women 64-87; 88+ very old! OK, I admit it: I feel a lot older now than I did when I was 40 – mostly when I go running or to the gym where “getting old” is my excuse for not keeping up with the twenty-somethings.
Before you ask, this doesn’t apply to men, at least those I know. For men it is more like: 16-39 overgrown boys, 40-63 midlife crisis, 64-87 where did I leave my glasses? (Mmm … I don’t think that will go down well with my husband, but I do try to let him experience gender stereotyping occasionally to help him recognise when he does it to my daughters and me. I’m kind like that, ask him).
So, now that’s settled, why do I want to be a Grumpy Middle Aged Woman? Well I don’t really, but I think I’m entitled to be grumpy and this is why.
First, I object to being labelled a “Baby Boomer” who had it so good, took everything and left the mess and resulting debt for my kids to clear up. I didn’t. If I’d had the chance I might have done, but either I missed the opportunity like most of my similar aged colleagues or it just wasn’t there.
The one thing I did have better than today’s kids was free higher education and access to the job market. For that I am grateful and I would let youngsters have the same opportunity now. I don’t think they should have to pay tuition fees, but I don’t think so many should feel forced to go to university in order to compete for any job above unskilled manual types. I’m glad I’m not a youngster now.
Second: When I started work my salary was £3,000, which according to the Thisismoney.co.uk calculator is the equivalent of £14,700 today. Yes, above the poverty line but graduates today with similar qualifications moving into a similar first job complain if they are on less than £25,000. OK – at least I could get a job and had good career prospects, but my grumpy middle aged woman point is: if you are a recent graduate on £20k-£25k today and think you are instantly entitled to a life style the same as your parents but their greedy generation spoiled it all for you, stop moaning. Your parents almost certainly didn’t start out with much and they have worked at least 25 years more than you to earn what they have now. You probably already have more than they did at your age and if they are at all to blame for the current economic state it was more than likely because they borrowed money to help you get a good start!
In my day the affordable accommodation for many graduates was generally terrible and in run down parts of town. Then as now, social housing, although plentiful, wasn’t available to young singles and, unlike now, the private sector was dire. My first house after university had no heating apart from electric bar fires, was damp and the roof leaked. Four of us had to share to afford it (the rent was more than my gross pay), but this was typical and none of us had any expectation of qualifying for a mortgage. The landlord was from a culture that didn’t do business with women (except collect rent), so when the leaky roof suddenly got worse making one of the bedrooms uninhabitable while the male occupants were away we could get nothing done about it until the men returned and reported it again (and even then it wasn’t properly fixed).
We didn’t have much, if any, disposable income; everything was spent on rent, food, feeding the gas and electricity meters and transport. The small amount left went into a building society savings account (essential to build a track record to qualify for a mortgage a few years down the line). We managed without a phone (no choice – we couldn’t afford one). If we needed to make a call we queued at the public call box. Our nearest was on the edge of a red light district and we were frequently propositioned by kerb crawlers, some of whom could be quite intimidating. A car was out of the question and I made a lot of my own clothes; we didn’t smoke or drink. We had a 2nd hand black and white TV with a wire coat hanger for an ariel but most of the time it didn’t work. I am not complaining. This was typical for many of my friends. We didn’t expect to move from university into the comfortable lower middle class life style enjoyed by our parents. They had worked for years – and sacrificed a lot to bring us up – to get their phone and colour TV. Obviously they didn’t want to see us suffer (electric blankets were typical gifts) but to all of us this was starting out and everyone had to work their way up from the bottom. There was no sense of entitlement to start out where our parents already were. Why should there have been?
My third grump. All you journalists and economists out there stop saying we all caused this mess – the financial crisis, the credit crunch – by over borrowing and living on cheap unsustainable credit and now it is payback time. I never borrowed anything except my mortgage (I had two and paid them both off) and they were not cheap (for a lot of the time interest rates were in double figures, 15% at one point) nor were they easy to get. I needed a 20% deposit and a track record of saving with the branch that extended the loan. The most I could borrow was 2.5 times my salary. I never spent anything on my credit card that I couldn’t pay off at the end of the month. I never re-motgaged to extract cash from the apparent increase in the value of my property.
Maybe I was lucky to live abroad for a while and get an outsider’s perspective on the UK housing market, but to me, like most of my friends, my house was for creating a home, not for increasing my wealth and generating cash. If nothing else, and everyone must have realised it: all house prices were increasing so any apparent profit on the sale of one house was eaten up by the costs of buying the next. How can that make you wealthy – it was just inflation. You needed more to stand still. Only those moving out of the market or significantly downsizing and the heirs of deceased relatives selling their unwanted houses gained. If the banks and financial experts mistook inflation for growth – why blame the average house owner for doing the same.
But now I am paying for what I didn’t cause – and there are millions like me: those middle aged, approaching retirement, people who were brought up to save and to spend within their means, those who have never been a financial drain on the state or anyone else. I have paid my own way for nearly 40 years. I paid off my last mortgage in 2003 and have been a saver ever since. The interest rates have crashed and the money I hoped to use in my retirement is evaporating. My final salary pension scheme is still open – at least for now – but it costs me nearly twice as much in percentage terms as when I joined.
I never had a cheap mortgage or easy credit, I have paid tax all my life and I am annoyed that should I fall on to hard times the support I would get from the state would be pitifully inadequate and so begrudgingly provided. I am annoyed that just as rape victims are so often blamed for their fate, the victims of the economic crash are being blamed. Maybe we all have to do our bit to help and I don’t mind paying tax to support benefits for redundant workers, student fees or infrastructure investment but I strongly object to the rhetoric of payback time. Payback for what? What did I do? What did I borrow from the future?
It would be nice, if just for once, people like me – and there must be millions of us – were acknowledged.