Speaking to Millennials from Around the World About All the Debt They're in
As a generation, we're statistically worse off than any other. But how are individual young people dealing with that?
Students in London protesting against increased tuition fees. Photo by Adam Barnett
One of the defining things about being a millennial is owing someone or some entity a large sum of money. Yes, as a generation we've been blessed with the ability to make cats famous on Instagram, but, financially, we're not doing all that well: student debt is crippling; rent takes up too much of our pay; jobs to actually earn that pay are increasingly few and far between; and the prospect of ever buying property is out of the question for many.
That millennials have it worse than any other generation is a fact that regularly makes the headlines – in fact, VICE has a very bleak column, "Generation Fucked", that keeps track of those headlines – but articles tend to analyse the situation on a macro scale, rather than looking at how the situation is affecting individuals on the ground.
We wanted to do just that, so asked our offices in North America, Australia and Western Europe to talk to young people from their respective countries, to find out how they're coping with being in debt and out of work.
MAX, 22, UK
I had no other option but to get myself into debt, otherwise I couldn't have gone to university. In a year's time I'll be £66,000 in debt, and I'm 22. Where do I go from there? It's a huge weight on my mind.
I'm currently on a year in industry at university, a time set aside in the course to intern. It's a great idea – you gain some invaluable experience. But the majority of internships in London still don't pay anything at all, and the worst thing is the student loan company gives you a reduced amount of money to live on during this time. So, this year, I was expected to work for free while being given £6,000 less than what I usually get. If I just lived off that loan, I'd have £3,000 to cover my rent. In London, that's actually impossible. And, to be honest, my loan has never been enough to cover my rent.
Unfortunately, because of this I had to leave a really great internship – an internship I was supposed to be doing as part of my studies – because I couldn't afford to work for free. I had to move back to my parents' house in Portsmouth. Now I'm back in London again, but working full time in retail. I would love to intern more while I have this time of my studies but I just can't afford it – what's even more worrying is intern experience is almost vital for the jobs I want to get.
JAMIE, 23, CANADA
I graduated from Ryerson last year and I left with little debt. A few thousand dollars or so, but it's all paid off now. The problem wasn't my student debt (my parents helped me out a lot during school), but rather what awaited me after graduation: no jobs in my field. When I was going through university, I was super optimistic. I figured I'd be one of those people who would go through the programme, get a good internship and then land a dope job. I was wrong.
I currently work around ten hours a week as a hostess at a bar. Back during the holidays, I used to get 30 hours, but I got cut down this year. Now my budget is tight. In fact, this is the first time in my life where I've really been living from check to check, and it's kind of weird: $1,000 (£530) a month to get by on rent and groceries, $50 (£26) for coffee and weed, another $100 (£52) for my phone bill. If there's one thing I really rely on to relax, it's weed, and that's saying a lot considering I only spend about $20 (£10) on it a month.
Overall, it's a really shitty lifestyle – this industry in particular is not for me. People who can do a nine to five, Monday to Friday, and still do their own stuff on top are super-humans. I'm not only unmotivated to get a new job, but I'm also drained creatively. The current economy, the way it's built, makes people docile. You lose your drive because you get into this routine where you feel you can't get away from your responsibilities, or your debt, or take risks. Ideally – and I mean best-case scenario – I'd like to get high and edit people's YouTube videos into feature films for a living. Until then, I'm just going to keep it moving.
FRANCESCA, 30, GERMANY
I was working for a gallery and earning a good salary, but one day realised I had responsibilities I didn't want, and didn't have enough free time, so I quit and started my own gallery. Financially, everything went to shit. I was on €800 (£620) a month, and after paying rent I was left with €350 (£270) for everything else. I was surviving, not living – but I was still happy, because I was passionate about running my own place.
A year ago we had to close our gallery because the rent got too high. Now, let's see what comes next. I don't want to work a job I'm not 100 percent passionate about. Things are OK at the moment, even if I'm struggling with money, because I have things that are more important than money and I'm sure I'll find my way.
ETIENNE, 24, FRANCE
For the past few years I've found myself having the same realisation about halfway through every month: 'Oh shit, I'm out of money.' I'm interning in Paris, so it's inevitable. In France, when a company hires an intern for more than two months, it's required to pay them a minimum of €3.60 (£2.84) an hour – an impossible amount to live on in a city like Paris. But interns who work at a company for less than two months – as I am at the moment – don't have to be paid at all.
When I went to England to study I got a €13,000 (£10,250) loan from my bank. That should have lasted a year, but it was gone in six months. I found a part-time job that allowed me to stay in England, but I have to start paying back my loan in October, and I honestly have no idea how I'll do that. Either I'll live with my parents and try paying back my loans with freelance writing – which, you know, isn't a very likely scenario – or I'll try to find a job in marketing that I'd hate.
I get by OK, partly because I was lucky enough to find a small apartment at €500 a month with my girlfriend. I'm not too worried about the future, because my parents and friends would be ready to help if I needed them. But I hate the feeling of being financially dependent on someone else, and don't want to ask for help paying back my loans.
ISMAR, 26, DENMARK
The unemployment rate among Denmark's young people is one of the lowest in Europe. Education is free, and during their higher studies students receive a monthly state education grant, called "SU", of around 5,000 kroner (£516), and have access to cheap loans through the SU system (up to 3,000 additional kroner, or £310, a month). Because of this, young people generally do not amass student debts to the same extent as those elsewhere.
I grew up in the countryside but moved to Copenhagen when I was 17. After I moved away from home I started going out a lot and buying clothes I couldn't afford. It became a regular habit for me to call the bank and ask if I could just increase my agreed overdraft, and basically I've just continuously been increasing my overdraft in order to be able to afford a certain lifestyle.
I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the fact that I'm in debt on a day-to-day basis. But if I have a bad day and my head is full of negative thoughts, then it surfaces. Then it starts to really hit me that I'm terribly lousy at finances, and I feel like I'll never be able to truly make it on my own.
KARALYN, 27, UNITED STATES
When I graduated college, had someone asked me if, at 27, I would be living with three roommates and hardly able to afford my bills – I just never would have thought that I'd be put in that kind of situation. I thought that I would have my life together by now, I'd have a home, or at least just have my own apartment and pay all my own bills. I'm still a little dependent: my brother pays my phone bill.
Recently, I got this great job opportunity, so I took it. I thought I was gonna be getting paid much more, but at the end of the final interview, I was told it was $17 (£12) an hour. It's put me in a weird position, because I didn't want them to think money was all I cared about. I get two weeks paid vacation, which is nice because not a lot of companies do that now. Half of my income goes toward rent. I can't get a credit card. When I left college, my student debt was about $25,000 (£17,700), now it's $30,000 (£22,000).
In five years, I hope I'm making at least three times what I'm making now. Most women think about marriage and kids when they're in their late twenties, early thirties, and to me that doesn't even seem like a thought. I can barely even afford to take care of myself. I can't even get a dog.
SIMON, 25, AUSTRALIA
Last time Australia had a recession, it was announced three days before I was born in November 1990. We weren't really hit by the global financial crisis [in 2008] so the biggest issue here is house prices. I was actually looking at some research the other day that said they've grown across Melbourne by 60 percent since 2008. Of course that hasn't kept up with wage increases. Houses aren't regarded as a place to live any more, they're considered investments.
I feel pretty despondent about that. It means I'm condemned to living in a drive-in, drive-out suburb if I want a backyard. Basically, if you're one of those people with kids on the menu from your late twenties, you'll have to live in some horrendous kind of new development and spend hours of your day stuck in traffic.
This is the reason I'm going back to university. I figured I need to earn a lot of money, so I'm studying finance. By the end of post-grad I'll have spent about $75,000 (£39,500). It's a lot, but it's not too bad. We get a pretty decent subsidy in Australia and I feel if you want to pursue higher education then that's kind of a personal choice. You'll benefit from it and the subsidies can only go so far. I mean, someone has to pay for it – it's not free, and taxing people who are tradesmen or low-income earners just so I can earn way more, that's not really fair.
ADRIAN, 29, AUSTRIA
I was raised by a single mother who worked around the clock to make sure I could get a proper education. I loved at home and got a student allowance while I was studying, so never needed a regular job. When those funds ended I was still living at home, but had taken up the lucrative hobby of online poker, which meant I was earning more money than I ever would in a normal job. I eventually decided to move out of my mother's place, which meant I needed to really push my poker career in order to pay the rent – which I thought would motivate me.
It didn't. I didn't want to play any more and the bills kept coming, so after less than a year I was about €3,000 (£2,365) in debt, and I owed some more personal debts. One day I quit poker and moved back in with my mother. Two people who'd lent me money knew about my situation, but most of my friends had no idea.
After about six months I found a paid internship and things have slowly started getting better: I'm better at managing my finances. I'll still be in debt for at least another year, but I can now pay my bills. Hell, I could even buy a PS4 if I wanted to. I shouldn't, since I'm in debt, but that never really stopped me – which is probably how I got into debt in the first place.
AIDA, 22, SPAIN
When my parents were my age, neither of them had studied but both of them had well-paid permanent jobs as waiters. It was pretty common in Spain back then for people with no higher education to just work hard and earn enough money to buy a house, two cars, have a child, get private healthcare – which isn't common in Spain – and go on holiday once a year.
Today, I don't know any young people who can afford to live like that. Most jobs don't pay well, aren't full time and the contracts are never permanent, and we're all fighting over these jobs, no matter your level of education. The good jobs still pay less than they did 15 years ago, for more hours.
I work as a waitress and I don't make enough money to move out of my parents' place – not even enough to share an apartment with a friend. I'm saving all I can to pay for my studies, because the government took away my scholarship this year. I think, for me, the worst part is knowing that I'll probably get stuck working in shitty jobs, no matter what I do.
VINCENZO, 25, ITALY
Debt is something Italians are basically born with, and you don't need an expensive education to land you in it. People aged 34 or under are the likeliest to be on the breadline. Finding your first job is very difficult, which means you generally need your family to help you out for a while.
If you do find a job, that doesn't mean you're suddenly financially independent. I'm 25 and have been working for two years, and I still need to rely on my parents' money to get by. I rely on them for my basic needs, and my tastes are far from extravagant. I'm also still living with my parents, in the same bedroom I grew up in. The fact is that, in the last two decades, the cost of living has increased exponentially, while average income has decreased.
Young people's median wage has dropped, reaching an all-time low in 2012. This is why most people my age aren't even remotely thinking of buying a house, marrying or settling down by themselves: it's all just too expensive. Of course, we can't let our friends know what's actually going on, so this new poverty remains largely hidden while we spend the money our grandparents and parents made during the last years of the Italian economic boom. But in the end, almost everyone in Italy can relate to it – we've turned into a bunch of statistics-backed whiners.
ZARA, 26, IRELAND
I graduated in 2012 after finishing my master's degree. It was difficult leaving university knowing there are no jobs available. I had to sign on to the dole the same week I handed in my thesis. I was struggling with rent and bills and was afraid I'd end up having to leave my house. Because I was 24, I was only entitled to €144 (£112) a week, with €100 (£78) of that going straight toward rent.
The reality of living on €44 (£35) a week hit me hard. I barely had enough to feed myself, I lost a lot of weight and my health suffered. I had to borrow money constantly to pay bills, which in turn constantly left me in debt to people. The lowest point was when my dole money was stolen from my bag the day before Christmas Eve. I was stuck in Dublin with no money to travel home for Christmas. I spent the last few years in a state of not knowing my worth or having the opportunity to further myself in a career. I have worked odd jobs here and there, earning very little. It's all so bleak.
Now, I've accepted the fact that owning a house – or, for that matter, a car – here is not an option. To be honest, even learning to drive here is something that cannot happen at the moment because of costs for permits and lessons. Personally, it disgusts me that the people of this country are struggling beyond belief while the banks are not held accountable. There are families facing homelessness, young people emigrating and, for those who can't emigrate, people stuck in a rut, constantly chasing debts and worrying about their future. Yet, the state will not go after the people responsible.
More on VICE: