This is a paper I gave for the wonderful ‘Querying the Future of Work’ session at Feminist Geographies 2018 in Montreal.
In this paper I will be discussing the relationship between capital and labour in the reproduction of intimate relationships among young renters in Hackney.
In the context of housing and employment precarisation in the UK, the discussion builds on data gathered from qualitative interviews conducted with a cross-section of ‘millennials’ living in rented accommodation.
Research findings convey a complex picture of the various labours undertaken to fulfil different intimate trajectories, from the economic foundations required for the establishment of family households, to the work of maintaining familial relationships amidst incarceration and eviction.
Feedback is especially sought with regard to community dissemination, inclusive publication, and the challenges of coupling class critique with a praxis that emphasises solidarity.
Generational inequality is increasingly seen as having bifurcated the UK populace across economic and political lines; Brexit, decline in real wages, collapse of home ownership: a central theme is baby boomer wealth accumulation at the expense of millennials’ ability to access stable housing or even a living wage.
This discourse is often built on notable obstructions to the ‘good life’. Increasingly, the inability to establish independent households and family units is one of these. My research deals with both the material experience and narrative of economic insecurity as a factor in the reconfiguration of ‘normative’ relatedness
My work embraces the facts grounding this notion of millennial economic and reproductive loss, but also queries its unanimity. In deconstructing the uniformity of millennial experience, we can begin to trace the ways that capital is stored, reproduced, or lost through networks of relationships. And we can begin to examine the different forms of work undertaken to reproduce capital as well as reproduce relationships.
Themes emerging from my fieldwork with 18-35-year-old tenants in Hackney illuminate the different ways with which labour is engaged for the reproduction of intimacy and the reproduction of capital. The discussion in this paper touches on three topics relating to these forms of labour: firstly, we’ll look at the perceived futility of salaried work and saving, and the relationship between this and depleted emotional investment in familial goals. Next I’ll talk about the work of childcare amidst disparate perceptions and experiences of violence in the city. And finally, the paper will discuss the work of fantasy and identity-construction in compensating for disrupted intimacy, with particular emphasis on the use of digital and virtual space for communicating desire and relatedness.
For me, reproduction encapsulates the various forms of labour performed to ensure the continued life of people. In this regard, reproduction often most directly relates to caring, creative, and constructive work.
I interpret intimacy as affective attachment that may be romantic, familial, and/or social, and therefore an outcome of reproductive labour.
In this paper and elsewhere in my work, capital is employed as antithetical to reproductive labour, and theoretically indistinct from other forms of hierarchical power relations. As in Marx’s theory of constant capital as stored up or dead labour, the accumulation of capital requires labour that is either poorly compensated or uncompensated. My position is that power operates similarly, in that it relies on the uncompensated extraction of work for the maintenance of disparate resources, rights, and privileges.
For example, in my research, this relationship is evident in the intersections between wealth and whiteness in Hackney’s rental market, whereby the construction of an economically oppressed private market renter is achieved through the invisibilising of reproductive labour at the margins.
In summary, capital intervenes with and obstructs reproduction, impinging upon the creation and maintenance of intimate relationships. In response, new forms of labour are undertaken to circumvent these obstructions and to strive towards attachment and relatedness.
REGION OF STUDY AND METHOD
Hackney is a ‘super-diverse’ borough in London and is also statistically young
There is a proportionally very high level of social housing in Hackney (44%), but the private rental market is also ‘booming’.
House prices have spiralled and the average private renter in the area spends almost 75% of their income on rent, making it the most proportionally expensive place to rent in London.
My fieldwork has shown me that the distinction between private and social renters is needless, given that much of social housing is being privatized. The division between them is ideological and classist. Since the construction of ‘broke millennials’ as being extorted by the rental market is contingent on them having access to it, discourse around ‘renters rights’ becomes oriented around consumer injustice. Hackney is actually full of young people from different backgrounds who grew up in the area but can’t afford to live ‘independently’. Moreover, the frequency with which private sector renters move house makes it easier to increase rents in a given area, further locking social tenants out of markets. The assured fixed term tenancy introduced under Thatcher incentivized short tenancies and was premised on wealth accumulation through rents. Still, despite property fetishism and landlordism being obvious opponents to the rights of tenants, a lot of the discourse around the private rental sector has become about ‘value-for-money’.
Participants gave two interviews, with the second usually in their own home.
I’ve recently introduced graphic illustration into my transcription and analysis to present and explore meaning within narratives, building on creative methodologies of people like Eric Laurier
The Futility of Salaried Work; The Futility of Saving
My mum is completely deluded! So I had to have this conversation like let’s just work this out, ok. So you think I’m gonna make what, 50 thousand pounds a year. And I’m not gonna spend a single penny of it. She’s like ‘yeah just give it all to us, we’ll help you live’. Ok cos you know, we’re doing so well now, but anyway – So we just counted out 50, 100, 150, 200 – we’re talking about 15, 20 years of not spending a single penny. To eventually buy a house in cash. Do you realise – and then I spoke her through what inflation means. And I spoke her through taxes. And things like that and how the way the economy works is set up so you can’t just save it, you have to make it work further, otherwise it just decreases. You can’t sit on it. I think I eventually got through to her.
And I guess I can do what I’m doing here and live – it’s a quite precarious situation to not have certain income or a place to live for certain long periods of time – but I know I can always bounce back on him, or like, I’ll never… I don’t have to be too stressed. Cos at the end of the – if things would fuck up, I could just go back.
Politically I’m a bit pissed off. I don’t think people should own their own place just because they want to feel that they have a place to stay or somewhere they can call home. I don’t really… I had a big argument with my best friend. She rang me once and she’d been to the bank with her boyfriend, they’re both freelancers, they’re not that old. And was like we’ve got a mortgage! They got a mortgage for 3.1 million Swedish crowns which is 300,000 pounds, something like that. And I was like should I congratulate her? She’s going to be in debt for the rest of her life! And I was like agh… As she was in the process of finding a house, she just wanted me to go wow, that’s amazing, well done. She got so pissed off with me, we didn’t speak for months
We’ve both got pensions through work, but that, we haven’t even discussed it really. Cos at the moment I just feel like we’re so skint all the time, to even think about saving more for then is just, it feels ridiculous at the moment, to discuss that. We probably should. We also kind of just both assume that we’re both gonna be working til we’re at least 70. We’ll probably die before then (laughs). I’m only half joking.
the whole student loans thing, I don’t think I’ll ever pay mine off. I might? I don’t even worry about it, it’s just not even on my radar. It’s just annoying when I get my payslip and I’m like they’ve taken how much each month? I could use that money now, but then it would be taxed and everything
The work of childcare amidst disparate experiences of violence in the city
I have a leak in my um, kitchen. In the ceiling. And that leaking started since six months ago. Until present, they haven’t sorted it out. And rather than it getting better, it’s getting worse. Cos that leak now is spreading to the whole ceiling and there’s cracks in the ceiling, and cracks in the wall. And we just recently last month found out that the water that’s leaking is from the toilets. The flat’s above us on top, every time they go to the toilet and flush it, I’m getting it.
My eldest child is a clean freak. She loves to clean and she love environment to be clean. Every little thing that happens to her now is because of this leak. So now, she thinks they’re trying to kill her. Because she can’t clean. And she’s mopping the kitchen floor every two hours. As soon as she sees the liquid, she’s getting the mop. She’s got a belly-ache, it’s because of that. I’m begging her to (?) and the water’s not clean, or ‘I can’t mum, I can’t drink from the tap, because if all that water’s leaking into that sink, it’s not healthy, I can’t be drinking from it, you have to buy water for me, mum’.
I want to live in the middle of nowhere where I haven’t got any neighbours. No dog poo when I step outside my house. Sea, wind. No sirens anymore. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere that I’m gonna get blown up or run over by a van. You know I just want to live in somewhere that’s quiet. I’ve always been one of those you know, don’t let it affect us, but since having my little boy, the thought – you know I take him to like museums or something, we go to Euston when we’re travelling up to my mum’s. And quite often I stand on the Euston road. And it holds memories for me because the 55 – that’s where the 55’s roof came off. And I always think about it when I’m around that area. And I stand there sometimes and I think ‘any one of these cars could just do that. Like any one’. There are that many crazy people in the world these days. And they are saturated in these central, busy areas.
I grew up on a farm in Yorkshire. I think I’m just missing that. But you know, the increasing violence… like London general, like gun, knife crime, in general. But also, on a very local level, you know like, the last two days, we’ve been crossing the lights on a green man, and bikes – motorbikes and cyclists – have almost knocked us both over. You know, little things like that. I don’t know, it just seems to be a bit more prevalent than in previous years. Also, in this area, especially as she’s growing up, I don’t really want her involved in that.
The Work of Fantasy in Compensating for Disrupted Intimacy
I really changed how I behaved on social media. Like it gassed me up, like my ego really took control, and I was, it was really kind of, a person that I don’t like on social media. Like I was working Uber Eats, and I’d go for a cycle at the end of my shift, cos I’m sitting like this, my muscles would be quite pumped? And I’d be like yooo check out my muscles, ra ta ta ta ta, really cos I just wanted to show Sophie, but I put it on my story, which is for everyone, which that in itself – to me that’s cringey, I hate when people do that. But then I started doing that just to Sophie, but then that ended up being 10, 20 a day. Right? And along those themes, right, just showing off really, and I’m not that kind of person. And I bumped into her two months later, at her acting class, and afterwards we had a chat, and she was seeing someone new at the time and I was like ok that’s cool. And yeah. Yeah all the classic kind of feelings, sure. But here’s the thing like, it was someone she was going out with before and I know about him and he’s like, he’s got this big job in an accounting firm, and I know what it’s like, this used to bug me in the relationship, that like, now they can go have fancy tea somewhere. Or like go to a menu and order the bottom half of the menu
Most of these pictures on the wall, I think I got them all off Facebook. They’re actually things that are all on Facebook. I think part of it is for me, but I think honestly part of it is for the other people that come into my room too. So I think even on that micro level, this is fulfilling a bit of what Facebook fulfils on a bigger level. They’re nice memories for me to look at, and it’s just a nice thing to have. I guess it fulfils both purposes. It’s nice for me, but it’s also like ‘look at the fun stuff I do!’, look at all this different stuff that’s going on, for other people.
I think the thing is that we expect that friendship has to be really effortless, and it just happens, and you become friends, but I think as you get older you actually have to put that emotional labour in. And I think Bumble in some ways acknowledges that, and just sort of lets you directly do it, instead of this weird song and dance where you pretend that you’re not trying too hard
We all just cram in. We have taken the side off S’s cot – she has never spent a night in it, but, sometimes I sleep diagonal in the cot, with my legs on the bed […]Have you seen the film Away We Go? With Maggie Gyllenhall? Her character is this hippie mum who does extended breastfeeding and her partner is a stay-at-home Dad and they have this family bed. […] which is basically just a whole room that’s a bed and I’m like… actually that’s an amazing idea.