Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

The London (and UK) renting crisis

The housing crisis in London is big news at the moment, with the London Mayoral election only a week away. This issue is particularly close to my heart at the moment as I have lived in London for the last ten years and, in the last couple of weeks, I have been looking to to move into a flat that isn’t a house share for the first time in several years. I am used to the idea of letting agents being bloodsucking arseholes but I have been shocked by the changes that have occurred in a very short space of time. The new rules on how to rent, as well as who can rent, have seriously surprised me. It seems that at a time when more and more people are looking to rent long-term, it is becoming more and more difficult and even unsafe to do so.

You are now interviewed over the phone to see if you’re eligible before you are even allowed to view a flat. You are asked your salary and occupation, because to rent somewhere for E1,400 in London – the median rent for a property in the capital is now £1,350 – you need to be earning £50,000. For a couple looking together, this might be fine, but it shows you how few Londoners will now be able to afford to live alone. We are, apparently, turning into a generation of people who will share with housemates indefinitely. This has been made worse by new rules on how many people can share somewhere, put in place to stop a lot of people sharing a place together. Two friends wanting to share a two bedroom flat are now going to struggle, as letting agents are frequently only being allowed to let places to couples or families. And these places are not at all spacious. My partner and I were looking in Stratford, which Shelter described in a recent article as “difficult to afford” (whereas the whole of central London was “impossible to afford”) and where £1,400 might just about get you a small two bedroom place, but most were still one bedroom. We saw a flat for £1,200 which was basically uninhabitable. But someone will take it because competition is so fierce that estate agents no longer bother calling you back when you express interest, and the number of people fighting over these dreadful hovels is growing by the day.

A friend of mine has it even worse. Several years ago, I rented one flat while I was a student and another while I was unemployed. The letting agents were fine about it because my parents could be my guarantor. But if you don’t have a property-owning resident of the UK who can be your guarantor, then you have to have large stashes of cash ready to give away. My friend works part-time and her boyfriend is a student, and they have been asked by letting agents to pay six or even 12 months of rent in advance, on top of a deposit of around £2,000. Many landlords won’t take students at all. There are serious questions about where anyone without a very well-paid job is going to live. Everyone talks about how this generation is never going to be able to afford to buy, but for most people I speak to this is about as realistic as saying they’re going to sprout wings and fly to the moon one day. It simply isn’t part of the conversation. The more immediate question for us is, how are we even going to be able to rent?

Like so many people, I took the get-out-of-jail-for-an-astronomical-rail-fare-card, and I’m moving out of London and commuting in (a story for another blog post). But the problems don’t really stop there. I’ve had brought home to me the fact that one of the biggest issues with renting in this country is that renters have virtually no rights. This will not come as a surprise to many people but I am shocked by how much worse it’s got in such a short space of time. Estate agents can now basically charge whatever they like and call it an admin fee, and there is sweet bugger all you can do about it. £140 to ‘check out’ and have an inventory made – a blank inventory, because the flat has no furniture. £60 for leaving before the end of your contract (in a house share) even though you’re finding someone to take over your share of the lease. A charge for giving a reference over email instead of over the phone. £150 to copy and paste your name and address into a contract and ask another agency to read all the bills and payslips you send over to prove you’re a valid person. Oh, and speaking of proving you exist, you now need to show your passport to put down a holding fee on a flat! We finished looking at one we decided we wanted, and the estate agent said: “Do you have your passport?” Of course not, I’ve taken a Southeastern train to get here, not a BA flight.

And then there’s the insane things that landlords now feel they can put into a legally binding contract. I’ve had tenancy agreements which try and tell me what shoes I can wear indoors and where I can hang my laundry, on top of making me liable for pretty much everything except making sure the house exists for me to sit in. Even with all this nonsense, it seems I’ve been very lucky with my renting experiences (to date – touch wood!). #ventyourrent has been a popular topic on Twitter in recent days, with people telling horror stories of London renting like a ceiling falling in due to a flood, and then being evicted for complaining to the landlord about it. Or paying £1,000 a month for a flat with an unsafe boiler, and nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. With so many more people having to rent long term, or even for life if current predictions are true, it is astonishing that some simple rules haven’t been put in place to protect people. Even without a housing crisis, how is it possible that some of these things are legal?! I’m fairly sure it’s not legal to evict someone for complaining that they no longer have a ceiling, but it also seems to be a surprisingly common problem. Shrugging these things off with: “Well, landlords/letting agents are shits” just isn’t good enough. Young people in particular are being backed into so many corners, especially in London, that it’s no surprise that so many people I know are talking longingly of Elsewhere (not the alternative universe in Laini Taylor novels, just, anywhere but here). The future seems bleak, in so many ways, and it is time for someone to start making life a little bit easier for people who simply want a roof over their head.

Of course, none of this is even touching on what happens when things are really desperate, and you can’t afford a home of any kind. Shelter are working hard for more legislation to protect the homeless, and it can’t come soon enough. How having somewhere to live isn’t a basic human right is completely beyond me, and we need large-scale change as soon as possible to simply have a system that makes basic common sense.

“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.

Radical self-care part 2: Not Giving a F**k

Last week I mentioned that as part of my resolution to engage in radical self-care, thereby protecting my own mental health, I was going to read Sarah Knight’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.’ Thanks to the speed of online ordering (not from Amazon, I hasten to add: I refuse to buy books from Amazon now) and the fact I am a very fast reader, I have already finished said book. It’s amazing and I’m going to share its basic concepts with you, as well as a list of some of the things which I, personally, do not give a fuck about.

The basic premise of the book is that you should be spending less time you don’t have, doing things you don’t want to do, with people you don’t like. By deciding what you do and don’t give a fuck about, and compiling a ‘Fuck Budget,’ you can spend less time, energy and money on things that annoy, and use that time, energy and money on things that bring you joy. Knight divides your Fuck Budget into four different areas:

  • Things and concepts
  • Work
  • Strangers, acquaintances and friends
  • Family

For each you make a list of things to do with that topic that you just don’t give a fuck about, and then later work out whether you can not give a fuck about those things without hurting people’s feelings. Of course, some things are much easier to not care about than others, and you have to be careful at all times to be polite and honest without going over the line into the ‘Asshole Quadrant.’

I don’t want to deprive her of book sales by going into the details of how you achieve not giving a fuck about all these things, and as I only finished reading it a couple of hours ago I can’t tell you yet how well it works in practice. However, I have already mentally discarded several things or events that do not fit into my Fuck Budget, and just deciding to let go and not care about whole lists of things is fun and invigorating. By carrying out Knight’s NotSorry Method, I’m feeling stronger and like I’ll have more time and energy to take care of myself and do the things that I genuinely enjoy. Yay!

So, here is a sample list of things about which I, personally, give zero fucks. Most of these come under the heading of ‘things and concepts’ – by far the easiest category because, in general, not giving a fuck about these things affects nobody but you.

  1. What other people think. I’m actually still working on this one, but Knight insists that it has to be on the list otherwise all those fucks you save by not going out to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t like will be wasted on feeling guilty for not going to said parties, just in case somebody noticed your absence and cared on some level. In my experience, this is, in any case, unlikely.
  2. Organic wine. I’ve tried it, it’s nasty. I’m going to waste no more fucks worrying about whether I’m a good person by not drinking it.
  3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know this is controversial because so many people love him, but I tried to read Love in the Time of Cholera and I just couldn’t get through it. I’m giving zero fucks about not wanting to read any more of his books.
  4. Political theory. When I arrived at university for my Masters I found that I’d missed a memo on doing at least an A Level if not a degree in political theory. And reading Foucault’s entire back catalogue. I tried but I just don’t give a fuck about any of it. Most of it sounds either so narrow as to be useless except in very specific cases, or so blindingly obvious I don’t understand why anybody felt the need to write a book (or several) on it. Perhaps I’m missing something, but really, zero fucks given.
  5. Dietary/alcohol intake/what does and doesn’t give you cancer advice from the government and various experts. I am sick to the back teeth of articles telling me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, and what is and isn’t going to kill me, and whether it’s okay to drink wine on a Tuesday but only if it’s a full moon and only as long as you then don’t drink ‘til the following month. FUCK OFF. When did we stop being trusted to realise what generally is and isn’t good for us, and act accordingly? The amounts of time, energy and money I will save by giving zero fucks about this is at stratospheric levels.
  6. Apple merchandise. Enough. I get it, it’s pretty. But it breaks like all technology, stop pretending it’s magic.
  7. I’m actually looking forward to the next fad so people can stop telling me to eat kale. It’s nasty and I don’t want it. (See also no.5.)
  8. The nuclear threat from Iran/North Korea/any country that America etc. have deemed too “uncivilised” to be allowed to hold a stick to have some defence against the bigger bullies in the playground. This is doubly useful as something to save fucks on as there is also bugger all I can do about the nuclear capabilities of any of these places. I could read all the news items and absorb the rhetoric that all these nasty barbarians are going to try and kill me, but really, it seems pretty unlikely so I just don’t want to spend a fuck on it.
  9. Conversations about TV programmes I haven’t seen. The list of things that have come out in the last several years that I haven’t seen includes but is not limited to: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, True Detective, Dexter, Homeland, Parks and Recreation (although I wouldn’t mind seeing that), and Downton Abbey past series 1. As you can tell I give few fucks about keeping up with recent ‘must-see’ programmes. This means I give no fucks about conversations about any of these programmes. If you insist on talking about them at length in my presence then please don’t be offended if I check my phone, stare into space or go for an extended bathroom break. Telling me I’m “really missing out” will be met with death stares. Sorry NotSorry.
  10. Anybody’s opinion on whether I should or should not have children, including the opinions of friends, family and the media at large. I am tired of being asked if I’m broody, or being told that when I hit 30 I’m going to suddenly desperately want a baby. I feel like I’m waiting anxiously for a stealth attack from my own ovaries. I’d love to know for just a day, or a week, what it’s like inside a man’s head without this sodding pressure to think about children, and whether you want them, and just in case you do, to plan for the degeneration of your own body. I’m resolving to give no fucks about this from now on, and set up a zero-fucks barrier against all baby-related propaganda.

I feel like I’m taking better care of myself already.

I hope you’ve all had a good first ten days of 2016! And apologies for this post to anybody who had ‘resolutions/any New Year new you bullshit’ on their ‘Things I don’t give a fuck about’ list (Hi Emma!).

Quarter-life crises of a lost generation

This weekend I went to visit my little nephew, who is absolutely gorgeous and completely adorable. I very much enjoyed seeing him, and seeing my brother and sister-in-law, but I dreaded the inevitable, unanswerable question:

“Don’t you want to have a baby?”

My brother and sister-in-law have been together for nearly nine years, are happily married, have good careers and a lovely home. I am 26, single, renting in a shared flat and paying more for it than my other brother is paying for a full flat to himself, working part-time during a part-time Masters degree, and have very vague ideas about what I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s a pointless thing to ask somebody in my position if they want to have a baby, because of course I don’t at the moment- who would?

There have been several pieces in the media recently around this topic, and the wider topic of a ‘lost generation’- the young people graduating in a recession, with more limited options and surrounded by uncertainties. The Times ran a piece called ‘Generation Medication,’ about the many young people who feel lost and are taking higher numbers of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. There have also been several pieces on the new ‘quarter-life crisis,’ young people in their mid-twenties gripped by a panic at the passing of time more commonly associated with those in their forties and fifties.

I have plenty of days when I am asked these kinds of questions and become panicked and anxious about what I’m going to do. There is an expectation when you are younger that by this age you will be settled into a dream career, with a steady partner and with things pretty much sorted out. I do have friends who appear to have things worked out far better than I do: most of my friends are in long-term relationships and several are openly disappointed when I see them and tell them that no, I’m just me. The inquisitions from my mother whenever I mention any men means I don’t talk about anyone anymore. Even telling her they’re gay or already in a relationship doesn’t necessarily put her off.

I also panic periodically about career decisions. I graduated in 2009, the first year out into the full swing of a recession. I was woefully under-prepared, as all the way through my education my path was set out for me: GCSES, A Levels, degree, and then someone would just sort of, give me a job. I didn’t think about it nearly enough. I worked in publishing for four years and hated it, so I went back to the only thing I had enjoyed: more education, which stopped the questions about what I was going to do for a bit and gave me time to think. But now that I’m halfway through the Masters, people are asking me what I want to do again, and I’m still not sure. I was thinking about a PhD but that hardly looks inviting with the amount of work I’d need to do before I could even apply, and the strikes that have interrupted my degree all year as PhD students and lecturers battle for better pay. People expect me to have answers that I simply haven’t got.

Of course, what I don’t know is how much of this would still have been the same even if I’d graduated into a healthy economy. Quite probably I would still be making my mind up about what I wanted to do, trying different things and working towards something that I will enjoy. The view at 18 of what life will be like at 26 is, clearly, ridiculous and imaginary. The older you get, the more obvious it seems that very few people ever really work everything out- and that’s okay. There will always be more things you want to do, more places you want to see, and questions that you ask yourself about your own life. Most of the time, I don’t mind being single and I don’t feel too worried about where I’m going. I have a lot of interests, I enjoy my job, I enjoy the Masters, I have a lot of friends and I don’t really believe that this recession has set every single person my age back by ten years. It hasn’t been ideal, for sure, and the government isn’t necessarily helping, but I am a little tired of reading about what a state we’re all in and that our lives are effectively ruined. Keep telling us that and of course we’re going to be depressed! Just please, stop asking every woman if they want to have a baby, regardless of their circumstances, and accept that not knowing exactly where you’re going isn’t necessarily the worst thing.