Austerity in the UK is here to stay. The Bank of England has warned that the country is facing the longest recession since records began, predicting that the economic slump will extend well into 2024. At the same time, the most recent budget has been called austerity 2.0 by companies, unions, political figures and policy experts. This suggests the era of public spending cuts seen since 2010 has reached the next phase: austerity as the “new normal”.
Austerity policies implemented since 2010 have not been substantially reversed or retracted in recent years. In fact, they have often been levelled at the most marginalised social groups.
In 2019, cuts in total expenditure on welfare and benefit payments alone were expected to total £37 billion a year by 2020. And now, growing numbers of people in the UK are struggling with everyday costs of living, while a further £28 billion of cuts to public funding were announced in the government’s November 2022 budget.
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All of this shows how keenly economic policies are felt in everyday life, in the mundane: eating, heating, caring, shopping and travelling. And perpetual and cumulative cuts like those we have seen made in recent years to welfare, education, social and healthcare services shape daily lives and social relationships. The effects continue, across time and generations. They also worsen existing inequalities relating to gender, race, class, age and disability.
My previous research during the 2008-09 UK economic recession revealed how memories and intergenerational relationships are key to understanding what it means to get by in times of recession and crisis. For instance, upbringing, living through previous recessions, debt and hardship are central to how people respond to economic downturns. These experiences, family histories and memories are often shared across generations in a way that influences younger people about financial issues.
Policies that aim to tackle poverty and economic inequality need to go beyond a focus on “the household” because this is not the only (or even the predominant) framework for how social relationships are built. Instead, people live within and across households that intersect based on kinship, friendship, intimacy and more. These are the main mechanisms that people use to get by during difficult times.
Further research shows how austerity can be experienced as a “personal crisis”, affecting the things people can do, afford and dream about, including having security at home and work. It even extends to whether or not people are able to make decisions about having children. Suffice it to say, economic policies have more than momentary effects, they ripple across people’s lives – and that of their children – even if their circumstances improve.
A life of its own
Taking this further, my latest research shows how austerity policies also have their own life. In the UK, this started with the early dismantling of the welfare state alongside diminished investment in deprived and post-industrial areas from the 1980s onwards. These programmes have entrenched inequality in certain regions of the UK. So, while the current era of austerity arose from the recession following the global financial crisis 14 years ago, it is more deeply embedded in certain parts of the country.
Three charts that explain why falling living standards could deepen the UK’s north-south divide
We can get an idea of how austerity affects people’s daily lives by listening to their stories. Yusuf, for example, spoke to me about the instabilities he currently faces at work and how that has affected his life choices. “There’s no job security or stability,” he says. “There’s not enough trade [as a mechanic] anymore like there used to be years ago.” As a result, Yusuf does not think he could afford to have children.
Employment opportunities and local industries across northern England (where my research was carried out), had already been hit hard by years of local underinvestment. But adding austerity to the mix meant these factors culminated in multi-faceted forms of insecurity and uncertainty for Yusuf. His lack of job security is then linked to being unable to afford to have children – a different life to the one he had imagined.
Even if austerity cuts were reversed today, the long-term effects for Yusuf and countless others could continue for generations. Economic policies should be implemented alongside forecasts of what their effects will be for future generations. Researching these future outcomes, as well as past and current experiences, will highlight the unevenness of austerity measures. This will help to ensure that austerity policies and the devastation they cause do not become normalised, condemning many more generations to their long-term negative effects.
Sarah Marie Hall receives funding from UKRI and the Independent Social Research Foundation.