Micheles bright green hallway. Photograph: Julian Anderson for the Guardian
Rhiannon lives with her boyfriend and a flatmate in a warren of a flat near me, in what is now a swanky area of north London, though it hasnt always been so desirable. She was born very close by, in a cooperative household near Archway, which back then wasnt swanky at all. And Ive lived here for 35 years. So this is our home, more hers than mine. Im all right I own my flat but she is not.
I have links to this area, she says. It feels like home to me. But I can never, ever afford to buy anywhere round here. Their rent has recently shot up, from 1,100 to 1,500 a month, and I am horrified by the gigantic chunk it takes out of her income. Rhiannon has lived in this flat for five years and had 10 different flatmates. One became her boyfriend, one lived in the windowless airing cupboard, sleeping on the floor on a duvet.
When I was Rhiannons age, in 1971, I shared a three-bedroomed flat in Holland Park, for 11 a week between three of us a tiny fraction of what I earned as a teacher. I moved frequently, sharing with friends and my boyfriend, mostly just him and me somehow managing not to let my parents know. But rents were comparatively low and homes easy to find, as long as you werent black. In those days, we had appalling racism, homophobia, slums, the Gorbals,
Rachmanism, Cathy Come Home, the family squatting movement; but landlords and letting agents were not generally able to be as staggeringly greedy as they are now. And so I could save up, and with money left to me by an auntie, and more from my dad, I was able to buy a shared house in 1981. But I was one of the lucky ones even then. Not everyone had a dead auntie and a father who could afford to help. Now, what I paid for that whole house would barely be enough for a deposit.
Life seemed much easier then. My friends and I were terrified witless of nuclear war, but we didnt have to panic about finding a home or work. I left my stuffy girls grammar school rather rebelliously at 16 and went to Ealing art school for two years. Free. The suburbs, where my friends and I lived, were stultifyingly dull, we thought. Everything closed on Sundays, Ruislip High Street was stone dead, our parents totally square, and art school was the perfect escape. No more twinsets and blow-waves. We wore elephant cords, striped Madras cotton bedspread dresses and tights in thrilling new colours like purple and ochre. Several pop stars emerged from Ealing art school, the Stones were beginning to play in a club up the road, and sex and drugs was going on like mad, although not for me. I was rather a repressed late developer, and horribly self-conscious, with my long nose and pinhead, which made my time at art school, surrounded by boys, fairly tortuous.
I went on to music school, then a teacher training college. All free. Job possibilities seemed more varied and exciting: my boyfriend dropped out of school, became a rag-and-bone man, and found us a stall on the Portobello Road, where I sold tailors trimmings a heavenly relief after a week teaching music in Tower Hamlets. But whatever we did, we could still afford the cinema, clubs and the pub every night, and most of my friends smoked dope (I didnt I was scared stiff).
What does Rhiannon do? We stay in, sit in front of Netflix under the duvet and get drunk at home, she says. Or go to friends parties. Its too expensive to go out.
But, because I need to see what the young do now, we go out together to meet three of her girlfriends in a small local bar. Its charming, the music isnt too loud, our cocktails are rather thrilling, but this can only be an occasional treat. Debbie and Suzie live in rented shoe boxes, and Anna has bought a small flat in a distant bit of town, with help from her parents. Im very impressed by their fortitude and cheeriness, with what seems to me like a hell of a life, burdened with debt, insecurity, information overload, constant testing, intern culture, digital devices, anxiety and general frenzy. They chatter wittily and robustly about all these horrors.
We graduated into the recession, Rhiannon says. My friends are cobbling together some sort of profession, waitressing or tutoring rich oligarchs kids. I was very lucky: I did internships while I was at college, used my student loan, worked on and off through university, waitressing. But it can mess up your studies, because youre knackered. If my mum hadnt helped me to pay off my debts, I wouldnt have had a career.
At least Rhiannon is doing what she always wanted to do: writing. She had an ambition and a plan, and she stuck to it. Luckily, I could afford to diddle around, changing my mind, doing what I fancied: art, music, markets, part-time teaching, screen-printing, bits of this and that. I didnt start writing until my mid-30s, then went to university at 35, in the late 1970s, which I could still afford to pay for myself. Todays young people cant mess about. They must take whatever jobs they can get, and its often not at all what they have dreamed of.
Debbie works in customer services, dealing with complaints. Nobody grows up thinking, I want to be a customer service adviser, she says without a smidgen of bitterness or self-pity. Shes just relieved that she has a fairly secure job with a contract, and doesnt have to look at a screen all day.
Micheles piano. Photograph: Julian Anderson for the Guardian
This is another part of their lives that I dont envy: the almost nonstop staring at screens. We had one phone in the hall, wirelesses and typewriters; we wrote our essays by hand and we werent forever on call, stressed, agitated, panicking and with a squillion, brain-mashing choices to make.
Rhiannon is glued to a screen as soon as she gets up in the morning: I dont get dressed, sometimes I dont even draw the curtains. From nine Im on Twitter for about two hours. To her and her friends, social media is a part of normal life. I suspect that she glares at her mobile day and night, texting, diddling with apps or whatever, never really off duty.
Luckily we never had to cope with this technology or use all this meaningless jargon: personal development plans, aims and objectives, fulfilling goals, assessments. This lot are forever being marked, graded and tested. They even have to assess themselves. For me, it began with the national curriculum and hastened my exit from teaching, but theyre stuck with it, for life. My generation seemed to have far fewer rules and regulations. I may be looking back through rosy glasses, but the country seemed to us to be brightening up we saw opportunities and improvements ahead. The millennials are like rats caught in a trap, especially the poorer ones.
The 1950s and 60s had their downside. I suspect that art school was exceptional a colourful, liberal bubble in the middle of a drab, rather suffocating and mad world that we thought was about to be blown to hell. Most parents knew nothing of positive reinforcement: my father called me coconut bonce and pointy head, my friends father called her fish face. I dont remember any of our parents declaring their love out loud you had to guess what they felt. Looking at my own daughter and Rhiannon, and their girl friends now, they seem more physically confident and braver. I envy their openness. They can talk out loud about sex and periods, even in front of men.
I still find old age easier than youth. My life improved when I had my daughter, and went on improving, although its becoming more scary, what with general decrepitude, the approach of death, your parents and friends pegging out, leaving you on the frontline. I often wake up sick with fright, about anything and everything, I wish I had more energy but, on the whole, I dont envy the young.
Rhiannons life, compared with mine, seems very wobbly. She can never feel quite safe in her home or work; she is generally anxious and suffers from what her mum calls impending doom scenarios. This month Ive thought I had lung cancer, MS and a brain tumour, Rhiannon tells me. Im not surprised. Im only surprised by her and her friends general determination and resilience, and their lack of animosity towards people of my age. They confirm my belief that much of the antagonism between our generations has been whipped up by whoever labels us and lumps us all together as baby boomers or millennials in the first place. Those ridiculous terms are not helpful, and I can only wish Rhiannon and her friends luck. Theyre going to need it.