London has always been a hard place to live, but in 2023, it’s almost impossible. Charlotte Doyle, a New Zealander currently living in London, explores why we keep heading there.
“You’re dreaming,” the letting agent tells me impatiently over the phone. “A one-bedroom for £1,500 per month is a needle in a haystack. And you’re not going to find a short let for that price. They’re normally double.” He hangs up.
My partner and I are trying to make it in London. Before leaving Aotearoa, I’d heard stories of people struggling to find flats here, but as I rode over on a wave of optimism, I didn’t believe the warnings. It turns out it isn’t easy securing somewhere to live that doesn’t require six months’ rent upfront while you’re still looking for work. Preferably there would also be windows and floors that don’t need replacing.
For many New Zealanders, living in London has been a rite of passage for as long as we can remember. We’ve grown up hearing our parents and older friends reminisce about dirt-cheap flights to Spain, Christmas in the snow, packing into the tube like sardines, and chowing down Sunday roasts at the pub. London holds a unique dominance in Aotearoa’s cultural, historical, economic, political and social fabric, unlike any other place in the world. And as the pandemic has faded into the background, an exodus of young New Zealanders are creating their own chapters overseas.
When you move to the other side of the world, you expect challenges, and London’s always been a tough city to live in. But as we approach the end of 2023, setting up a life in London feels nearly impossible. Post-pandemic London is experiencing an ongoing cost of living crisis, record high rents, an energy crisis, and economic downturn with low job creation. Cheap flights to Europe are harder to find, and in a year where climate change has amplified around the world, the days of flying to Portugal for a weekend feel numbered.
When the London dream is feeling so precarious, why are so many of us determined to keep it alive? And what are we figuring out in the process?
“Being pent up after three years of Covid, it would’ve taken a lot to dissuade us from coming over,” says Reuben, who moved to London at the start of October. “But I definitely think we were naive to the reality of living here.” In Aotearoa, he was a hospital doctor. Here, despite the close parallels between our healthcare systems and acute staffing shortages in the NHS, it will take nearly 13 months to register with the medical council after sitting multiple exams. It’s a hefty amount of time when you’re here on the three-year Youth Mobility Scheme visa.
Reuben’s hopes for a research post or temporary work in the meantime haven’t come to fruition, and even if successful, he’d likely earn about half of what he would if he’d stayed in Aotearoa. For doctors, London also has a reputation for being extremely stressful.
Friends in other sectors are having similar experiences, often spending months looking for work and applying for 20+ jobs without interviews. Unless you work in tech or finance, the job market is otherwise quiet, with the number of job vacancies in Britain falling to their lowest since July 2021. There’s even a drop in hiring in the legal industry, often seen as a safe bet for success in London. Public servants arriving here from Wellington are greeted by a civil service hiring freeze.
When I finally talk to a policy and strategy recruiter at one of the UK’s largest recruitment agencies, he tells me not to get disheartened: there are simply more New Zealanders and Australians arriving here than there are jobs. (Great.) He shares that, a year ago, he had a steady stream of jobs coming across his desk. Now it’s three or four in a week.
Housing is a real problem too. Jess, a lawyer, lived in Dublin from 2019 to 2022, then moved to London in April this year. She has a good income, Irish passport, renting history in Europe, salaried job and bank account, plus she speaks English. Yet despite all these advantages, finding a place to live when she arrived was a struggle. “This is a city of immigrants,” she says. “I fully recognise that I’m as privileged as you can get as an immigrant here, with all these tools available to me, and it’s still hard.”
Jess went to 17 viewings and sent out many more emails. “You travel so far across the city to see anything, get there and they don’t even have the keys to let you in,” she tells me. “Or it’s the tiniest apartment you’ve ever seen. Who is this city designed for?”
So why stay? As weeks start turning into months without making progress, Reuben describes adjusting to the realities of London: the hundreds of highly qualified people here, and the big difference between knowing London is expensive and actually seeing pounds come out of your account at the till. He’s had to seriously think about heading home, but doesn’t feel ready yet. The city has an amazing energy, and other New Zealanders here have been incredibly supportive.
Although London is not a smart career move, he says that’s not why you come here. “I’m definitely mindful that I chose this and can fly home at any point,” he says. “It’s such a privilege to be able to come here.”
Many New Zealanders I speak to are keen to stress that they’re comparatively lucky. We’re in London for life enrichment rather than out of necessity. Many of us have the freedoms and means to search for work while still meeting friends at the pub. And if it all falls apart, we have the safety net of returning home.
There’s also security in this particular rite of passage being a collective one: the large community of New Zealanders here have swept us into their roster of activities, offered IKEA couches in their lounges, and lugged our suitcases through tube stations. We navigate the turbulent waters armed with the knowledge they enthusiastically shared.
More often than not, what keeps us here is a sense of personal connection to this place, whether through family or friends, other New Zealanders, or enhanced access to aspects of our identities. In coming here you realise that relationships are everything: they not only support but enable experiences. Eva, a writer from New Zealand, landed her current job at a university’s chemistry department through a conversation with a New Zealander over a beer at the pub. “I have so many friends here from all over New Zealand,” she tells me over a flat white. “Everything I ever expected hasn’t turned out that way, such is the way with life, but there are so many benefits and lessons in it.”
The life experiences we’re accumulating give us a clarifying lens on who we are, our relationship to place, and how we can make a life with others. London is not a neutral place for New Zealanders. Like many people I know, I have British heritage with English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish ancestry. London also represents my immediate family history as the place where my father was born. Living here will help me understand my own heritage and how it continues to inform my relationships in Aotearoa. I’m hopeful that this experience will enable me to more thoughtfully contribute to my communities, especially when I return back home.
When you’re temporarily moving to the other side of the world, it can seem like you’re putting your ‘real’ life back home on pause. Instead, the realities of your life and character are thrown into sharp relief. “I’m learning a lot about what I value, and how you have to muster up the energy and confidence to fight for it,” Eva said. “Great things could happen.”