international analysis and commentary

London: a unique pole of attraction and its many challenges


With a population of around 8 million, London is the largest city in the European Union. By some measures it is also the most successful. It is an economic powerhouse that hosts the world’s foremost financial and insurance markets. It also boasts 43 universities, which is the highest concentration of higher education anywhere in Europe. In terms of music, fashion, publishing, the visual arts and even gastronomy, it stands out from European rivals in the sheer quantity and variety in its offer.

There is little wonder then that London is a magnet for the continent’s young people, who are drawn to the city for its unparalleled opportunities. While other European cities continue to languish in the doldrums of recession and unemployment, the British capital – relatively isolated from the economic downturn – has become an Eldorado of sorts for Europe’s youth.

London has long been a city of arrival, a destination for immigrants from all over the world. In the post-war period, the majority of new Londoners came from Commonwealth countries. Their legacy is the multicultural London of today, which has become one of the most diverse cities on the planet. If 44% of the city’s population belongs to an ethnic minority, the figure rises to 80% among students in London’s inner-city schools. Higher birth rates among second and third generation immigrant families, coupled with a steady flow of new arrivals into the city, have boosted its population, which last year reached a record high. 

London’s population is also very young: 25% of its inhabitants are aged between 25 and 34. The youthful and well-educated workforce (60% have a university degree) helps fuel further growth in the urban economy. While the city’s concentration of international talent is good for business and for London’s international brand, as the city grows inequality does as well.

The consequence is that some sectors of the urban population get left behind in terms of jobs, salaries and access to basic services, such as healthcare and housing. To some extent the city has become a victim of its own success: London is seen as a safe-haven investment for global elites. The vast sums spent by the super-rich have pushed property prices to stratospheric levels, pricing locals out of the housing market and pushing key service workers further out towards the city’s periphery. As a result London’s chronic housing shortage (not enough homes are being built) threatens to turn into a full-blown crisis. Tensions around this issue are already having political repercussions.

Between 2004 and 2008 almost half a million Polish workers immigrated to the city, as the United Kingdom was one of the few EU member states (alongside Ireland and Sweden) not to apply temporary restrictions on labor movement. Polish workers – and, to a lesser extent, migrants from the other EU10 countries – mostly found manual or low-paid employment. This led to resentment from some sectors of London’s white working-class that complained of wage deflation and intense competition for public services. Such fears fuel the growing popularity of UKIP, a euroskeptic, and anti-immigration party.

Interestingly, UKIP has received a certain degree of support from London’s ethnic minority communities: the descendants of post-war migrants from former British colonies. They often have a strong sense of British identity and see migration from European countries as an economic and cultural threat. UKIP has tried – not entirely successfully – to frame the debate in such terms. It attempts to make a distinction between earlier migration from Commonwealth countries, which it claims to celebrate, and the more recent migration under European freedom of movement laws, which it rejects as overwhelming and a threat to British values.

Despite the emotional rhetoric that surrounds the issue of EU immigration, there has been very little political discourse about the more recent wave of young economic exiles from Europe’s Mediterranean. Pushed by perennially high youth unemployment in their countries of origin and pulled by London’s promise of opportunity, young workers from Spain, Italy and Greece have mostly replaced the once-familiar Polish face of the capital’s vast service economy. These immigrants are, on average, younger and better educated than their Eastern European counterparts from a few years prior but the shortage of high-skilled employment in London’s job market means that many end up working in catering, hotels and retail.

Nevertheless, the British public does, on the whole, identify them conceptually as immigrants. And they are not framed as a competitive threat to the country’s traditional working class. The different attitude reflects, to some extent, their countries of origin, which have been EU member-states for longer and are seen as economic equals to the UK. Moreover, the Southern European immigrants do not tend to settle permanently in London – preferring to work for a few years before returning home – and therefore do not make much use of public services.

Overall, London has been remarkably successful at accommodating its different immigrant groups and providing employment opportunities for its young people. There is very little de facto segregation of the type seen in large, multi-ethnic cities in the United States. London’s biggest challenge, however, is how to combat inequality and social exclusion of its young people. The London riots of 2011 drew public attention to the level of disillusionment and despair among some of the city’s youth. Although most of the violence occurred in the city’s more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, this was more a consequence of the economic situation of its inhabitants than a sign of specifically ethnic tensions.

In the past few years, however, a number of young Muslims from London have travelled abroad to join the Islamic State. This has, of course, led to concerns about increasing radicalization within the Muslim community and the British government has attempted to improve anti-radicalization initiatives. An estimated 500 British Muslims are currently fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Although this number is proportionally smaller than French and Belgian jihadists, it has undoubtedly contributed to increased ethnic tensions in certain areas of the city, where far-right movements seek to capitalize on local fears.

Despite its myriad problems, however, it is unlikely that London will lose its pre-eminent position as a highly attractive hub in the near future. Its successful economy allows it to offer excellent employment opportunities for young people, who will continue to be drawn to the city regardless of its high cost of living, limited public services and lack of housing. Students and young people in the early stages of their career turn to creative and alternative ways of living to keep costs down, such as house shares or formalized squatting. The biggest challenge remains for those who seek to settle permanently in the city, especially with a family.

In this respect things are beginning to change. For example, a significant proportion of the Polish immigrants who arrived after 2004 have returned home, lured by increased opportunities in Poland – which escaped the recession entirely – and the prospect of an easier, more comfortable life. The British are beginning to leave also. Last year a record number of 30- to 39- year-olds left the capital to seek a more affordable life in England’s northern cities; 25% more than the number four years ago.

The future for London’s youth, whether British-born or recently arrived, depends on the ability of municipal and national authorities to stem the tide of social exclusion by providing more affordable housing and ultimately moving beyond London’s status as a home for deracinated billionaires. With regards to the former, there are indications that the housing problem is being taken seriously. As for the latter, we should not expect things to change anytime soon. At the moment London’s economy continues to grow and so too will its allure for the young. We should not be too surprised, however, if we witness a repeat performance of the 2011 riots in the years to come.