Feeling the Squeeze: Thinking Psychosocially about Low-to-Middle Income Families in Austerity

Feeling the Squeeze: Thinking Psychosocially about Low-to-Middle Income Families in Austerity

Alison Stenning

In her first statement as Prime Minister, Theresa May sympathised with those ‘ordinary’ families who ‘just about manage’, with mortgages, the cost of living, and job insecurity, recognising these families’ struggle for control over their lives. In this way, the ‘jams’ became the new ‘squeezed middle’. There is no doubt that ‘jams’ and ‘the squeezed middle’ are rhetorical devices, but this doesn’t mean we can dismiss them – or the experiences of the low-to-middle income families they represent. Organisations such as The Policy Exchange and the Resolution Foundation suggest that between a third and a half of all working households fit their differing definitions of this group. Whilst this might suggest that it is a category too large to be of any analytic purpose, it also suggests that the experiences described affect many of us in our everyday lives. The recurrence of devices to name this group is not just political rhetoric; it reflects an attempt to recognise an experience of contemporary life in Britain marked by a particular set of relations, emotions and imaginations. And, unlike the rhetorical devices of the 1980s and 1990s, these categories are not about aspiration, but about a squeeze.

At the heart of all the descriptions of this category is the sense that these are families who are hard working, managing, doing their best. There is clearly a moral dimension to this: these families are deserving and sensible. But if we put this dimension to one side for a moment, we can think about what it might mean, day in day out, to hold in mind competing demands for our time, our money, our energy. What the act of ‘just about managing’ – the ‘just about’ is very important – might involve, emotionally and materially.

This short piece explores these themes through research, based in a coastal community in the north east of England, which sought to think psychosocially (Redman 2016) about the experiences of austerity within a small group of low-to-middle income families. All of them identified as part of the ‘squeezed middle’ (with an equivalised working-age household income of less than £30,000). The aim was to think not just about what was happening to these families socially or materially, but also about what kinds of psychic work were required to negotiate austerity, how austerity resonated with family values, histories and relationships, and what sort of affective atmospheres were created in the spaces of everyday austerity (Hitchen 2016).

Having to ‘manage’ takes its toll and can impact quality of life, physical and mental health, and family relationships. Allied to the sense of struggle and squeeze is a strong sense of threat and alarm. Whether these are short-term worries about paying bills or getting to school pick-up on time, for example, or longer-term questions about job security or house purchases, they create vigilance in everyday life that can be difficult to live with and can reverberate around families and communities. These threats connect to the idea that the ‘squeezed middle’ are living on the edge, that the line between managing and not managing is very thin. Central to most descriptions of this group is the idea that there is very little leeway, very little spare capacity – emotional, financial, familial – to cope with worsening circumstances. Major events (such as job loss, relationship breakdown, ill health) or more minor ones (such as mounting debt, car breakdowns, or home repairs) can mean that managing is no longer possible.

For the families in my research, the austerity years have been marked by struggles. The financial crisis permeated all the interviews, as an atmosphere of uncertainty and change that encroached intimately into everyday social and emotional geographies. For some, the headlines of austerity were felt very personally. To take just a few examples, my small group of participants had been directly affected by the banking crisis and bank closures, the housebuilding slump, housing market stagnation, funding squeezes and contract withdrawal in the charitable sector, and the rationalisation of local authority social and childcare services. These crises were felt in redundancy, loss of savings, stressful working environments, the material deterioration of homes, and in the reshaping of families’ everyday relationships.

But it was not just the headlines that brought crises into my participants’ homes. In dozens of little ways, austerity shaped the intricate, intimate spaces of everyday life. The almost unnoticeable changes in everyday prices, in atmospheres at work, in the lives of friends and family, created an unease that reverberated through many conversations. These small shifts led to acts or gestures intended to make sense of, negotiate and mitigate the effects of the squeeze. These involved buying more from supermarket ‘basics’ ranges, only filling up at petrol stations with the lowest prices, wearing more secondhand clothes, or having fewer family days out. The attention and energy required for all these small acts was evidenced, throughout almost all interviews, by the need to be ‘careful’ and ‘aware’, to ‘keep track’ and ‘plan’. In a way, this constant vigilance was an attempt to avoid or preempt crisis, but its effect was also that families lived with a constant pressure to budget, scale back, and try to stay in control. These acts made for an everyday life that couldn’t be taken for granted. The continuity of being, of just about managing, demanded hard work, alongside the work of employment and care. An attention to detail, to not making the easiest choice, demanded time, energy, patience, commitment, and a constancy that produced a fatigue and a weariness.

One of the particular ways in which the squeeze is felt, and one of the particular interests of this project, is in the invocation, challenge, remaking, and imagining of everyday relationships, within and beyond the family. Borrowing from ideas from the British object relations school (Gomez 1997), we can think about these relationships, with intimate and imagined others, as the environment within which we find ways of going on being; they are both resources for and the terrain of our negotiations with austerity.

As resources, material and emotional solidarities, amongst family and friends, give support in crises, large and small. Not only do budget recommendations, second-hand clothes, money-off vouchers, or babysitting favours travel frequently within these relationships, but so too do ideas of being in it together, of empathy and shared emotions, of working out dilemmas collectively, of common values. In different ways, each of my participants drew on these ideas of community and solidarity, real and imagined, to ease their experience of austerity; their struggles were more bearable knowing their friends were experiencing something similar. Imagined family futures also acted as a resource for getting by; difficult choices about priorities in the present were validated by hopes for a different future, either for the family as a whole or, particularly, for children, whose educational, creative, or social needs were prioritised in the hope that their futures wouldn’t be jeopardised. In a way that brought both of these spaces together, two of my participants created moments of humour, hope and the future in fantasies of winning the lottery together.

As the terrain of everyday austerity, relationships were frequently challenged, broken, and remade. In some instances, acts like buying differently or making new choices created dissonance and conflict, in participants themselves and with their partners and their families. One partner, for example, was much more prepared to use second-hand goods, or no-brand products; or the other pushed to postpone holidays and save, to the disappointment of children. Moments of crisis brought conflicting values to the fore, often rooted in diverse family histories of money, but also often challenged my participants to make sense of themselves in different ways, to recognise their strong attachments to particular forms of consumption, for example. Other conflicts arose within wider family and friendship networks as the demands of ‘just about managing’ focused energy on the most immediate family, at the expense of parents, grandparents, aunts, and old friends who no longer received spare care or cash. Frustrations emerged with friends and family whose different values or lack of empathy were revealed by the experiences of austerity such that, alongside the solidarity experienced when struggles were shared, many participants expressed anger and sadness with those who could not empathise. Participants had withdrawn from relationships with those who couldn’t see their struggles and couldn’t support them. Others drew attention to the loss of relationships to austerity-related attrition. The weariness invoked by ‘just about managing’ led participants to stop making phone calls; tight budgets eroded the possibility of reciprocity in a time of particular need, and often meant that days or evenings out, times together, were foregone.

The experiences of low-to-middle income families in austerity and the threat of crises, large and small, are felt and negotiated psychosocially and in the relationships that form our everyday environments, through, amongst others, hope, weariness, patience, anger, anxiety and desire. Thinking about the relations, emotions and imaginations that animate everyday life for these families leads us to conclude that, for all the questions that can be raised about the rhetorical use of ‘jams’ or the ‘squeezed middle’, this atmosphere of squeeze raises urgent concerns about what life in austerity Britain feels like for millions of families.

Gomez, L., 1997, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London.


Alison Stenning is Professor of Social and Economic Geography at Newcastle University. Her research has increasingly been focused around domestic, emotional, embodied and psychosocial geographies, with a particular emphasis on the experience of living with austerity. She blogs here