In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 25, Sarah Marie Hall argues that crises do not just impact on everyday life but also have a social life of their own.
This essay is about the social life of crisis—as lived and as having its own life—and how these are connected. Using a contemporary form of economic and social crisis, that of post-2008 austerity in the UK, I argue that crises are a time and space of socially relational change. Crises are relational because they shape various interpersonal experiences, and because they are always experienced in relation to other times and contexts, whether these are remembered or imagined. In what follows I firstly draw on ideas across feminist, social and cultural theory, to think about the social lives of austerity. In the second half of the piece, I reflect on empirical material in the form of personal life stories, before reaching some modest conclusions.
The Life of Austerity
After what has felt like a very long twelve years and counting, austerity in the UK remains a contentious issue to academics, activists and practitioners alike. This shapes the work we do as more than simply a backdrop, since it can also impact how our work is funded and supported, the people and groups we work with, and our own families and friends. This ongoing relevance, the continued social life of austerity, has also been highlighted by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Over a decade of austerity in the UK, characterised by job precarity, cuts to welfare entitlement, disinvestment in health, care and other types of social infrastructure, laid the ground for the devastating impacts of the global pandemic on those already socially and economically marginalised.
The continued life and legacies of austerity, as they impact upon everyday routines, relationships, and responsibilities, is one of the ways in which we can understand austerity as relational. Austerity is characterised by its compounding effects as felt in everyday life—austerity policies and impacts are layered and simultaneous. People are hit on multiple fronts, whether at the same time or at different times. Austerity is also a prolonged and violent condition; it strikes in the most intimate ways, on relationships, identities, embodied experiences, mental and physical health, as well as meshing with systemic violence via discrimination, exclusion and gaslighting. At the same time, austerity is temporally and relationally varied; it can ebb and flow into everyday lives, and it can feel unending. Austerity measures in the UK, after all, have not been reversed, nor are key areas of the public sector being invested in at necessary levels.
In this sense, austerity is not only lived as a crisis; it is a form of crisis with its own life. As with any life-course, including those of people, ideas and things, it is ‘encountered over and through time as well as space’ Austerity has a social life, it has a biography, which is threaded together with happenings and doings across other social times and spaces, such as prosperity, post-industrialisation, democratic change, neoliberalism and, of course, other crises and austerities. One of the ways to think about this threaded-togetherness, or the relational social lives of austerity, is as a biography.
Biographies of Austerity
The biographies of austerity in the UK require much more attention than the confines of this essay will allow, but it is the idea of austerity as having a biography, a social life, that I wish to press. In the decades preceding the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the introduction of austerity cuts in 2010, the welfare state had been steadily dismantled. There had been a significant lack of investment across many parts of the UK, in places that are now often uncritically termed ‘left-behind communities’, largely in Northern England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Further cuts seemed to take this approach to its inevitable end: the removal of an expectation of state support in everyday economic life.
Indeed, state withdrawal from the everyday lives of citizens is the essence of neoliberalism. This retrenchment is achieved through policies that are at once about responsibilising citizens for their own socio-economic conditions, whilst simultaneously being intimately present in almost all parts of everyday life. In recent years, austerity has become the mechanism by which these values become realised, through hostile immigration processes, pressurised health care services, punitive welfare policies, inadequate care structures, and so on. So much of this retrenchment relies on intimate details being readily revealed to the state. In previous work, I have referred to how an economic crisis is inevitably also a personal crisis, in that it ‘shape[s] personal lives, biographies, and futures’.
Like austerity policies in their creation, formulation and inauguration, the impacts of austerity can also overlap and coincide. Using the example of young people, this might include moving back home with parents or into precarious housing, struggling to find work or having to travel away from friends and family to secure employment, and alternative possibilities for intimate and family relations and compositions. In my own empirical research, which I touch on later, I have looked at how austerity shapes reproductive futures, as related to welfare retrenchment, indebtedness and care responsibilities, including whether or not people decide to have children. These overlapping impacts are also shaped or compounded by simultaneous divestments in state-sponsored public services, including mental health provision, social care and childcare, and increased responsibilisation of families for young people’s accommodation and wellbeing.
It is through such intimate effects that the social life of crisis, such as austerity, is made visible. This is knotted together with the idea of crises having their own social lives—they have a life-course, a biography, a livingness. To borrow from the language of feminist materialism, austerity can be understood to have a vitality, a liveliness, a life unto itself. It is active and present, purposeful and powerful. It is enlivened by its constant maintenance, by the infrastructures that support and usurp its existence, and it is defined as much by what it is as what it is not. There are a few austerity measures that were temporary and have been curtailed, and many others that remain. Austerity mutates and mobilises across places, societies and times, and is understood only according to social, spatial and temporal contexts.
It is here that the notion of ‘relational biographies’ is helpful, as a way to think through the social life of austerity. This notion has largely been adopted within sociological literatures to describe how biographies are fundamentally relational. As Heaphy et al. argue, relational biographies are ‘formed, rehearsed and reshaped in the interactions with (real and imagined) others over time’. Rather than life-courses being discussed as individualised transitions or trajectories, this emerging body of work argues that they are in fact intertwined within times, spaces and relationships, including the life-courses of other people, and with other crises.
Developing this idea, austerity also has a relational biography. It is formed, rehearsed and reshaped, to echo the words above, in how it lives in and through people, families and generations. Moreover, it lives in relation to other policies that have been developed at the same time, and indeed at different times, as well as alternative socio-economic regimes that are remembered and imagined. Below I describe how I have started to research the social life of crisis, by developing an innovative methodological technique.
Researching Relationally: Oral Histories and Futures
Oral Histories and Futures were developed as part of an ISRF-funded project exploring if and how austerity in the UK has shaped people’s decisions to have any or more children. They involve the recording of people’s experiences and opinions about their pasts, present and futures and, as the title suggests, involve innovating with traditional Oral History methods. Oral History as a method involves researching, documenting and preserving the unique life stories of often marginalised groups. I was interested in developing the method to also include present-day happenings and future ideals. And rather than drawing on older people’s narratives on events in hindsight, I focused on the experiences of those aged 18-45 who were experiencing the impacts of austerity in their everyday lives.
The Oral Histories and Futures I carried out involved encouraging participants to talk about personal biographies, expectations of having their own children, present circumstances and future imaginaries. I also incorporated a participatory component, asking participants to write a ‘note to their future self’, and to reflect on the activity and their responses to it. The method, as a sensitive and empowering approach, was developed specifically for this research because the topic—not having children in a time of austerity—is so personal, centred on biographies and experiences.
In 2020 I collected Oral Histories and Futures with twelve people living in the North East of England; a region that has seen significant changes under austerity and also has some of the lowest birth rates in the UK. Participants were aged between 18 and 45 (following wider literature on reproductive decision-making and fertility), and varied according to gender, race and ethnicity, age, faith, family composition, living arrangements and income.
In the reflective sections that follow I enliven the idea of the social life of crisis through the examples of two participants, Janine and Yusuf. Yusuf is 30 years old and is British Pakistani. He moved to the North East from Yorkshire two years ago, where he works as a mechanic and lives with his girlfriend of a year in a privately rented flat. He doesn’t have children but talked a lot about the family futures he imagined for himself. Janine is 33 years old, is white British, and has been living in the North East for a couple of years now. She lives in a rented flat with her partner and his best friend, and she is currently unemployed and supported by Universal Credit. She wants children at some point in the future but talked a lot about the feasibility of this.
There are three points I wish to briefly highlight with the support of vignettes from Yusuf and Janine as ways of thinking through the social life of austerity: austerity as biography, lives in place, and future social lives.
Austerity as Biography
Having already established austerity as having its own biography, in this section I reveal how that biography is in turn lived through the biographies of people. Yusuf, for example, spoke about how the instabilities he currently faces around work are entwined as much with the socio-economic conditions of austerity as with his own life-course biography; it is part of who he is, is being and is becoming:
What worries me, saying is, you know the financial stability? Like the job that I do at the present, there’s no fixed hours, but it’s all like, work-wise, based on you know, very ad hoc servicing […]. Like, there’s no job security or stability… there’s not enough trade anymore like there used to be years ago… And that’s what worries me, like, if I was to have kids now… how would I get that much money where I’m able, you know, to do all of that? That’s what I worry about, like it’s impossible or not possible, what should I do?
For Yusuf, the impacts of austerity were mainly felt through a lack of work opportunities where he currently lives, the expense of everyday living, and the reduced value of his skills as a mechanic. He later talked about how one used to be able to ‘rely on job security, where you knew your job is there for life’. This also reveals the need to think about the life of austerity within neoliberal regimes. Employment opportunities and place-based industries, as in many other parts of Northern England, had been hit hard by years of a lack of local investment, that culminate into multi-faceted forms of insecurity and uncertainty for Yusuf. This job insecurity is then linked to being able to afford to have children as an important part of his future biography.
Janine also described changes under austerity, particularly to welfare and housing allowance, as part of her own biography; namely the logistic impossibilities of having a child. Where Yusuf talked about stability, Janine talked about feasibility. For her, this was a complex mix of her living situation and relationship (living in her partner’s rented house and with his best friend), and her income (relying solely on state benefits):
We just haven’t got to that point yet in our lives. Well, he’s a bit older than me actually, so he probably is, but logistically it’s not feasible at the moment anyway because of where we’re living.
Here Janine talks about conflicting ‘points’ in her and her partner’s lives, with a strong sense of how relational biographies need not always be harmonious. She describes being of the age when many people have children, in contrast to her older partner, but logistically, feasibly, not being able to do so. The reasons for this relate to their living situation and lack of financial security. Like Yusuf, here the life-course of austerity is mirrored by Janine’s relational biographies in austerity.
Lives in Place
I now consider how austerity is situated in lives and in place. Yusuf talked a lot about how he moved away from his family and the town where he grew up. This was a place that, for him, was characterised by deprivation. These socio-economic conditions became further entrenched over years of austerity cuts to public services. Memories of place were knotted together with familial and intergenerational legacies, illustrating the value of thinking about biographies, place, and time relationally:
My mother, my family house, like the deprivation and poverty I was brought up in. You know, my mother never worked. My dad did work, but my mum, she never worked, […] I haven’t taken that route, in terms of like, to go up and claim, or to ask for assistance and help. I just want to make enough money in my job, my trade, where I’m able to pay out what I need to pay out and live a good life with my girl. That’s all I want at the end of the day.
Janine talked in a similar way about upbringing, place and family as having shaped her experiences in austerity, and the biography of austerity, but this played out somewhat differently to Yusuf. Janine’s mum raised her as a single parent, with Janine’s maternal grandmother for support. She spoke about how this instilled in her the need to be financially independent, and she recalls this when describing her current situation. Her social life is relational to place, time and people, and helps to narrate the social life of austerity:
I grew up on the South Coast with her [mum]… I was sort of quite eager to leave that, on my own—I’m quite independent, wanted to just be like sort of self-sufficient, adult, like independent sort of, make my own way in life really. Wanted to, you know, didn’t want to be dependent on my mum. Like, prove that I could survive myself. So with that, I was eager to live just, yeah, live on my own I suppose as soon as I could. So I moved out 19, to then live with my partner at the time. And then we also relocated at that point, that was the first time I’ve been straight out of the area… for a new job I found at the time.
She later explained how this drive to be independent led her to overwork and burnout. Her mental health deteriorated, her relationships broke down and she lost her job. She described how she claims benefits as a last resort—‘I had no choice; it was that or be on the street’.
What these contrasting examples of Yusuf and Janine help to illustrate is that austerity interjects differently into social lives that are situated in time and space, and develops its own social life as emplaced.
Future Social Lives
The third theme I want to discuss is prospective social lives of austerity; how austerity shapes future imaginaries. This is where the social life of austerity policies can be seen to outlast their implementation. Austerity cuts are not momentary, but bleed into many elements of everyday lives and futures.
For Yusuf, this combination of biographies in austerity culminates in a particular future vision:
I don’t want to go to the welfare, you know, the government to claim benefits to bring up a child. I want to work and provide for him so he can learn himself, in terms of how to make money and how to live a good life. Working money, working for it, there’s more honour, there’s more, […] respect and more dignity with work and pride. […] I have some good high aspirations and hopes that one day I will have a child, with my own money, and bring him up. He will learn one day, d’you know, to make money his way. And then when me and my wife, we get old, he’ll look after us. That’s all I want.
This extract is full of themes to explore—not all of which I can unpack here. In particular, Yusuf talks quite literally about having a child as his future biography, biologically and morally; imbuing society and another human being with his ethos on life, work and family that he developed while growing up as a young adult in austerity.
For Janine, the focus of future social lives was about her rebuilding her life. This was made especially difficult by the inaccessibility of the housing market, and the fact that benefits are increasingly insecure and do not provide enough to enable her to save:
I’d love to be, obviously, like anyone really, on the property ladder. […] Unfortunately that didn’t really come off, because I got into debt and that was that. But now I’ve sort of got over that, sort of, hopefully can begin to start saving now. But later on in life than I wanted. […] I almost lost the last three years of my life, which I really regret, through all the issues I’ve spent sorting out. So I’ve barely been out and had a social life in that time, lived in that time. So I now feel like having to make up for lost time.
The language Janine uses here provided the inspiration for this essay; where she talks of how she has barely ‘had a social life’ or ‘lived’ during a time of personal and economic crisis. While time may continue during crises, a sense of living may not. Biographies are not simply driven forwards; they contain much more complex temporalities. For Janine, the future is about recapturing what she calls ‘lost time’. This is an apt reminder that the biography of austerity can be more than ‘real’; it can live through people in their hopes and dreams for the future.
To Be Continued?
If social lives of austerity and social lives in austerity are so closely interrelated, where does that thinking take us? How can we avoid thinking teleologically about biographies, when the next logical place to take this thinking is the future? The obvious response would seem to be method. To develop ways to capture the nuances of biographies as temporal, social, spatial and, of course, relational. And for such techniques to allow for the biographies of economy and people to be simultaneously reckoned-with. The Oral Histories and Futures method was my attempt at doing just that and is a technique I am developing in my current research.
Furthermore, writing this essay in early 2022 has coincided with widespread concerns about a cost-of-living crisis in the UK; reflecting on this illustrates my argument. The cost-of-living crisis is not a new crisis. It is a crisis with a social life; the groundwork was laid progressively and systematically over twelve years of austerity cuts, a period over which inequality in the UK has widened to record levels. It is a crisis in social life, fundamentally shaping the things that people can do, afford and dream about. Rather than having a beginning or an end, it has a relational biography that has been formed, rehearsed and reshaped, and that will likely continue for many years to come.
 See Sarah Marie Hall, ‘Social Reproduction as Social Infrastructure’, Soundings 76, no. 1 (2020): 82–94 and Ruth Pearson, R. (2019) ‘A feminist analysis of neoliberalism and austerity policies in the UK’, Soundings 71 (2019): 28–39.
 Emma Dowling, ‘Caring in Times of a Global Pandemic: Introduction’, Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 46, no. 4 (2021): 7–30.
 See Sarah Marie Hall, ‘A Very Personal Crisis: Family Fragilities and Everyday Conjunctures within Lived Experiences of Austerity’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 44, no. 3 (2019): 479–492 and Esther Hitchen, ‘Living and feeling the austere’, New Formations 87 (2016): 102–118.
 Ruth Raynor, ‘Intervention—Changing the question from “the end of austerity?” to “what ends in austerity?”’, Antipode Online, 19 November 2018, available at: https://antipodefoundation.org/2018/11/19/what-ends-in-austerity/ (accessed 19th December 2018).
 Pearson, ‘A feminist analysis of neoliberalism and austerity policies in the UK’.
 Sarah Marie Hall, (2019) ‘Relational biographies in times of austerity: family, home and care’, in: E. Jupp, S. Bowlby, J. Franklin, and S.M. Hall (eds.), The New Politics of Home: Housing, Gender and Care in Times of Crisis (Bristol 2019: Policy Press): 63–85, 65.
 Hall, ‘A Very Personal Crisis’, 2.
 See e.g. Mark Davis and Laura Cartwright, ‘“Deferred lives”: money, debt and the financialised futures of young temporary workers’, in M. Featherstone (ed.), The Sociology of Debt (Bristol 2019: Policy Press): 91–118; Sander van Lanen, ‘Imagining a future in the austerity city: Anticipated futures and the formation of neoliberal subjectivities of youth in Ireland’, EPA: Economy and Space 51, no. 8 (2021): 2033–2049; and Eleanor Wilkinson, ‘Never after? Queer temporalities and the politics of non-reproduction’, Gender, Place & Culture 27, no. 5 (2020): 660–676.
 Sarah Marie Hall, ‘Reproduction, the life-course and vital conjunctures in austerity, UK’, Medical Anthropology (2021), DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2021.1951261.
 See Jupp et al. (eds.), The New Politics of Home: Housing, Gender and Care in Times of Crisis.
 Leah Bassel and Akwugo Emejulu, Minority women and austerity: Survival and resistance in France and Britain (Bristol 2017: Policy Press).
 Brian Heaphy, Carol Smart and Anna Einarsdottir, Same Sex Marriages: New Generations, New Relationships (Basingstoke 2013: Palgrave MacMillan), 61.
 Hall, ‘Relational biographies in times of austerity’.
 Sarah Marie Hall and Amy Barron, ‘Oral Histories and Futures How to Guide’, in A. Barron, A.L. Browne, U. Ehgartner, S.M. Hall, L. Pottinger and L. Ritson (eds.), Methods for Change: Impactful Social Science Methodologies for 21st Century Problems (Manchester 2021: ASPECT and University of Manchester): 50–57.
SARAH MARIE HALL
Sarah Marie Hall is Reader in Human Geography at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research sits in the broad field of geographical feminist political economy: understanding how socio-economic processes are shaped by gender relations, lived experience and social difference. From 2012-2015 Sarah held a Hallsworth Research Fellowship in Political Economy (2012-2015) during which time she carried out the Everyday Austerity project, and is currently working on a manuscript on this research.