London is often thought of as the epicentre of the UK for culture, history, career prospects, food, nightlife, and more. It’s the city where you can have your cake and eat it too (if you can first afford the cake). It is also the destination for roughly a third of UK university graduates each year. So much so, that other UK cities and regions are reported to be suffering a “brain drain” as young talent flocks to the capital.
Moving to London as your first big move outside the safety of university can be a daunting prospect. So, is it really worth it? What challenges are you likely to face when you arrive? Is it graduate friendly? And, more importantly, is the tube really as complex as the locals make it out to be?
As a fresh international graduate from the University of Edinburgh, I was always pretty sure I would make the big move to London. This was further influenced by the fact that my entire university network was planning to do the same thing. Across multiple sectors from finance to creative arts and heritage management, we all seemed to agree that London was the most logical place to seek out the start of our careers. Now that I have completed the move, I have some insights on the process.
When it comes to accommodation, it really is as competitive as they say. I have been fortunate enough to have been offered a temporary room to rent with a family friend of my partner. However, as we look for a permanent living arrangement, it is common for our emails regarding flats posted early in the morning to be ignored with the rental ad filled by the evening of the same day.
Graduates are generally going to be looking for one-bedroom properties or rooms within a house share and the Greater London Authority (using data from Zoopla) found that the number of one-bedroom rentals available below £1,500 fell from 2,066 in July 2022 to 1,146 in July 2023. This means that there is more competition for fewer properties. Amanda Greene, director of residential lettings at Savills told the Evening Standard that every property on the mainstream market draws as many as “20 interested parties.” Greene says “speed is key” and, to secure a flat, you must be sure you’re ready to sign the same day (or very near to) and potentially without an in-person viewing if you’re truly scarce for time. She also recommends:
- Signing up to property alerts and choose a practice agent to help you find new ‘hidden’ properties.
- Committing to a longer tenancy if you can.
- Having all of your guarantor information as well as your employment, rental and financial history ready to go.
- Providing a biographic summary of those who will be living in the property and why you would make good tenants.
Many graduates choose to find accommodation in house shares, and sites such as SpareRoom advertise rooms available for rent in London. This option is generally cheaper than renting a one-bedroom flat and is relatively slower paced as landlords are more concerned about a good fit.
As for location, the more flexible you are the more likely you are to find a (relatively) affordable flat. RentLondonFlat advises on the twelve cheapest areas to rent in London and, while some may seem further out, most places are no more than a 40–50-minute tube journey from Central London.
When discussing the price of rent, it again has exceeded my expectations and my definition of ‘lots of space’ is becoming increasingly cynical. The Greater London Authority (GLA) utilised data from HomeLet and found that, as of August 2023, Londoners agreeing to new tenancies spent 37.3% of their gross income on average. In comparison, the national average hovers at around 31.9%. The average asking price for a new tenancy (according to data from Rightmove utilised by the GLA) was found to be £2,567 as of August 2023. In comparison, as of April 2023, the average for the rest of the UK was about £1,190.
There is no way around this fact and moving to London does mean sacrificing more expendable income for less than in cities such as Manchester and Leeds, for example. This is one of the biggest considerations when determining if moving to London is the right choice.
Cost of Living
Beyond more expensive housing costs, the cost of living in London is considerably higher than the rest of the UK – up to 58% more. In fact, it is the fourth most expensive city in the world as of June 2023. This will become clear when you gasp in horror at the £5.80 price of an Amstel pint and balk at the £14 price of a trendy salad bowl (based on true events). Gym memberships and other subscriptions follow this general trend: however budget gyms like Pure Gym and The Gym Group offer competitive rates that are relatively consistent around the UK.
However, groceries remain relatively standard throughout the UK and, in terms of basic goods, there is no massive increase. GradTouch has even found that the general price of eating out remains similar between Manchester and London, with the average meal costing £12 and £15 respectively.
The tube/public transportation has proved to be the most unexpected cost of my move. While the price is currently capped at £12 a day, it adds up to a maximum of £84 pounds a week. This can be a huge blow to an already tight budget. To keep costs low, I have invested in a bike which has halved my commute time and, in the long term, will save me money. However, if you do have to rely on the tube/public transportation there are a couple of cost saving tips:
- Buy an oyster card! Journeys in Central London (zone 1) are more than 50% cheaper. You can also connect your railcard to your oyster card (in a station via attending) and pay one third of the price on off peak travel.
- Travel off peak where you can (prices are higher in peak times).
- Buses (while often longer travel times) are cheaper than the tube.
I have also found that this high cost of living is somewhat countered by the sheer number of free or cheap events available. So far, I have sampled boxing, yoga, theatre, swimming, and more, all for free or under £4. Sites like Eventbrite advertise the latest offers and it’s a great way to get out and explore the city on a budget. In addition, taking advantage of the public parks, and free museums/galleries means you do get quality when it comes to what you pay for living here.
Job hunting in London is a mixed bag. It is already clear that recent graduates are facing a tough job market with spots becoming more competitive and wages faltering behind the cost-of-living crisis. Bloomberg UK utilised data from Reed Recruitment and found a 40% decrease in available grad-friendly positions in 2023 when compared to data from 2018. In London specifically, Bloomberg UK found a 50% decline in job postings in the last five years. In addition, it also found that the pay for these roles has declined significantly over the past 18 months. This is also further influenced by a host of factors that should not be ignored such as socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, degree classification, and more. In London, as with anywhere, finding a job is still a numbers game. StandOutCV found that graduates on average apply for up to 29 graduate schemes/jobs before finding success. The wealth of opportunities available in London does make this seem possible, even on the lower end of the scale, of the number of jobs you could apply for. It is well suited for those who enjoy a fast-paced market.
While graduate roles are highly competitive, entry level positions have so far offered me my best chance at securing a job. Kings College London cites a few insights on entry level jobs compared to graduate schemes. For one, entry level grad roles tend to pay less and do not contain the kind of structured training programs offered by graduate schemes. Equally, entry level applications generally have a less labour-intensive application process where graduate schemes often require several rounds of testing, interviews, and assessment centres. Entry level jobs are also posted year-round and have start dates close to the application deadline where graduate schemes are largely advertised in September or January of the previous year. University College London (UCL) also states that entry level positions offer a great way to enter industries such as charities and media where more structured graduate schemes do not exist. A junior role in which it takes longer to climb the career ladder may seem unappealing when compared to a graduate scheme with a clear trajectory but, when breaking into the job market, they are certainly worth considering.
Another crucial benefit to job hunting in London is the availability of networking opportunities. This is a city where everyone intermingles and taking advantage of this is a great way to generate leads. In addition, according to a survey by Reed, nearly 50% of all job vacancies in the UK are unadvertised. This further highlights the necessity of leveraging networking in seeking out these hidden jobs. I have attended a free boxing class, for example, where after casually mentioning I was seeking employment, three people I had just met leaped to try to find contacts who could potentially help me. These kinds of offers have led to some very promising leads or, at the very least, some great advice.
With all these considerations, you may wonder how London compares to the rest of the job market in the UK. Bloomberg UK recommends looking outside of London to secure a viable graduate job. Current trends show an increasing shift in graduates seeking positions outside of London where there is less competition and a cheaper cost of living. Universities UK also echo this advice. However, the Guardian utilised research and found that while quality of life is generally better away from the capital, job prospects are more limited.
Entering the London job market does offer exciting and fast-moving prospects, especially if you work in less traditional industries. It allows for networking and for opportunities outside of the normal route of graduate employment. However, it is a competitive market and requires staying on top of job postings and expanding where you look for employment.
To sum up, London is an exciting dynamic city for post-university life, however graduates should not exclude other wonderful cities in the UK when considering their prospects. The balance of quality of life, the job market, cost of living, and intensity of life in London, should all be carefully considered. Exciting jobs exist everywhere and you’re likely to face less competition is cities where there is a real need for new talent. If you’re willing to carve out a space for yourself, however, London does offer a great place to start your career (and budgeting skills).