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Battle of the bulge

Will Wiles

The baby-boomers’ stuffberg is creating a crisis of storage

The edge of the city is often where changes in society are seen earliest and soonest. Space is less expensive, and less cherished, than in the town or the country, so it can be more flexible. The bumps and shifts beneath the surface show through there before anywhere else.

In George Orwell’s under-appreciated 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, the western fringe of London is used to show the changing face of the country as a whole. The narrator is seeking the deserted semi-rural idyll that he remembers from the turn of the century. But it is gone, replaced with suburbs and light industry, advertising and swimming pools. A new world has arisen, sweeping away the Edwardian age, and – barring destruction in the war that casts its shadow over the book – the rest of the country will soon follow.

Journey along Western Avenue today, and you’ll see another new world, one that sits on the fringes of any large British city. It often makes use of buildings erected for the 1930s consumer manufacturing that features in Coming Up For Air, or the blander distro sheds of later economic shifts. Here, at least, is one area where we lead Europe: the booming self-storage industry. According to the Self-Storage Association’s latest annual report, the UK accounts for almost half of Europe’s total self-storage capacity, with 22 facilities per million population. The industry is growing faster here than anywhere else, adding 1.7 million ft2 of space in 2016. And it’s no surprise that it catches the driver’s eye – roadside visibility is its main form of advertising.

The UK’s demographic profile resembles an anaconda swallowing a piglet

What’s behind the self-storage boom? The fact that British homes are small and getting smaller is surely no coincidence. In this respect self-storage begins to look like another hidden cost of the housing crisis, further undermining the evergreen idea that micro-housing might be some kind of solution.

But there must also be a social explanation, based on the way the population is changing and ageing. The UK’s demographic profile resembles an anaconda swallowing a piglet. The distinct bulge that the country is slowly digesting comprises the baby boomers, the generation born in the years immediately following the Second World War, whose passage into retirement is one of the strongest currents stirring our society and politics. And the Boomer Twilight has material and spatial consequences. Not only is this generation more numerous than the ones born before and after, it is also considerably richer, and enjoyed postwar consumer society to its fullest extent. Put more plainly, it acquired an awful lot of things, a great historical wave of possessions that is now poised over the heads of its children and grandchildren. Those things are also often quite durable, at least in comparison to the Ikea furniture and short-lived gadgetry that Millennials live with.

I’ve been experiencing this phenomenon first hand all year. In the spring, my grandmother passed away, and ever since my family has been dealing with the emotionally delicate job of clearing a home that has been with us for 90 years and four generations. At the same time, my retired parents have decided to downsize into a smaller house. Asked about the logistical questions involved, my mother said ‘we’ll just get a storage unit’, gladdening the heart of the SSAUK.

Whether it’s in our own home or reshaping our urban hinterlands, the Boomer Stuffberg looms for us all. Architects may find this a profitable moment to consider the problem of the boxplexes on the bypass. After a decade of ‘visionary’ proposals for shipping container housing, we may find that the best use of containers is containing things, not people.  

Will Wiles is a journalist and author


So far, my folks have not hired a storage unit – they have been unexpectedly ruthless. What of my writing desk, where I decided that writing was how I wanted to waste my life? (This piece is brought to you, as they all are, from a sheet of MDF supported by a filing cabinet and an Ikea trestle.) ‘The movers said it had woodworm,’ my mother said, bluntly. Nevertheless, I persisted. No good: ‘It’s been left outside ever since.’ I suspected foul play, but the body had disappeared long before I was on the scene to perform an independent post mortem. Anyway, it’s for the best. Where would I put it?