I get called old a lot. Like, a lot.
I’m 26, and recently got engaged to my girlfriend of seven years. Between us we have a flat, a dog, careers we’re passionate about and no less than eight separate appliances that make coffee. Oh, and debt. Lots of delicious, debilitating debt.
While my unshackled, Tinder-swiping friends still spend their weekends indulging in chemically enhanced all-nighters, my fiancée, dog and I are more likely to binge on a DVD box set than a cocaine wrap in a nightclub toilet. Early nights, farmers’ markets, contents insurance – call me Grandad all you like, I bloody love it. But then I never expected my mid-twenties to be anything else. You get older, you grow up. Right?
Not any more.
According to Beatriz Luna, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, adulthood does not start at 18 – or 21 for that matter. Instead, adolescence is adjudged to stretch right out into your mid-twenties and beyond, as the rising trend of avoiding marriage, parenthood and a career keeps the brain in a constant state of ‘Kidulthood’.
So while I’ve gone ahead and sentenced myself to a relationship, mortgage and job I enjoy (like a fool!), it seems everyone else is bathing in the fountain of youth and circumnavigating maturity altogether – merely by pretending they’re teenagers.
The question is: why? Sure, water fights and paintballing win out over sore joints and tax returns every time, but is becoming a grownup so cripplingly scary that it’s worth us mutating our own neurology? Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, believes the answer is found not in science, but culture.
“In society we find it very difficult to give a positive account of being an adult,” claims Prof Furedi. “Go and see any film – almost every marriage is a disaster. It’s always the young that are relatively pleasant characters, whereas the older ones are more cynical.
“Adults are seen as boring and insensitive and out of touch, therefore making that shift [to adulthood] is almost seen as a problem. So when people get to the point where they’re meant to act like adults, they actually react against it.”
If it was popular culture that gave us Peter Pan, perhaps it’s fitting that culture itself spawned a generation that loathes responsibility. The stats certainly reflect this, with the average age of marriage, home ownership and parenthood all shifting upwards by roughly a decade since the 1970s. Clearly, screaming children and utility bills aren’t all that popular in Neverland.
However, an oft-wheeled out excuse for society’s sluggishness to grow up in recent years is the sorry state of the economy and housing market. After all, pursuing independence is tricky if you’re still living with Mum at 38, with prospective girlfriends greeted with the Ninja Turtles duvet set you’ve had since age six.
Professor Furedi is not convinced. “The notion that somehow this generation is unusually poor compared to before is a myth, but it’s very rarely challenged,” he says. “I grew up in the 1970s, and when I was 28 none of us had a mortgage. When I was at university there were four or five of us living in a bedsit with an outside loo rather than living at home. It wasn’t that we were well off, instead the idea of living at home when you’re 20 or 21 was social death.”
So what is the answer? Will the sliding scale of ‘adulthood’ move to 30, 40 and beyond – until the human race is eventually eliminated as we’re all too busy jumping on bouncy castles to populate the Earth? Or will we finally embrace the pot plant, open that ISA and realise being a grownup isn’t actually a death sentence?
“At some point we have to find a way of valuing and celebrating independence and autonomous behaviour, rather than seeing it as something for the future,” says Professor Furedi. “But as long as adulthood is presented as this second or third best option, there will be a lot of resistance against growing up.”
Until such time, the Kidults among us will presumably get back to forgetting they’re old enough to know better – jabbing away at Fruit Ninja on their iPad, totally oblivious their soulmate just stepped off the bus, never to be seen again.
As for me, I’ll probably slow roast a lamb joint later and take the dog round the park, before scouring Amazon for yet another coffee machine. After all, age ain’t nothing but a number, and I really quite like being old.