When do we become adults? Or more to the point, when should we become adults?
This was the question posed by a recent article lambasting millennials for clinging to the lifestyles of their twenties rather than growing up, moving on, and settling down.
Charlie Peters, writing for Mail Plus in the tradition that gave us the phrases ‘geriatric millennial’ and ‘adulting’, attacks his “older friends” (presumably now “former friends”) for their stubborn insistence on staying in London:
“That doesn’t mean transitioning into the next stage of life is impossible. It’s in their reach, but moving out of the trendy London suburbs and chucking fleeting fun for the permanence of maturity befitting of their age just doesn’t appeal.”
Speaking as a man in his (early) thirties who keeps writing about how badly he wants the nightclubs to reopen, I take issue with the author’s oddly aesthetic definition of adulthood. Rather than insisting that growing up means conforming to a certain pattern of living, I much prefer the definition offered here of adulthood as “a balancing point between when you stop depending on other people, and become the person other people can depend on”.
It isn’t obvious that working hard, honouring your obligations, and taking care of those you care about is incompatible with playing beer pong. Nor does it seem too terrible that the different stages of life are lengthening as we live longer and healthier lives.
However, there’s a deeper problem with the attitudes underpinning that article, and it ties closely in to the fraught Conservative debate around planning reform.
Right-wingers are quite correct to be concerned about delayed family formation in Western societies. It is fuelling Britain’s demographic crisis and, in narrow electoral terms, retarding the processes that usually help to convert young voters to the right as they age.
But people respond to their material circumstances. They can’t simply be ordered about for the good of the economy. This used to be so widely accepted on the free-market right as to be almost a truism, perhaps best summed up in 2010 by EconStories: “People aren’t chess men you move on a board at your whim; Their dreams and desires ignored…”
It is ridiculous, and futile, to demand that today’s thirty-somethings forsake so much of what is best in their lives, in order to shoehorn them into a mould cast in their parents’ image, but accessible only by demanding sacrifices their parents didn’t have to make. There is no guarantee that moving a long way from your career, your friends, your haunts, and your hobbies will actually deliver “a more rounded life”.
Yet this is precisely the solution demanded by Conservative opponents of planning reform. The ur-example is Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, whose vision for solving the housing crisis is to mandate building more in the North in the hope of forcing people to move there as part of ‘levelling up’. Those who insist on trying to live where their roots are will, presumably, have to wait for an inevitably highly restricted number of ‘affordable’ – i.e. council or housing association – properties.
Setting aside for one moment any moral objection to this slightly ‘Hell or Connaught’ attitude towards young southerners and Londoners, there is scant reason to think such a plan could succeed even on its own terms. To see what happens when government tries to brute-force economic activity around the country just look at ‘the plot against Mercia’.
Trying to centrally plan the next generation out of the postcodes of southern homeowners will fail as well. If you doubt it, ponder why up to 90% of Channel 4 staff might have preferred to quit than follow their job out of London.
As for Charlie Peters’ complaints about millennials calling themselves “plant mums” and referring to their pets as “babies”, it’s hard to tell whether this is a real phenomenon, or a meme employed for comic effect. But even if it is true, is this kind of behaviour really a moral failing, a Peter Pan-like refusal to grow up? Or might it reflect a longing for something that feels increasingly out of reach, the path to it barred by sacrifices our parents’ generation did not face?
If policymakers really want thirty-somethings to live more as their parents did – and that is a shallow understanding of adulthood in any event – they need to extend to thirty-somethings the opportunities their parents enjoyed. That means good-quality, affordable homes where their friends and career are.
Besides, if reports of the growing puritanism of the young are true, we now-slightly-silver ravers don’t seem likely to be treading on anyone’s toes.
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