Ryan Shorthouse: Why living an ‘extended youth’ makes grown-up sense

HERE we go again. “So, who are you living with now?”, my grandma asks. “Nick”, I say. But, quickly, the qualifiers: “You know, who I have been friends with since I was a kid. Lived in the same village.” Really gran, we are just friends.

She has her doubts. In her day, at 25, she lived with granddad and my uncle was on the way. It’s quite different today. Flat-sharing among twentysomethings, particularly in expensive cities and among students, is now commonplace.

Being single in your mid-twenties, perhaps dating, effectively shopping around for the right partner, is increasingly popular. It’s Prince Harry – on and off with Chelsy – not his newlywed brother, who better typifies today’s twentysomethings.

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Oh, extended childhood is awful, some cry. Young people have to live with their parents because they can’t afford to live independently. They’ve no work ethic, preferring instead to be an eternal student or trot the globe backpacking. Shunning marriage and children, young people lack family values.

Yes, it is terrible, scarring even, for those who have the unfulfilled aspiration of securing a job. Youth unemployment is at its highest rate since records began in 1992, with 20.5 per cent of 16-24 year olds now unemployed.

Hopping from one unpaid internship to the next, forever at the end of my overdraft, I used to think delayed adulthood was tortuous: I craved economic security, understandably. But actually, for many young people, extended youth – or postponing “settling down” – is a positive and rational lifestyle choice, which we should celebrate.

Professor Gill Jones, a sociologist at Keele University, claims different transitions to adulthood are increasingly distinguishable by class. The slow-track – extending education and deferring marriage, children and independent living – is the path most likely to be adopted by children of middle-class and affluent working-class families.

Indeed, since the Thatcherite period, the number of these families has mushroomed. The fast-track to adulthood – leaving school at 16, teenage pregnancy – is, lamentably, the path taken by many more young people from more deprived backgrounds.

So-called “kidulthood” has become more pronounced among “Thatcher’s Children”, those born in the 1980s, who can enjoy longer periods of youth, largely thanks to the affluence of a greater number of parents.

For women, whose educational and employment opportunities have improved, marriage is no longer required for financial security. So marriage has been delayed: in 1971, women got married on average in their early twenties. Today, it is in their early thirties. Love is now increasingly the precondition for entering marriage, not financial necessity: this is more likely to create happy, long-lasting relationships, surely.

More young people, with the financial security net of their parents, can engage in a multitude of opportunities to discover what career, way of life and relationship works best for them. Before, lack of money, and having a family of your own, prevented this.

Postponing settling down is rational too. Delayed adulthood has both been caused by and contributes to the normalisation of postgraduate study and unpaid work, both of which are proven to improve life chances.

With life expectancy and the retirement age rising, there’s more time to secure a stable job, support a family and build up your pension pot. Spend your youth upskilling and finding the right job, and the long-term rewards will be more fruitful.

What the doomsayers forget to mention is that young people do want to get married. Nearly 80 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds say they do. Just not straight away. They want to find the right person, co-habit with them for a while, test the water to see if this is the life they want.

With the cost of living so high, employment unstable and a young employee’s pay in decline relative to older workers, it is wise not to start a family so soon. After all, the biggest triggers of divorce are youthfulness and unstable economic circumstances.

As more people have delayed marriage, the divorce rate has declined, now at its lowest level since 1981. Young people aren’t turning their back on family values; they’re finding ways to strengthen them.

Yet, some young people still fear the ticking clock, comparing their life trajectory to those of their parents and grandparents. Instead, we should celebrate extended youth: happier families and more profitable careers are more likely to accrue from it. Just remember, won’t you, to thank your parents for allowing it: not everyone is lucky enough to experience extended youth.