In our capital city there’s always something new to do, so is it any surprise that Londoners are shirking adulthood? Amy Grier charts the rise of the eternal adolescents.
There can’t be an adult alive who isn’t a bit jealous of Michael, Wendy and John when Peter Pan flies them through the Darlings’ London townhouse window and off to Neverland. The appeal of a suspended world where adult responsibilities are reduced to fairy dust is universal – but that fantasy has come true in London. Just ask the 8 million Londoners who have created a 600-squaremile playground in the capital, stretching the boundaries of adulthood to live as lost boys (and girls) well into their 30s and 40s. Welcome to the Peter Pan generation, the young adults with so much to do, see and buy that although they have replaced food fights with champagne tastings and swashbuckling with the Selfridges’ sale, they are still living as though they are a decade younger. A cash rich, time poor, fun loving tribe of 25-40 year olds determined to wring every drop of opportunity out of the capital before considering marriage, mortgage and a family of their own.
And I should know, I’m one of them. A Londoner born and bred, I have entered wholeheartedly into the ‘never grow up’ mindset. I’m the wrong side of my 20s and yet am no nearer to starting a pension than I am to fixing the dripping tap in the bathroom. My cupboards are bare (save for an emergency bottle of gin) and I’d much rather spend my wages on the latest foodie hotspot than a much-needed new cooker. I love my boyfriend but we can’t even agree on what takeaway to order, let alone if/ when/why we should ever move in together, get married or have babies.
It turns out I’m a capital city cliché. Not only are Londoners youthful in outlook – they are literally younger than the rest of the UK. The mean age of our wrinkle-free capital has been dropping steadily for the past two decades – according to the 2001 census, it was 36. Compare that to the rest of the country, who come in at 38.6 years old, and it’s clear Londoners really are the nation’s spring chickens. That’s thanks in part to the huge influx of university graduates looking to climb the career ladder in industries such as media and banking, which are heavily London-centric (in fact, 40% of the nation’s graduates now move straight to London). “The majority of the population of the capital is now aged 25-45,” explains Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at LSE.
If I’m young at heart, I’m in good company. The capital’s mature adolescent shuns the major markers of responsible adulthood – most notably in spending habits. The majority of Londoners may be here to focus on building their careers but they’re being paid well for it – the average annual UK salary is £25,896, while in London it’s £33,748 – and you certainly couldn’t accuse women like me of being tightfisted. A national survey of saving in 2011 revealed that Londoners are the worst savers in the whole country, with five London boroughs featuring in the top 10. Rather than let my hard-earned wages languish in my bank account, I spend it on all that London has to offer – all the time. I don’t want to miss out on the latest Secret Cinema pop-up or having an opinion on Mark Hix’s new Tramshed (you must try the giant Yorkshire pudding). I’m not alone. A recent study said that 12% of Londoners drink five nights of the week too – the new Aperol Spritz at da Polpo makes it too hard not to.
“The capital’s mature adolescent shuns the major markers of responsible adulthood – most notably in spending habits”
Another study discovered that Londoners are 10% more likely than anyone else in the country to spend money without thinking – that’ll be the £7.50 deli sandwich for my desk-bound lunch I splurge on every day – and we are hard-wired to do so. Research at the University of Michigan found that just spending a few minutes on a crowded city street can affect the brain’s ability to focus and impact on self-control. My poor wallet doesn’t stand a chance.
As a consequence of this almost teenage attitude towards finances (savings are for adults, after all), Londoners have, unsurprisingly, amassed the biggest debt in Britain too, with more than 1 million people in London using payday loans (a much higher figure than other major UK cities). Londoners work hard (of all the regions in the UK that work over 48 hours per week, London is top, and 25% of those aged 25-34 put in an extra two-three hours of overtime every day). But we play – and pay – harder too. At the end of a week full of late nights in the office I feel I deserve to have fun, not save up my wages for a rainy day.
London bucks another UK trend as house prices continue to rise steadily in most areas while they are either static or falling in much of Britain. Despite the soaring price, the Wendy in me – used to my parents’ roomy house and garden – still wants to live in a pretty terrace in zone two even if I can’t actually afford it. So the most recent figures show that those not on the property ladder spend 71% of their take-home pay on rent. This of course means that the Peter Pan generation puts saving for a deposit on the grown-up to-do list.
“By the time professionals in Manchester or Liverpool are in their early 30s they can afford a two bedroom house with a garden. But property prices in London are so high, that’s impossible for most,” says Dr Karen Evans, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Liverpool. Natalie Jones, 27 and living in Liverpool says, “I bought a house two years ago and so have most of my friends up North.
None of my London friends have, although I’m not surprised given the prices.” The average age for first-time buyers across the UK is 29, but in London, it’s 32. So the adolescent in us continues to live with friends, in a permanent party lifestyle. “This communal living extends the student lifestyle well into the professional one,” Dr Evans tells me. I know what she means, I still live exactly like this, sharing with my best mate from uni.
But it’s not just my savings account that is empty – my wedding ring finger is bare too. A 2010 survey of nearly 2,000 people found that 30% of Londoners are single, compared to just 18% of the nation in general. This may be down in part to the imbalance in numbers between young men and women – as more women than men graduate from British universities and move directly to the capital, London is becoming increasingly female-biased. One survey found that seven of the top 10 female-heavy places in the UK, where single women outnumber single men, are London boroughs. Just so you know, Hackney, Barking and Dagenham, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea, Islington, Hammersmith and Fulham and Haringey are all lacking in men.
Of course, this probably isn’t news to most London women – I spend a lot of my evenings in the company of the bright, brilliant females who live here and not one of us has an army of eligible men on speed dial. As high-achievers with precious little spare time, our priorities have shifted. When we’re not at work, we’re busy caring for an urban family – friends who we can rely on through the thick and thin of city life. Finding a man can easily drop off the bottom of the list – if it was even on the list. When there is so much to do, why would anyone want to tie themselves down?
Unfortunately that also means London women have less sex than the rest of the country – according to the same survey, Londoners only have sex 8.6 times in an average month, while the rest of the UK is doing it on 9.3 occasions in the same period.
All of which inevitably leads Londoners to have babies later. Just 36% of us are married, compared to 50% nationwide and when we do settle down, we wait a while until taking on the responsibility of having kids. “If you draw a map of everyone who is having babies over the age of 35, it is incredibly focused on London,” says professor Danny Dorling from the University of Sheffield. “Our parents and grandparents would have had two kids by the time they were 30. We don’t have a social model that includes this slide into later parenthood. It’s uncharted territory.”
The cost of childcare in the capital is so high (up to a third higher than the national average) that many women are forced to give up work for financial reasons after having children – a Fawcett Society report, from April 2012, showed that just over half of mothers in the capital work compared with almost two-thirds across the UK. No wonder I want to hang onto my spend-happy, selfish years for as long as possible.
So without the traditional markers of marriage and parenthood punctuating my 20s and early 30s, Londoners like me can simply put themselves – and their friends – first. And why not? Stylist has dedicated a whole issue to London because it’s so brilliant, so Londoners can surely be excused for wanting to stop the clock and enjoy it footloose and mortgage-free. So for now I shall continue to think happy thoughts – about Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall or the Liberty shoe department. It’s what Tinkerbell would want.
Picture credits: Rex Features