Why does so much of adult life make us feel like we’ve gatecrashed the grown-ups’ table? Stylist investigates the rise of kidulthood
Words: Lizzie Pook
The vicar waves goodbye from the church as you all make the rainy dash to the pub to celebrate your nephew’s christening. The men are shrugging off their suit jackets and ordering pints, your mother is proudly holding the baby and everyone else is trying to negotiate the ubiquitous Bugaboo strollers that are blocking up the path to the bar and the toilet.
You scan the three tables that have been laid for lunch; they’re starting to fill up with relatives and family friends. You idly spot an empty seat, head over and sit down. But as you start to look around, something dawns on you. Your mouth starts to go dry and the panic sets in.
You’ve sat down on the ‘grown-up’ table.
Now, to any innocent onlooker, this situation appears to be perfectly normal. After all, you are a grown-up. You are sitting with grown-ups. You are talking about grown-up things. But there remains a niggling part of your brain that still feels like it should be stood around the quiz machine with the rest of the teenagers, mainlining Cherry Coke and Nice ‘n’ Spicy Nik Naks.
Yes, we are grown women. Yes, we are responsible for a lot of very important things (most of the time). But the truth is, while we may be adults on the outside and are treated by society as just that, it doesn’t take a lot to make us feel woefully out of our depth. Take the process of trying to secure a mortgage, for example, or being called into our boss’s office for a ‘chat’. We’re playing the part of adults – we’ve been doing that for years – but quite frankly, these situations make us feel 15 years old inside.
It’s a troubling disconnect. And one that manifests itself most acutely in the most inappropriate situations – midway through a shift in your job as a teacher or doctor, for example. Or while leading a team of eight people at work. When you suddenly remember your decisions actually affect the lives of others and a voice inside your head screams, ‘WHO THE HELL LEFT ME IN CHARGE?’
The reality, for many of us, is that maturity is a pose, a masquerade. We may be well into adulthood yet we still feel as ill-equipped in responsible situations as we did when we were 18. But why?
It’s not an illusion that we’re not maturing at the same rate as our parents’ generation, many of whom were having their first child at the same age that we were focusing on our first promotion at work. Not only are we getting married later than ever (the average age of a first-time bride is 30, compared to 23 four decades ago) and having children at an older age too (on average at 29.8 compared to 24 in 1978), but with improved healthcare and our increasing life expectancy, the whole concept of what’s perceived as ‘middle aged’ has shifted, too.
The economy and housing market aren’t helping either, with the staggering cost of buying a home shoving the majority of us out of the race (the age of the average first-time buyer has risen to 35, up from 28 just a decade ago). Buying a house is now often only possible with a considerable amount of help from parents – the heftiest amount of pocket money you’re ever going to get. Add to that the fact we’re living with our parents while we save and it’s not a surprise we feel so childlike.
We are experiencing an extended mental childhood as these milestones are pushed further and further along our lifetimes. And for many women, what’s happening for us externally when these milestones eventually do come along is a world away from what’s happening in our brains, which are still falling out of taxis at 3am like we’re in Geordie Shore.
This disassociation is why, when our 33-year-old friends announce they are pregnant, we often feel as shocked as if we were hearing the news from our panicked best friend in the toilet in sixth form. Or if it’s us who’s just got married, why returning home and using the words ‘my husband’ for the first time feels both fraudulent and ridiculous.
Feeling young in our heads is not a new phenomenon. And if we’re maturing slower in an ageing population (the average age we lived to in 1964 was 74.8 – now it’s 83) then why not embrace our fear of being grown up. Scientists have been researching age identity (the age we feel inside – also known as subjective, or ‘felt’, age) for decades. And while we might identify as an ‘old soul’ or still feel 16 inside, our age identity is in a constant state of flux. “We feel older and younger in different aspects of our lives,” says Dr Jane Prince, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Glamorgan. “We can be old in relationships, young in our careers and practically infantile when in the family home, all at the same time.”
Statistics back up just how skewed our age identity really is. According to a study by the University of Michigan and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, older people – aged over 70 feel, on average, about 13 years younger than they are. Studies have also shown that as children, we typically feel slightly older than our age – in part because we long to take part in activities reserved for older teens and adults. Then, around 25 to 30, we plateau. Our ideas of ageing fall out of sync with our actual age. Youth, in turn, begins to seem more appealing, and we start to think of ourselves as younger than we are.
Prince suggests that this disassociation between how old our brain feels and how old our body feels is down, in part, to how quickly our bodies age. “Using the brain doesn’t wear it out,” she says. “But using our body does. As we grow up, our brains and bodies are matched but eventually the body starts ageing at a much quicker rate, which widens the gap.”
Our minds are certainly responsible for the majority of this confusion. Think about the last time you had a nostalgic song in your head – something by Oasis, TLC or the theme tune from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, perhaps. For most of us, we feel as if those songs were around seven or so years back. But the first episode of The Fresh Prince actually aired in 1990. THAT’S 24 YEARS AGO.
We were children when these songs came out, yet in our heads it feels like recent history. So it’s no surprise we struggle to reconcile how old we feel with how old we actually are.
A process described as memory-matching can also explain why we feel so much younger in certain situations, such as an appointment with the bank manager or a schoolyard conflict situation at work. “Our memories constantly play ‘snap’,” explains psychotherapist Rita Leaman. “Using the five senses, our brain matches what it is experiencing in the present with memories from the past. If it is unable to provide an exact match, then it will find the nearest memory.” This explains the feeling of the ‘adult table’ and why, after that awkward work meeting, we might have the urge to cry and phone our mum – our brains have automatically shifted into after-school detention mode.
The maturity myth
So, while we may chastise ourselves for feeling like a teenager in the face of great responsibility, we needn’t – because feeling younger is actually good for us. Research has shown that how people feel inside, and their expectations of their capabilities, can have a greater impact on life expectancy than the date on their birth certificates. Men and women over 50 with more positive self-perceptions of ageing lived 7.6 years longer than those with negative perceptions, according to a 2002 study led by Yale University. Really, it’s all about health: the strongest of anti-ageing tools. If we feel younger, maybe our bodies might just believe it, too.
So if your next work brainstorming meeting makes you feel Borrower-sized, or an appointment with the bank manager makes you want to whack on an East 17 CD or plaster your walls in Howard Donald posters; don’t despair. Go home, throw on a pair of animal-print pyjamas, stick on MTV and crack open the Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough. It’s time to embrace – and cherish – your inner youth.
Young at heart
Six women reveal the age they are and the age they really feel inside
Real age: 34
Emotional age: 38
Head of press, KPMG
“I associate getting older with positive things. So when I say I feel a bit older inside, many people think that means I feel knackered, or bedraggled, or that my work’s too hard – but that’s not the case at all. I aspire to be older and wiser because I’ve grown up with really positive female role models including my mum and my mentor at work. I’ve progressed well at work and have always been young for my role, which I think has made me more mature. When I found my first grey hair, I rejoiced.”
Real age: 27
Emotional age: 8
“I hold a typically ‘grown up’ job, with a lot of responsibility. I think that’s why outside the working environment I regress back to my inner child, acting silly and even riding a scooter. When I was eight my mum would say, ‘Gosh, you’re so grown up for your age,’ and she was right. Family life was stressful and I had to grow up quickly. Now I get to be in control of how old I feel, I can choose to be a bit childish and silly now and again.”
Real age: 49
Emotional age: 49
“The nice thing about my age is that I feel very comfortable, and confident. I have respect from my colleagues and am happy with who I am; I’d never want to be a teenager again. I don’t get stressed about the little things, or aim for the impossible. I’d like to be driving a Porsche but that’s not going to happen. I’m over it. I think being 49 now, is like being 35 twenty years ago. I look at little old ladies pushing people out of the way on the bus and think, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun.’”
Real age: 16
Emotional age: 50
“My dad’s a jazz musician and I sing with him a lot. I love people like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. They’re my icons. I’m really interested in philosophy too, so sometimes I feel like an old man. I’m very close to my grandpa. We have a lot of shared interests and sometimes I feel about the same age as him. He’s a big music lover so we’ll sit and play guitar or chat about Joni Mitchell and Woodstock. I’m always trying to impress him with my music knowledge.”
Real age: 79
Emotional age: 70
“Sometimes I feel 21 inside, but not very often. If I hear a big band song on the radio I’ll think, ‘We used to dance to this,’ and I’ll feel young again. I worked in a school for 27 years – which kept me young inside – and retired at 63, although I could have gone on. I have three great grand children with one on the way. I’m not healthy, or fit but I go to the theatre a lot. Most nights at 9pm I’ll watch The Killing. That keeps me on my toes.”
Real age: 29
Emotional age: 18
Advertising project manager
“In my culture, a woman doesn’t really leave the family home until she gets married. So when I got married in 2010, I moved up to Leicester, where my husband is from, and felt mature, like I was starting a new life as an adult. Eventually, work drew us back to London and we moved in with my parents to save for a house. It’s made me feel childlike again; I come home and dinner is on the table and if I go out, I have to say where I’m going and when I’ll be back.”