My boyfriend and I have been together seven years. We're not engaged, or trying for a baby. We aren’t chasing impressive promotions or making plans to adventure abroad. We still rent the three-room flat we moved into together in 2013.
I have lived within a two mile radius of this address for 11 years, ever since I moved to London, which makes it the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life. It’s also the fullest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life – I walk the same streets every day, see the same faces, chart the comings and goings and coffee shop openings around us with all the interest of a nosy village parishioner. This is home. A home we could never afford to own, but home.
‘Are you looking at places to buy yet?’ friends ask, often.
‘Mmm, not quite yet... but we have, um, ideas….’ we say. We’ll talk vaguely about making an appointment at the bank, getting some unspecified wheels in motion, going on day trips to new, faraway neighbourhoods in the places where ‘least financially crippling’ and ‘has trees’ intersect, and bickering over the relative merits of leaving the city altogether. We make the right noises, until conversation moves on to paint colours or who’s given their kid a weird name and we can relax again.
The truth is we’ve been making those same noises for months now, but doing absolutely nothing about it. There are no wheels in motion, no big steps, no new rungs on an invisible ladder. We're just standing still. And it’s hard to admit that without feeling as though we’re letting the side down, somehow.
After a study last year by the Young Women’s Trust coined the phrase ‘suspended adulthood’ to sum up British 18-30 year olds in crisis – 43% living with their parents, 48% postponing having children – our generation has become characterised by the idea of stunted growth. Many millennials aren’t hitting milestones so much as simply trying to make ends meet. Him and I, we’re the relatively lucky ones; we have decent jobs, good health, each other. We could complain about the impossible London property market until the cows come home, but we could also just grow up and move somewhere cheaper. Except we don’t want to.
We have a thoroughly nice time – but having a nice time isn’t enough, is it? We're supposed to be continually moving things on, or at least trying to; striving to tick the next box on society’s list of life goals. And so, we feel obliged to pretend.
‘I tell people I’m thinking about taking a year off to go travelling,’ admits one friend, who has been in the same job and the same houseshare for the past four years. ‘I’m not, really, but it gives me something to say.’ Another takes great pleasure, when people ask when she’ll have a baby, in telling them about her contraceptive implant. ‘I want to make them feel as awkward as I do,’ she says.
Because of course, people love to ask what’s next. The married ones love to remind you that it doesn’t have to cost £25k, you know, you could just go down the registry office! The new parents love to hand you wriggling babies and watch to see if a broody light sparks up in your eyes. The homeowners love to recommend mortgage advisors and proffer tips on Help To Buy schemes. I’ll be honest, sometimes I find it hard to untangle how much I actually want to move to a bigger house with how much people seem to want me to want to.
Not everyone shares my apathy, of course. For Bryony, 28, who has been married for two years, a life plan is supportive, not stifling. ‘I think each of us needs to learn what drives us and become comfortable with that,’ she says. ‘I have mapped out what I want from my life and when I want it.’ But she tells me that those conversations aren’t a breeze when you’re at the front of the life race either. ‘I definitely feel the pressure coming from society,’ she says. ‘As soon as you're married, everyone asks you about kids. As soon as you have a baby, they ask you about the second one.’
Some of those questions are obnoxious, but I know plenty are just well-meaning curiosity. And besides, I hear myself asking them too. As we head into our 30s, this is the language we all learn to speak; we become fluent in future-gazing. What’s next? Will you stay in that job much longer? Could you extend the loft? Where do you want to be in five years? Are you on the list for an allotment yet? Or a nursery? It’s a natural instinct, I guess, because life is short and there’s only so much time to cram everything in – especially when you’re a woman, and ‘cramming in’ begins to sound less like a metaphor and more like an urgent point on your uterine to-do list – but it’s an impulse we could all try harder to keep in check.
Bryony admits, ‘I often worry I will rush into having children when I could afford to wait, because I'm scared we will struggle to conceive. If I wasn't always heading for the next stage, I might feel a bit directionless – but I also wonder if I might feel more free.’
And while I know that eventually life, luck or a shift in priorities will prod us to move on, for now I’d rather stay still for a while longer than end up in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Call it suspended adulthood, laziness or plain old contentment (I think the truth is somewhere in the middle), but in lying to keep up, we’re only reinforcing those pressures and keeping the whole vicious circle of pressure going. So next time, instead of making the right noises, I’ll just be honest. We’re happy as we are.
Or I’ll defer to the immortal words of Ferris Bueller. ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.