The Peter Pan Generation: Why 20-Something Women Just Can’t Grow Up

Our culture becomes an endless cycle of regurgitated youth-dom. And today's 20-something women have little choice but to remain stuck in a permanent state of adolescence

Are 20-Something Women The Peter Pan Generation?

by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman’ moaned Britney Spears in her 2001 opus, and in the accompanying music video, according to Wikipedia, she’s ‘sitting on top of a cliff, surrounded by cliffs.’

15 years on and it remains a pretty apt analogy for the now-lives of the then-10-year-olds who heard it the first time round and probably still spend their weekends ironically enjoying some of Britney’s more uptempo tunes. Culture, from Creme Egg and cereal cafésto the G_oosebumps Alive_ spook-a-long, from emoji tattoos to adult colouring books is keeping our youth alive. And teamed with our #tbt-enabled desire to gaze so fondly on the 1990s (home to not only Leonardo DiCaprio’s prettiest face, but our own childhoods), it has also conspired to keep the UK’s 20-somethings in a perpetual state of infancy. Because, if you’re part of what’s been dubbed the ‘Peter Pan Generation’, these distractions are merely a silly escape from the bleaker realities of a denied adulthood; a tricksy jobs market and high rents.

The Peter Pan Generation has long been identified, but a recent Evening Standard and Opinium Research study found that 42% of Londoners aged 20-29 say housing costs are putting them off of having kids. That proportion rises to 46% amongst female respondents. While we're certainly not going to start extolling virtues of marrying young and pushing out a bunch of children just because, the whole point of women’s lib was to be able to have that choice. But now women don’t seem to have that choice, it’s worth asking: does the Peter Pan Generation affect women worse than men?

Our culture of endless childhood

Graham Jones, internet psychologist, tells The Debrief: ‘Over 100 years ago, childhood ended at 12, but with our ageing population, it makes sense, economically, for the Government to extend childhood to 18. It takes younger people out of the jobs market and means pension age can be extended.’

‘The Internet merely helps emphasise this culture, with people in their twenties and thirties posting things on their Facebook pages about youthful activities. This creates social pressure for more people in those age groups to do more of those youthful things.’

And of course, advertisers follow suit. So culture becomes and endless cycle of regurgitated youth-dom and you begin to see grown-up people going to their jobs on those light-up ‘hoverboards’.

But let’s look at what all this fun is distracting us from - the generation gap between us and our parents can be felt sorely in two big places: jobs and homes. As the technological revolution whirrs on, it’s not only that we feel like imposters in our jobs, but that whole entire industries - in tech and graphics and hospitality and retail, are unrecognisable to our parents’ generation. And with older people baffled at what tech work actually involves, they’re also less savvy as to how some of these industries have left behind women, too. According to the Young Women’s Trust report in 2015, 86% of older women thought being an IT technician is a job equally suited to male or female workers, while only 65% of younger women thought the same. As optimistic as the older generation may be about this brave new world of work for the young, women still only comprise 12.8% of the UK’s STEM industries.

The UK’s young women are twice as likely to be considered economically inactive than their male cohorts

Problems at work lead to problems at home. And with the Young Women's Trust report showing that the UK’s young women are twice as likely to be considered economically inactive than their male cohorts, being housed is going to be that much tougher. Because in case you didn’t notice, the UK’s in the middle of a housing crisis.

In 2015, a joint report into young people by Generation Rent and Halifax found that 79% surveyed thought mortgage lenders didn’t want to give money to first-time buyers, and 21% of the sample thought getting a mortgage would be impossible.

The housing effect

The fact that ‘young people’ surveyed in this study went from ages 25-40 is pretty indicative of how far youth has been allowed to extend. But as freeing as that sounds, it’s obviously not: the alternative to buying a home is to rent, and with prices rising and unscrupulous landlords - 284,000 of them haven’t bothered to follow the simple legal requirement to keep a deposit in a safe scheme - more ‘young’ people are pushed into infantilised living situations. Some are heading back home - in 2013, 49% of those aged 20-24 still lived with parents, with 21% of 25-29-year-olds doing the same - and others are moving into the living room of a flatshare, or those quasi-converted warehouse spaces that are all very artsy until you realise you’re sleeping on the mezzanine of a squat.

Robyn, 24, who lives in a one-in-the-living-room situation, tells The Debrief: ‘It’s so similar to living in halls. It’s a bizarre feeling to be working a 9-5 with responsibility and amongst people of all ages, and then not be able to come home, sit in a living room, on a sofa, and wind down.’

The fact that can sound like a first world problem is indicative of just how bad the housing situation’s got in this country. While Robyn lives in London, the cost of living in this country is tricky all round - rising train fares mean it’s cheaper to fly via Europe to get to cities within the UK, and the current stalemate around developing the Northern Powerhouse before it’s even begun implies there’s not much hope of flourishing new industries outside of the M25.

The Government may be committed to broaching the housing crisis via the help to buy scheme, and David Cameron has committed to shifting the gender pay gap by, in part, getting more young women into STEM. However, this is the same Government that scrapped the Equality Impact Assessments; so with every new opportunity created, there is no checklist to ensure that no-one is inadvertently left behind.

The resultant effect is, where life could previously be imagined as one big grassy hill studded with milestones to mark our achievements and set our goals, an almighty tornado’s come along and tugged them out, scattering them beyond reach, and sometimes beyond sight.

All of this is having a negative effect on young women’s psyche. The Young Women’s Trust’s 2015 report also found that women are more likely (53% to young men’s 41%) to feel worried about their confidence, and that they’re more likely (36% to young men’s 24%) to say they’re worn down. While mental health services are making potential patients wait for up to a year before talking services are made available, women are perhaps a little better than their male cohort about talking about their issues with friends and loved ones. That said, young British women’s mental health is far from perfect. Laura Ahnemann, who is a life coach at Mind The Gap, a private service predominantly treating young women, tells The Debrief: ‘This generation are very work-driven, they want to achieve, but while there’s no-one else to blame when we fail, there’s no-one else to congratulate us.’

And then there's dating - or as we like to call it: Tinder. The dating revolution spearheaded by apps such as Tinder is so new that there’s no rule-book or etiquette manual for how to deal with it. While early adopters might have got lucky on the site, now that it’s been mythologised as a place to get a quick shag, it’s perhaps not as revolutionary as we once thought it could be. Laura adds: ‘These apps train us to have a very short attention span and sooner or later this is reflected in how we live life and make decisions.’

The whole point of 1970s liberation, what our mothers’ generation went through and fought for, is to be able to give us the choice to do what we want

In clinical psychologist Meg Jay’s TED Talk, Why 30 Is Not The New 20, she encourages young people to try to sort out their lives before they turn 30, in part because: ‘female fertility peaks at age 28, and things get tricky after age 35. So your 20s are the time to educate yourself about your body and your options.’

The UK Infertility Network, which is pushing for sex education to include more information about the longevity of male and female fertility, agrees with this point, telling The Debrief: ’Financial constraints and social issues, such as meeting the right person who is ready to commit to parenthood, are factors everyone is confronted with. But young adults cannot make an informed choice about when to begin to try for a family if they are not aware of how female and male fertility decline with age.’

However, what use is a shed-load of education on fertility if young people aren’t even allowed to become the adults they’ve spent a childhood’s worth of education preparing to become? From the outside, it might look like we’re all choosing to be childish in our pursuits, but maybe they’re a light relief from a trickier reality. The whole point of 1970s liberation, what our mothers’ generation went through and fought for, is to be able to give us the choice to do what we want.

But with economic, housing and social factors squeezing us out of healthy participation and interaction, and even denying us the tools to be independent, no amount of Britney songs will make us feel better about that.

**You might also be interested in: **

How The Housing Bill Left Young People Behind

8 Pictures That Show Just How Bad London's Housing Crisis Really Is

The Reality Of Trying To Rent In London

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us