May 30, 2024

Do you have a teenage daughter who freezes in horror if her phone rings? Is your son still living under your roof, aged 32? Do your student offspring now have so many unread emails clogging up their inbox (upwards of 40,000) that they’ve decided to abandon it, like spooked song thrushes deserting a nest of eggs, because it feels less overwhelming to start all over again with a new one?

Well if so, congratulations! Your brood of overgrown babies are perfectly normal. By today’s standards. Scant consolation, I agree, but at least we all share the blame.

Before I go much further, I would like to say in my defence that I’m not what is pejoratively labelled “a boomer”. I’m Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. We’re supposed to be the cool ones. And I do think I’m pretty cool – I inhaled, people! Nevertheless the nagging suspicion is starting to take hold that, somewhere along the line (heck, I even did one of those once, in a Hamburg hotel room of all places, and was horribly sick) we have gone very, very badly wrong in our attempts to hand-rear and house-train Generation Z, now aged between 12 and 27.

In fact, I’m beginning to think the Z stands for “zero”, as in zero expectations of life delivering any of the things they thought – not unreasonably – would be part and parcel of becoming a newly fledged grown up. So why strive for maturity if they can never follow in their parents’ footsteps?

After university in Edinburgh, I rented a room in a flat then bought my own place by the age of 26. A year after, I exchanged a fistful of notes for a second-hand car. And so on. It wasn’t a cakewalk. I couldn’t afford furniture (or decent tyres), largely subsisted on Hula Hoop salad – a dish I invented that involved excessive amounts of raw onion – and I’m not sure I had so much as clapped eyes on an avocado.

But, in the “Them vs Us” mythology that fuels much of the current inter-generational resentment, I had it easy. And so Generation Rent is giving way to Generation Resentment.

In an age of stratospheric rents, unobtainable deposits, a cost-of-living crisis and rising stress levels, a combination of poor mental health and strapped family wealth has trapped huge numbers of young people (and by definition, us) in a weird stasis.

According to data just released by the Office for National Statistics, a third of all men under the age of 35 still live with their parents. The figure for women is less than a quarter.

To be honest that only confirms a trend we’ve all noticed; social media and problem pages are awash with anguished parents wondering if they should broach the subject of money with their great big kids, who are living, eating and using up all the hot water rent-free, despite being in full-time employment.

If we were Italian, of course, we’d love having our sons to mollycoddle on an ongoing basis. But culturally it’s a very foreign form of arrested development.

One friend of mine says she is sorely tempted to charge her son board if not lodgings, but then worries that, if she does, it will not just cause ill will but will take him longer to save up for a deposit and move out permanently. Another is mulling over the idea of turning militantly vegan in order to hasten her carnivorous 26-year-old’s departure.

It was back in 2008 that the US writer Kelly Williams Brown (then 24) neologised the tongue-in-cheek verb “adulting” to describe the everyday tasks such as laundry or grocery shopping that were the hallmarks of maturity. Millennials – who are now aged between 28 and 43 – embraced it wholeheartedly. Generation Z never use it, not even ironically. It’s not in their vocabulary or their hopes and dreams.

Instead their focus is inwards, so much so that a quarter of 18-to-34-year olds have never answered their phone. Why? Because apparently “it’s too much pressure”. The study, by comparison site U-Switch, also revealed that half of them regularly blanked calls from their own parents. And we are very often the ones paying for the damn thing.

I think it’s fair to conclude that if the psychologist Maslow were around today, his Hierarchy of Needs would be very different. In the olden days, there were five tiers in the pyramid; physiological needs like food and water, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

These days they would be: an iPhone for the Just Eat deliveries, secure WiFi for the iPhone, Snapchat on the iPhone for belonging, Insta also on the iPhone for esteem (or lack of) and Be Real for that carefully curated “candid” photo posted on your iPhone showing the world how you are bussin’ it at a day spa.

But the bitter truth is that none of these generation-defining activities qualifies as real life. Real life is (was) a vertical progression upwards, from child to adult, dependent to breadwinner, eagerly taking on more responsibility as you went, whether that was the satisfaction of taking your parents out for dinner with your first pay cheque or giddy pride at being entrusted with your very own council wheelie bin.

But these days those vertical structures have crumbled away because nobody wants to grow up. Instead, young people rely on their horizontal peer group to normalise the extended adolescence of not picking up the phone and continuing to sleep in a single bed surrounded by Marvel posters at the age of 30.

And, of course, if anyone dares bandy around the term “adulting”, their digital tribe will close ranks and reassure them that there’s no such word.

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