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Babies Versus Bar Crawls: Our Generation Divided

This week, two women told me the same story. That story was about getting a condom stuck inside themselves during sex, and was told with all the graphic, cervical detail a tale like that requires. I should say, they weren’t one-on-one confessions; the first was in Chapter 23 of The Actual One, the new book by comedian and Peep Show actress Isy Suttie (she played Dobby).

It opens:

“All three of us had finally stopped giggling. The nurse put on her gloves slowly and carefully, and picked up the pliers. ‘You’ll have to keep your legs open and stay very still if we’re going to stand a chance of getting this little bugger out, Isobel,’ she smiled.

‘I’ve heard that before,’ I quipped weakly.

‘Shhh,’ they both said, shaking their heads. James passed me four M&Ms and as I felt the cold metal touch my skin I closed my eyes and thought of Matlock.”

The second was in Amy Schumer’s recent comedy Trainwreck, which I caught up with at the weekend, in which Schumer’s anti-heroine decides to spice up a game of Truth or Dare with her sister’s prissy suburban friends by relating in way too much detail the time she had to remove a condom from herself by using her finger as a hook and “bearing down”.

What, apart from making us wince a bit, do these twin tales tell us? Both pop up in frank narratives about women who refuse to grow up. Or at least, refuse to settle down, get married, have children. While their coupled-up friends are pushing babies out of their bodies, these single girls are having condoms prised out the morning after. As images of “different life stages” go, they don’t come much starker than that.

I’ve never felt more like an outsider than when I was in my late twenties and my friends started caring about nappies and offset mortgages and wedding venues with moats

Isy Suttie, author of 'The Actual One'
“There’s always humour to be had in the pain of being the outsider,” Suttie, 37, tells me, "and I’ve never felt more like an outsider than when I was in my late twenties and my friends started caring about nappies and offset mortgages and wedding venues with moats, while all I wanted to do was sit on a rope swing mainlining Sambuca. That feeling was so memorable to me. It felt like very fertile and poignant ground for writing about.”
The manchild character has been around for years – from Men Behaving Badly to The Forty Year Old Virgin, Nick Hornby to Adam Sandler, Peep Show to Aziz Ansari’s millennial-angst-fuelled sitcom Master of None. Now they have female equivalents, but these aren’t desperate damsels like Bridget Jones or Carrie and co.; they’re more shameless and funnier than that. The Actual One is Suttie’s autobiographical tale of a search for true love via a stream of Dalston parties, dating fads, drinking and episodes of more or less awkward sex. It is subtitled “How I Tried and Failed to Remain a Twenty-something Forever,” which could easily be the tagline to Trainwreck, written by and starring Schumer, 34, as a not-so likeable Amy who staggers through life fuelled by booze, pot and shagging.
Both women run counter to what their friends, families and society consider to be normal. Both are childless and have a scene in which they are told by someone close to them that they are pregnant. Neither takes it well. Suttie is in a motorway service station when her best friends/ housemates tell her that they are having a baby. She reacts by cramming a whole tube of Rolos into her mouth, cracking a joke, mumbling “Well done” through a gob-full of caramel and then running into the sea, naked and alone. “I was aware that I should be pleased for them but my heart was plunging deep down into my trainers, and no amount of Rolos could stop it,” she writes in the opening chapter. When Amy’s sister tells her she is pregnant in Trainwreck, Amy manages an “Ugh” before starting an argument. Her sister finally loses her rag, yelling: “I’m not a crazy person because I got married and had children. That’s what people do.”

Well, not everyone – as Isy and Amy know. They represent a growing sector of society who have not quite got round to growing up, or what that has traditionally meant. Unshackled by mortgages and children, they flit around the margins of adulthood like Peter Pan in an American Apparel crop-top. Turning 30 no longer means turning into an adult: we are buying houses later, marrying later and having children later. If we do any of those things at all.

In 2013, over 3.3 million adults aged 20 to 34 in the UK were still living with their parents. The age at which people buy their first home has risen from 28 in 1995 to over 30 in 2015. In the late 1960s, 76% of brides were under 25, in 2012, it was 14%, according to the Office for National Statistics. The average age at which people marry in the UK is now 33 for men, 30 for women, while the average age of motherhood is now 30. The list goes on.

The reasons for this are myriad, but increasing equality for women, a post-Baby Boomers economy and an impossible housing market are at the forefront. In November 2015 The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) published a report on why women are putting off having children. The top three reasons cited by women under 40 for waiting were wanting to be in the right relationship, to be financially secure and to own their own home; a lot of the women said they were concerned about combining work with childcare.

“The rise in the age of first-time motherhood reflects so many positive developments in women’s lives – access to higher education, the ability to progress in a chosen career, all backed up by being able to control their fertility through contraception and abortion,” said Clare Murphy of BPAS. “These gains should be celebrated. People take the decision to have a child extremely seriously, and for the majority of women, finding the right person to do that with and ensuring that a child is being brought into a situation of financial stability is what matters most.”
It stands to reason that culture has started reflecting all of these statistics back at us, finding new archetypes for a phase of life that simply didn’t exist for our parents. In the current Channel 4 sitcom, Crashing, a group of adults live, love and rave in a disused hospital as “property guardians” or official squatters. Their inability to afford a house is explicitly linked to their inability to grow up. “It’s a generation living on a double-edged sword,” says the show’s creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 30. “It’s a wonderful time to be in your 20s and 30s. People are more open, accepting, more prone to taking risks and exploring, but I do think there is a looming cloud of trepidation about of how we are going to afford the future.”
There's truth in what Waller-Bridge is saying; last month an Opinium survey of Londoners in their twenties found that 46% of women were put off the idea of starting and raising a family in the city by soaring house prices. The result for Waller-Bridge is her character Lulu – a descendant of the heroine of her one-woman comedy/ theatre show Fleabag about a promiscuous, heavy-drinking young woman who cannot commit to anything. Along with Isy and Amy, you might call them Inbetweeners – grown-up enough to have a job, a proper handbag, maybe a serious boyfriend, and that’s all. The bigger things can, or have to, wait.

“Most of us are indecisive nutters,” Waller-Bridge says. “Equally panicked as we are liberated, I think the majority of us are just longing to sit down with a cup of tea and just breathe for a second. We are under such pressure to know and publicise ‘who we really are’, to have tried everything, screwed everyone and achieved anything before we have to officially ‘grow up’, and we’re not even sure when that is meant to be these days.”

There are, perhaps, too many options now. “Everything now is about defining yourself,” agrees Waller-Bridge. “How sexy are you? How fashionable are you? Are you straight? Are you gay? Are you toned? What’s your DREAM? Are you following it? Are you pregnant? Is that bad? Are you happy? But are you really? A good way to escape this is to party really hard so you forget entirely who you are, then put the photos of the party on the internet so no-one finds out how horrified you are about your perpetual hangover.”

Being an Inbetweener can be a matter of necessity, principle or habit. “I didn’t want to be smug or settled,” writes Suttie when her friends begin to leave her behind. “If they wanted to play at being grown up, I wanted to play at being toddler. Before I met the Actual One and settled into some half-life, gradually submerging into the world of rockeries and ovulation and carrying an umbrella at all times, I wanted to have some fun.”

Those who want to regress to toddlerdom, or even “adultescence” (ugh) are amply catered for now, what with Ladybird books, colouring-in clubs, nights out at the zoo and poo emojis. The cult of youth – which, arguably, dogs women more than men - is partly to blame for this. In her newly expanded Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, the philosopher and academic Susan Neiman writes: “Growing up has come to be viewed as a matter of renouncing your hopes and dreams, accepting the limits of reality you’ve been given, and resigning yourself to a life that will be more boring and less significant than you supposed when you began it.”

It’s the idea that life stops at 30, or that once you have children your own life is over and you have nothing more to contribute, that is problematic – and also a relatively new phenomenon. The Victorians would have found our distaste for adulthood bizarre. “Society is actually giving us a very ambivalent message,” Neiman tells me. “On the one hand it’s saying grow up, but painting growing up as something that’s totally unappealing."

Thanks to a complex, overwhelming brew of more choices, less money, endless distractions and, for many, a snowflake in hell’s chance of buying a house, the Inbetweener is here to stay. Not all stories end with a white dress and a pram in the hallway anymore; indeed, Trainwreck’s romantic happy ending caused total uproar as audiences asked why Schumer plumped for tradition at the last minute. As every Inbetweener knows, growing up these days is a far more complex business than just getting older. Then again, as Neiman says, “outside of fairytales, no one remains a child forever.” What happens, though, if they really, really want to?