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Ryan Shorthouse: Keeping up with Mr and Mrs Jones Senior

Ryan is a Parliamentary assistant and freelance writer.

At the tennis club’s ladies night, a woman in her late twenties reddens when the infamous legion of botoxed housewives say she should have found a nice young man by now. Gossip gets round: the new girl, maybe she’s one of those sorts? And following a heated bargaining session in Monopoly, granddad attacks the ‘boomerang kid’, still living at home well after university. “At your age”, he says, “I had my own house, and your mother was two”.

People today are too concerned with how they compare to others. In other words, they’re obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. Therefore, they are rarely content with what they have. So, even though GDP per capita has increased in the post-war period, the number who are happy has not.

For the twentysomething, there is the additional pressure of keeping up with the parents. Caught in an intergenerational rate race, they have to acquire life’s major achievements when Mr and Mrs Jones Senior did. Education in the certificate frame by your early twenties. Career firmly sorted and on the way up by your mid-twenties. Marriage thereafter. And finally kids. Somewhere in the midst of all this, young people are expected to buy a house.

Yet, these targets are increasingly unrealistic. Graduates face stiffer competition to secure their dream job straight away because of the massive increase in degree-level job applicants. Roughly 1 in 45 applying to the top city law firms will be hired. And to even submit an application form, a strong 2:1 from a top league university is required. Best to get a few years experience under the belt first.

Next, marriage so young is problematic when a culture of long working hours is pervasive, the UK the only EU country to have an opt-out of the Working Time Directive that imposes a 48-hour maximum working week. 16% of the British workforce work much longer than this. Startling still is that the average British employee works 8% longer than the average French employee. Little time is left for a healthy cooked meal, let alone seeing a loved one.

Since it costs on average nearly £3,000 a year to raise a child, the pragmatic will do so only when the financial resources are available. The prospect of bringing up kids in your twenties is laughable when student debt is so high and the property market so inflated that first-time buyers must save roughly £25,000 for the enormous deposit and face an average house price of over £200,000, which is nearly ten times higher than the average salary.

Not meeting social expectations is triggering greater unhappiness. The rate of non-clinical depression has doubled since the early 1980s for those in their twenties. And since 1991, the number of prescribed anti-depressant items that have been dispensed has increased rapdily from 9 million to 31 million per year. Statistics show that today’s young adults feel far more under pressure than ever before: 14% of suicides were by young adults in the late seventies and early eighties whereas today roughly 20% of suicides are by young people.

Layard claims happiness depends on what you have become accustomed to. Thatcher’s children benefited from increased standards of living. But that has come at a price. Set free from the parental nest, many young people find the quality of life they have become familiar with diminish, replaced by cheap holidays and a pokey flat with noisy neighbours. There are of course a whole host of other factors that have contributed to the rise in unhappiness among the young, including poverty and unemployment. But it remains a convincing explanation that is also caused by social expectations of the twentysomething, as well as their own expectations, that have failed to modernise in the face of a drastic alteration in their financial capabilities and time constraints.

In an attempt to afford the goals their parents achieved, many young people just resign to choosing a job based on financial reward rather than job satisfaction, as shown by a recent survey showing over half of employees thinking their job was “a means to an end”. If what you spend nearly a third of your week doing is done just to put cash in the account, rather than increase your happiness, no wonder well-being is in decline. It is no surprise that many in the City have whispered their strong wish to go travelling for a year. 55 per cent of 19-24 year olds in London wanted to go on a cruise, compared with just 26 per cent of over-65s.

There ought to be a serious recasting of what is expected of twentysomethings. Status-conscious parents must stop expecting the glitzy white wedding as a mandatory part of life’s third decade. Twentysomethings too must abandon their belief that they have to achieve their parent’s achievements by a particular age.

What we really need to do is shift the mentality of twentysomethings so they believe the right thing to do is to spend more time on those aspects of life that bring sustained happiness. Daniel Kahneman’s study of Texan women shows that socialising and relaxing give us the most satisfaction. In the US General Social Survey, family, friends and community are among the greatest sources of happiness. Yet, it is the norm for people to work longer hours even though the evidence shows that working, along with commuting, are daily activities where we derive the least happiness. People feel guilty if they leave the office at 5pm. We have got to this absurd position because we think this is the right thing to do, since everyone else seems to do it. To reverse this, spending time with family and friends has to be a legitimate activity in people’s mind. The solution is to get more people to do it. When the majority do something, people tend to believe it is socially acceptable. To at least start this legitimisation, we need to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees. If flexible working is approved and encouraged, workers will think investing in family and community is acceptable, and thus actually do it more and become happier. And employers know that a happy worker will be a more productive one. 94% agree that people work best when they strike a balance between work and the rest of their lives12.

Unhappiness among twentysomethings is, to a certain extent, driven by increasingly unrealistic self- and social-induced targets of what has to be achieved. A permanent loving relationship should be valued, whatever age it happens, not because it ticks another box for gaining society’s approval but because of the intense happiness it can bring. Twentysomethings need to think that the right thing to do is to partake in activities that make them happy, rather than just keeping up with their peers, or the old folks.


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