They called it puppy love and said it would never last – but for many childhood sweethearts from the 1960s it did. For those who courted in the 1980s, however, the chances of their teenage romance ending in lifelong-marriage or cohabitation have almost disappeared.
A new study has found that nearly a third of couples in their sixties are still with the person they first fell for. The findings contrast sharply with the generation that grew up under Margaret Thatcher, now aged in their forties and fifties, just 14 per cent of whom are still together.
Research suggests that enduring childhood sweethearts are becoming an endangered species, as young people have more relationships and delay getting married and settling down – giving them greater opportunity to meet potential partners. Greater levels of geographic mobility and job changes have also contributed to relationships being less likely to endure.
A “great delay” between childhood and the traditional milestones of lawn, slippers and baby is the result of growing numbers going to university and soaring house prices since the 1980s. It means that two generations have taken advantage of an extended pre-adult phase of their lives and greater sexual experimentation.
Nearly half of those approaching or already in retirement had a child before they were 25 – four times as many as the youngest group studied. Meanwhile, four out of 10 baby boomers owned their own home in their mid-twenties, compared with a fifth of those from the Twitter generation.
William Nelson of the Future Foundation, which devised the study, commissioned by The Co-operative, said adult life was simply starting later: “This ‘great delay’ in getting into jobs, the housing market and having kids is now having knock-on effects right through life – with people trading up to family-sized homes later on, and far fewer young grandparents around.
“At the same time, young adults have become more ‘impatient’ in terms of their life expectations. In these circumstances it’s not surprising that such a large majority of today’s thirty- and fortysomethings are feeling ‘delayed’ in reaching their life goals.”
But though they may be behind previous generations, young people today are more likely to have had a serious sexual relationship before their 20th birthday or travelled abroad than their grandparents were.
The survey of 2,000 people found that despite the delay in reaching milestones, young people were in many ways more impatient than the post-war generation. They anticipated being promoted more rapidly, owning a car more quickly, and paying off their mortgage before the age of 40.
But there was a sense of frustration among all adults, with 69 per cent saying that economic circumstances had thwarted their realisation of life goals. Most discontented were those aged 45-54. People in their sixties were less self-critical over their career and achievements, although they tended to be more scathing about society and external factors.
Harry Benson of the relationship think-tank The Marriage Foundation said contraception and the rise of living together was central to the demise of the childhood sweetheart. “Birth control has helped break the link between marriage and childbirth. By the mid-1980s co-habitation was becoming increasingly normal. You could move in with someone without having to get married or necessarily have much of a plan for the future.”
Case study: ‘We still enjoy each other’s company. I feel lucky’
John, 61, said: “She was being chatted up by my little brother, so I moved in. I thought Joy was the best-looking girl there and certainly the most attractive in our circle.”
Joy recalls it slightly differently. “He had a reputation and I had seen him from afar. I suppose you could say I was on a mission,” she said.
The couple, originally from Pudsey, near Leeds, courted, moved south and married in 1974 aged 21, setting up home in the West Midlands away from family.
Their first daughter, Adele, was born in 1980, and their son, John, three years later. “Ours has been a life lived together,” said Joy, 60.
“Being away from the family had to make us stronger. We have had to rely on each other,” she said. “I don’t think we have missed out – our lives have just been different,” she added. “I feel very lucky,” said John. “We enjoy each other’s company and if we go on holiday we really enjoy being together.”
The couple’s children, who are now in their thirties, have taken different paths. Their son is getting married at Christmas and their daughter, who is not married, is expecting a baby.
“I look at them and I think they are really well-matched with their partners and I am confident they will stay together,” said John.