Being young just isn't fun any more

In your twenties? If you haven't started a pension, frozen your eggs, got on the property ladder and charted your career path, you're a loser. So put down that pint and get with the programme...
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The Independent Online

I hit the very middle of my mid-20s (not that I'm counting) on the same day that Mervyn King last week announced the coming of the "SOBER decade". Most acronyms have a tendency to be wacky, but not this one: savings, orderly budgets, and equitable rebalancing. "The next decade will not be nice," King told his audience. "History suggests that after a financial crisis, the hangover lasts a while."

The baleful, bilious regret of the suffering drinker is an analogy that has been much used throughout the recent economic tribulations, wheeled out by politicians and pollsters, bankers, businessmen and bailiffs alike. We're the society who skipped dinner and got royally pissed, paying no heed to the fact we had to get up early the next morning and continue to function.

Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but that analogy pretty much sums up my attitude. I am young and footloose, so why shouldn't I spend my precious spare time sozzled and dancing on a table rather than saving and precariously clinging to a housing ladder I can't afford to even start climbing? Because Mervyn King, the Government, the global financial system and the relentless march of progress have all ordered the death of fun, that's why. "The recession years have led to certain cutbacks on fun," says Tammy Smulders, the managing director of the consumer marketing agency SCB Partners. "It's hard to enjoy yourself when you're worried about money and about your future, when you don't have the cash to do what you used to do and you feel guilty about spending what you do have. Of course it makes everything a bit more serious and sombre."

More sober, to use the latest buzz word. It's not just drinking culture that it refers to, of course, it's the overall diffusion of the bacchanalian confidence we had at the peak of the boom years. The confidence that meant being in your 20s was an officially sanctioned extension of youth, a golden decade in which to make the right choices (and plenty of the wrong ones too) to ensure you didn't feel cheated when you reached 60 and had to pay for your own kids to do the same.

But with graduate unemployment at its highest for 17 years, a scarcity of jobs altogether and the stagnation of pay in those few metiers still recruiting, being a twentysomething is no longer the hedonistic jamboree it once was. People between 20 and 30 are some of the worst paid and most overworked in the country; we've accepted the fact that we'll need bankrolling by our parents for as long as possible. Having no money and living off our overdrafts was part of the heady thrill of self-discovery, we assumed.

The injustice of it is that we're as poor as we ever were, as dependent as ever and as downtrodden, but there's a new moral edge which decrees that, whatever we do, we mustn't forget the misery of our continued penury. Older generations see us as infantilised narcissists in need of a short, sharp shock. And the generation nipping at our heels is wired with stories of hardship and hard graft, haunted by the whisperings of tuition fee increases and a social housing crisis. They're having even less fun than we are.

In 2004, the satirical online newspaper The Onion published a knowing piece about the work-led and ambition-driven existence of the go-getting twentysomething. In it, 24-year-old protagonist Frank Anderton is concerned only with climbing the professional ladder. "It's the greatest feeling in the world, knowing I could do anything right now," he says. "I don't have any kids to worry about or a mortgage to pay. If I wanted to pick up and backpack through Europe, I could leave in two weeks, no questions asked. Of course, that would set me back a little, career-wise."

Cue wry laughter. But it's hard to believe that this attitude was once ridiculed; now it seems all-pervasive. There has been an undeniable shift from a negatively presented live-to-work mentality during the boom years, to a propagandist pushing of a work-to-live ethic in these leaner times. What are young people supposed to make of this – that it's lame to devote your life to your work, or that it's outrageous to attempt a life beyond it?

"Up until recently, you saw that rat race in professional circles," says Tammy Smulders. "When the recession hit, it subsided and a certain lifestyle also disappeared. Showing off wasn't important anymore; it was acknowledged as ridiculous to try and out-do people by ordering more champagne or whatever. It has become acceptable to say that you're unemployed – previously it was something shameful that people might not have admitted to."

Thank goodness for that – because there are 1.5 million unemployed young people in Britain; one in 10 people between 25 and 34 do not have a job, and among 18 to 24-year-olds, that figure rises to one in five. It's understandable that, as a demographic, we have cut back on non-essential spending and are preoccupied with our futures. There's a moral case against ostentatious spending – and quite rightly so – but the fiscal rectitude has extended to cover enjoying yourself too.

"There has never been a correlation between how much you spend and how much fun you have," says Geraint Anderson, author of Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile and, as a City trader, witness to some of the most excessive scenes of the boom times. "Recessions produce great music and art and people may discover there are more important things to life than having a Rolex – like sex and dancing, which are usually free."

But this recession has been grimly devoid of such creative, conjugal or choreographed aspects – and it looks set to last much longer than any previous crashes. The way society judged those at the top of the food chain – the bankers splashing £2,000 on one night out – has filtered down to the rest of us, so that spending any money on oneself has become tasteless. Friends who work in the City tell me that they are now under strict instructions not to go out in groups of more than eight and that any drinks expensed should be spread across several people in order that the figures don't add up to fun.

This lost generation are known as the IPODS, another acronym that belies its lighthearted conjugation: insecure, pressurised, overtaxed and debt-ridden. We have more to worry about and longer to do it in than our forebears. "Government research shows that seven million young people aren't saving enough to support themselves in later life," says Alison Bailey, the head of policy at the Pensions Advisory Service. "There's a personal responsibility now; more so than for previous generations because the state system can't cope with the longevity of modern retirement."

It's quite right to educate people out of rampant materialism and profligacy, but there's nothing constructive in being scandalised about spending. It's like pursing your lips at the low-income family that owns a telly; sometimes you need to spend on fripperies because that's all that gets you through. And there's a grim picture ahead of us if young people don't cheer up: rises in youth crime and suicides, more homelessness, further political antipathy, and the marriage rate will fall even lower. Not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Hard times in the 1970s and 1980s sparked punk and the new romantic movement; a new urban creature grew from the rise of youth and street culture. Later, raves provided an outlet for dispossessed youth to commune and have fun inexpensively under railway arches and in fields, rather than pouring their cash into the clubs and bars on the high street that they could no longer afford. But instead of sowing the seeds for a cultural revolution, we have cultivated our sofas; instead of raves we have ready meals, and many young people cite a night at home "Facebooking" as a good alternative to costly socialising.

A survey conducted by Abbey in 2009 found that 39 per cent of people claimed they were staying in rather than going out, and 20 per cent admitted to feeling less sociable since the credit crunch took hold. Some 12 million of us have cut back on holidays, with people between 15 and 34 most likely to go without a summer break. According to the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, there has been an 8 per cent drop in trade in bars, clubs and restaurants, while statistics released last week from the Revenue and Customs Office told of a 37 per cent fall in beer sales in pubs as they – some of which survived both the slump in the 1930s and the Blitz – price themselves out of the market and close, now that no one goes to them. Meanwhile, a new report from Waitrose shows their sales of ready meals are up 15 per cent on last year.

According to research from the homeless charity Shelter, there are 2.8 million people between 18 and 44 who are delaying having children. Some 7 per cent of adults between 18 and 30 are delaying marriage because they cannot afford housing costs – that figure comes to almost 385,000, approximately three times the amount of marriages that take place in year. And a study in 2005 found that women in part-time or temporary employment are 60 per cent less likely to move in with their partners. A report released this week by the Home Builders Federation reveals that the average first-time buyer would have to save every single penny they earn for two years to have even the slimmest chance of getting onto the property ladder. In London, it would take three years. So we continue to throw bad money, what little of it we have, after good to landlords – and not the sort that own pubs.

Advice to young women is to begin banking sections of their ovaries to ensure a chance of conceiving as older mothers. If it isn't money we're being told to save, it's our unborn children – and there I was thinking that the very leitmotif of this decade was not getting pregnant. It's a double blow: not only are our biological clocks ringing like broken alarms, the reason they're going off so early is because we won't be in a position to cash in our eggs until we're too old to be having children anyway. It's like waking up early on the weekend and not being able to get back to sleep.

An entire generation's lives are on hold because they're being told they shouldn't live them fully. In a recent study by the New Economics Foundation, it was proved that levels of happiness and well-being in young people were far below those of older people thanks to a general lack of trust or sense of belonging. Is it any surprise, when we're so often portrayed as the selfish generation, the idlers and the dilettantes? In the same poll, 81 per cent believed the Government should be aiming for the greatest happiness for individuals, rather than the greatest wealth. It is perfectly possible to have one without the other, so why the hair shirts and martyrdom?

By the end of Mervyn King's sober decade I will be 35. No great age, it's true, but one by which I assumed I'd be financially secure, possibly with a property of my own and at least the prospect of children. This, I thought, was the time to grow up and stop messing around. We have enough long years and daily woes to fill our days, so let's take our fun when we can. Just remember what all work and no play did to Jack Nicholson.