Meal prepping, quitting smoking, contemplating retinol, taking a serious LinkedIn headshot, knowing which wine to order, contents insurance, losing a parent, becoming a One-Drink Wonder, downloading (and actually trying to use) an investment app, trekking to garden centres, owning a dishwasher, buying yourself flowers. These are just a handful of the traits that young women told me symbolise 'adulthood' in 2019 when I threw the question open to Refinery29's London office. As for me, I won't feel like an adult until I've invested in cashmere and developed a taste for whisky.
The legal age of adulthood in the UK may be 18, but if you pay attention to the traditional markers of maturity peddled by our materialistic culture and society at large, adulthood means home ownership (which has collapsed among 25 to 34-year-olds), getting married (which we're having to delay, often because of the spiralling cost of weddings) and having children (which we're also being priced out of). But are any of these definitions enough in themselves? Beyond material purchases and jokes about 'adulting' (and the 'correct' number of towels to own) loved by millennials, is an unavoidable fact: that having any (or even all) of these things won't automatically make you feel like an adult (just as scoring a top job won't necessarily stop you from feeling like an imposter). Arguably, becoming an 'adult' should be considered more of an internal, psychological shift.
Neuroscientists this week suggested that people don't become fully 'adult' until their 30s. Speaking at an Academy of Medical Sciences meeting on brain development this week, Cambridge University Professor Peter Jones suggested the transition from childhood to adulthood is "much more nuanced" than the legal age of adulthood acknowledges (he described having a definition of when you move from one stage to another as "increasingly absurd"), and that we all mature at different rates. "Important maturation events are happening in the brain from puberty into the mid to late 20s – it’s a process, not something that is done and dusted by 18, though different people have different trajectories," Professor Jones tells Refinery29, citing research he helped conduct into how these brain changes affect young people's behaviour. (Although he admits it's "reasonable" for society to have ages by which young people are, on average, "deemed mature enough to take different decisions and responsibilities" for the maintenance of social order.)
His comments prompted sighs of relief from twentysomethings far and wide, with many (like me) considering them absolution for their own untogether lives ("Thank fuck for that, the pressure's off again!" one man tweeted), while others already in their 30s and even 50s said they still weren't quite there yet. Intrigued by the notion that everyone reaches 'adulthood' at different times, I asked several young women at different stages of their lives what it means to them in 2019.
Martha Nahar, 24, an internal communications officer in London, says that while she does have a husband and stable job (which "feel like quite adult things"), she doesn't have her own property or any "major responsibilities, like a mortgage or children to look after," still has an immature sense of humour and is scared of the future. On the whole, "I don't feel like an adult as I still feel like a lost puppy on most days. As a young person in my early 20s, I still feel like I’m finding my way and I certainly haven’t got my life together," she says, admitting she was "relieved" to read Professor Jones' comments. "It's almost like turning off a pressure cooker and feeling like you can breathe a bit while you figure your life out."
Her definition of adulthood is nuanced: "It's a mix of attaining both economic and psychological goals – things such as having a nice car, house or other shiny items that reflect you’ve got your life together, but also being well balanced, rational, calm, resilient and confident." Given the economic climate, though, she believes material things and achieving economic goals are the most obvious signs of maturity in 2019.
Adulthood is fully ingrained in you when you have a daily responsibility for someone or something else.
Rachel McCarron, 33
For 33-year-old Rachel McCarron, a stay-at-home parent and carer in Cumbria, it was taking on new responsibilities (both financial and familial) and overcoming adversity that propelled her towards adulthood. "I didn't feel like a fully fledged adult until I had to start dealing with council tax bills, looking after my daughter when she's ill and more seriously, going through grief, losing someone that wasn't my old grandparents but someone in my own age range." An awareness of politics – something she believed was a "grown-up's problem" in her late teens – and "worrying about money" are also key signs of maturity, she adds.
"Ultimately, I think adulthood is fully ingrained in you when you have a daily responsibility for someone or something else. Undeniably, parenting my daughter has made me feel like a fully fledged adult because everything I do or don't do impacts upon her. In your late teens and 20s, it feels like there aren't going to be real consequences to your mistakes. In your 30s, you know there definitely is, which makes me avoid making mistakes."
Hope Virgo, 28, an author and mental health campaigner in London, says she often gets ID'd for "looking young" and "[doesn't] want to grow up too fast". She defines adulthood largely in terms of self-assuredness and how people behave. "I have a bed full of panda cuddly toys that makes me feel very childish and there are points that I just need a cuddle with my mum... Plus I hate hanging the laundry out and love eating toast sitting in bed, which I'm not sure are very adult-like behaviours!"
Virgo believes that having a looser, more forgiving definition of adulthood would benefit many young people's mental health. "It's refreshing reading about research that highlights the ridiculous fact that we are made to believe that as soon as you turn 18 you have to suddenly mature overnight. I hope mental health services across the country read this and realise that they should not be transferring people across services the day after they turn 18. This expectation is unhealthy."
While the most important signifiers of adulthood may vary from person to person, there seems to be a wider consensus around what people believe is a more appropriate legal age of adulthood: 25. "I think it's ridiculous that when you turn 18 you're suddenly supposed to grow up," says Virgo. "That's not how it works. People do a huge amount of growing up in their early 20s, so pushing the legal age of adulthood up to 25 would make it better for so many young people."
Nahar is of the same opinion. "I wouldn’t keep it at 18, purely because at 18 not everyone is ready for the big wide world. At 25 I feel as though you start to understand the world around you better, gain more life experience and start to get a better sense of self. At 18 years old I was young, naïve and definitely not as aware as I am now, at 24."
There's unlikely to be public backing of raising the age of criminal culpability to 25 though, and indeed, it's reasonable to argue that most 18-year-olds do know the difference between right and wrong. "I don't believe the law needs to change but where I would suggest change is to community services," suggests McCarron. "There is often a cut-off in the mid 20s, when often people haven't got that full life experience and should still be able to seek out help from support services. I also believe nobody under 25 should have to pay council tax or prescription charges."
Life is hard and it's reassuring to read comments like Professor Jones'. You may be able to vote, leave education or training, buy alcohol, get a mortgage and be treated as an adult by the police at 18, while at the same time wanting nothing more than a reassuring hug from your mum or a pep talk from a well-meaning teacher when times get tough (just me?). "There's plenty of time and ways to grow up at a natural pace," McCarron reassures me. "Everyone has different life experiences but with age comes resilience and knowledge and I think that's the mark of feeling like a grown-up too."