‘It’s strange to not be the youngest kind of adult anymore’. Naomi Frisby on changing perceptions of adulthood

We’re establishing careers, buying houses and settling down later in life than ever before, but what does that mean for our perceptions of adulthood? Naomi Frisby explores our changing perspectives.

Lily King’s captivating new novel, Writers & Lovers, follows Casey as she returns to Massachusetts after a heartbreaking love affair, still grieving the loss of her mother. Her one focus is the novel she’s been trying to write, but she’s in debt, directionless and, while she feels like she should have things together at her age, she’s just not quite there yet. It’s a stage of life many people of Casey’s generation can identify with, as career paths become more winding and traditional adult milestones are achieved later in life, if at all. Here, Naomi Frisby explores how new freedoms and challenges are altering our perceptions of adulthood. 

What does it mean to be a fully established adult? Casey, the thirty-one-year-old protagonist of Writers & Lovers, says that ‘it’s strange to not be the youngest kind of adult any more’. She’s reached an age where Western society feels we should be married with a mortgage, a stable job and ideas about starting a family. But while our parents’ generation may be holding on to the notion that these markers constitute adulthood, as with Casey, they aren’t the reality for many of us. 

Casey lives in a potting shed in the garden of her brother’s friend. She works double shifts as a waitress and spends her free time on the novel she’s been writing for six years. When she began the book, she lived with three roommates who were all aspiring writers. Since then they’ve become tax attorneys, realtors, or have married someone with a trust fund, leaving Casey feeling out of sync and anxious about her life. She’s also acquired so much debt from paying for her education that, ‘all I can do now is manage it, pay the minimums until – and this is the thing – until what? Until when? There’s no answer.’

Finance is one of the reasons we’re making conventional choices later than ever. In the UK, the average cost of a wedding is £16,000 (excluding the honeymoon); raising a child until they’re 18 requires £75,000; and the average house price is £230,000. In the context of the rise of unstable employment and the increase in student debt, it’s unsurprising that the average age we take these steps has been increasing steadily since the 1970s. In the UK, the average age for a heterosexual first marriage is 31.5 for women and 33.4 for men, rising to 35.4 for women and 39.5 for men entering into same-sex marriages. The average woman has children at 29 (men at 34), but they don’t buy their first house until they’re 32.  

Money isn’t the only consideration. Women, especially, have more freedom than previous generations. Freedom to choose whether we marry and, if we do, who we marry; freedom to choose whether or not we have children. Casey has lived through her parents’ divorce and her mother telling her, ‘marriage is the polar opposite of a fairy tale,’ while recent studies have told us that unmarried, child-free women are happier than any other societal subgroup. It doesn’t mean we’ve given up on romance though. One of the storylines in the novel concerns Casey having to make a decision about the two men she’s dating. Silas, a writer and teacher, is Casey’s age. He lives in an apartment with a roommate and shares his sister’s rusted car. Oscar, an established writer, is forty-five. Widowed with two young boys, he owns a house with a designer interior. The two men represent Casey’s options. Oscar is traditional adulthood: he brings stability, routine and a ready-made family. Silas is the unknown: young, unpredictable and potentially unreliable. 

Maybe though, looking at adulthood from the perspective of a generation who came of age in a world very different to the one we inhabit is the wrong angle to take. Accepting reservations in the restaurant, Casey says, ‘people are crazy in their planning. How do they know where they will be living next year or even if they will be alive?’ Another character running a workshop comments that ‘improvisation is the number one fear in America […] Which is funny, because aren’t we just improvising all day long? Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation? What are we so scared of?’ 

Marriage, mortgage and children show the world we’ve made it: we’re sorted. They give the illusion we’re in control of our lives. But these things don’t protect us from divorce, job loss or illness. Perhaps more accurate indicators of adulthood would be levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, along with the ability to navigate change and uncertainty. And Casey? She’s not the youngest kind of adult anymore but maybe she’s doing just fine.

Writers and Lovers

by Lily King

Book cover for Writers and Lovers

Casey has just lost her mother and is still recovering from the end of a devastating love affair. Living in a rented shed and working on the novel she’s been trying to write for the last six years, at thirty-one she feels too old to be so directionless. Then she meets two very different men, who represent very different futures. This funny and moving novel explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.