I moved to London when I was 22. At the time, it felt like the most grown-up thing I had ever done, until that adult act was superseded by another move – leaving the city this summer, 10 years later. It’s a traditional trajectory. Many of us start our adult life by moving to somewhere metropolitan, often in search of employment, friends and fun. Our stories are fairly similar – we choose the cheapest housing we can afford; we build our lives around our jobs and the people we might meet as a result of those jobs. We travel along a path that millions of people have trodden in for us. We try to establish ourselves professionally and make enough money to live somewhere slightly nicer. We might meet the people that we want to share our lives with. This sometimes results in marriage or children, but it usually leads to a discussion about the future and whether you see yourselves staying in the city or trying to start the next chapter in a new location with one of the following: fresh air, outdoor space, a lower crime rate or shops that don’t stay open after 4pm on a Sunday.
In his brilliant memoir, Don’t Be A Dick, Pete, the writer Stuart Heritage describes London as “a crèche… that allows [its residents] to eke out their responsibility free lifestyle for two decades longer than any normal person should… London is full of giant thirty something toddlers”. Cities seem glamorous. They’re famed for their fast pace. You’re surrounded by people who are supposedly at the top of their professional game. But they’re also packed with people like me who have turned into toddlers. Towards the end of my decade in London, I regularly failed at standard acts of adulthood, like making my own lunch, working out how to get home and keeping my flat stocked with milk and loo roll. An insufficiently charged iPhone would stop me in my tracks, like a Dalek approaching stairs. I think that’s the strangest thing about cities. Initially, they force you to accelerate and do as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Then, after a little while, they hold you in stasis and stop you from going any further.
Lottie, a 33-year-old illustrator who recently moved to North Yorkshire, tells me: “I loved London, but it was starting to feel like a waiting room, where everyone was just killing time while they decided what to do next. Every month, someone would announce that they were leaving to buy a house somewhere cheaper, or that they were trying for children. A lot of these people were old uni friends – we met at Leeds and ended up coming down together and loosely maintaining the group. We had so much fun together, but in the last couple of years our families and jobs were becoming so demanding that we barely saw each other.”
Lottie explains that the deciding factor was a financial one: “London is such an expensive place to live. The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed to spend all my money on rent, work at weekends and be constantly exhausted, and maybe see my friends once or twice a month. I’ve been living just outside Leeds for about six months. It can be lonely and a little scary, but I feel much more independent. For what feels like the first time, I’ve got the headspace and financial wiggle room to start planning for my future.”
Initially, cities force you to accelerate, and do as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Then, after a little while, they hold you in stasis and stop you from going any further
Research from Savills estate agents shows that the number of people leaving London aged between 30 and 39 has risen by 80 per cent in the last five years. Perhaps predictably, it was surmised that the main driver was house prices, with homes in London typically costing around £250,000 more than properties elsewhere. Something similar is happening in the States, with net domestic migration to New York down by 900,000 people since 2010 – that’s nearly a million more departures than arrivals. Economist Jed Kolko found that population growth in big US cities has been slowing steadily since 2011.
In English folklore, Dick Whittington famously came to London to seek his fortune, walking for hundreds of miles in order to get out of the country in order to find the opportunities to satisfy his ambitions, because they didn't exist for him at home. It's thought that Madonna's career began when she left Michigan, climbed into a yellow New York taxi and said, "Take me to the centre of everything!" But today, neither Dick nor Madge would need to move location in order to pursue their dreams – as freelancers, they could launch their careers online, from anywhere. As the gig economy grows, job security declines and salaries fail to keep pace with the cost of living, cities perhaps have less to offer us than ever before.
We also tend to lead lives that are often more fragmented than our parents’ were. Twenty or 30 years ago, moving was synonymous with “settling down”, but now it’s often a response to a break-up, a career break or a change in circumstances – for example, having to look after elderly or unwell family members.
Sam, 38, moved back in with her parents a year ago and says it’s the most adult thing she’s ever had to do. “Initially, I was just trying to sort myself out after my divorce, and waiting, but when my dad had a stroke and his health started deteriorating, I was there to pitch in and help. It’s been incredibly difficult at times, but I wouldn’t have changed anything and I know that my being there has made things much easier for Mum. To be honest, I didn’t have that many responsibilities before. While I wish Dad wasn’t so ill, this has forced me to be mature and sorted in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of.”
I know I’m very fortunate to be in a position where moving was a choice. My experience was similar to Lottie’s. London started to seem overwhelming and unworkable, I was sick of being tired, and spending too much money on taxis and takeaways because saving seemed pointless – I could try for a hundred years and still not have enough for a house deposit. I imagined a calmer, happier version of myself in a different setting. I could live by the sea, halve my rent, go to the beach every day, swim, run, have a proper routine and not spend four nights a week drinking £9 glasses of warm white wine while apologising to the person I was with for being too busy and disorganised to see them sooner.
I miss that giddy, egotistical idea of myself as a person who lives in the capital – the sense that I am at the centre of everything
Of course, it isn’t so simple. As James Joyce said, “Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” I still feel too busy and disorganised. Some days my sea view makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world, and on others I feel like the worst person for spending more time staring at my laptop screen than being on the sand. I moved because I thought it was time for me to start behaving more like an adult, seeking peace and quiet.
However, the most grown-up thing about my new life might be that it is forcing me to make peace with myself. It’s a significant change that has led me to make minor and major compromises. I miss Itsu, Uber and Waitrose, booking theatre tickets without having to plan a route home and meeting people at pubs in Peckham on half an hour’s notice.
However, more nebulously, I miss that giddy, egotistical idea of myself as a person who lives in the capital – the sense that I am at the centre of everything. In some ways, moving has forced me to grow up by giving up on the childish idea of who Adult Me might be. I’m never going to twirl around Mayfair in floor-length couture, on the arm of Rich Uncle Pennybags. I’m never going to be a Bloomsbury intellectual or a Notting Hill bohemian or a Whitechapel artist either. The ghosts of all my hopes line the streets, from Hammersmith to Hackney.
Still, as Joan Didion put it, there’s a “private reconciliation” to be made. When I started living in the city, I had no idea of who I was, so I found a space where it was safe to try on a range of personalities and discard the ones that didn’t fit. A decade later, I’m starting to become defined. I don’t have as much time to dream, because I’m starting to do the things I dreamed about. Moving to London made me want to repeatedly reinvent myself. Moving away from it has made me realise that I like who I have become, and that’s enough. Some days I swim, and some days I stare at my laptop. Sometimes I’m organised about milk and loo roll, and sometimes I eat ice cream for tea. I’ll never be an artist, bohemian or millionaire. Yet, I’ve never felt more capable, or confident of who I am, and what I might do next. If I need to remind myself of how far I’ve come, I simply look out at the sea.