Nellie Eden, 26, is a freelance writer and consultant.
She is single.
I‘m late. It’s 8am and I’m in an Uber from Hackney to Tufnell Park to meet Tiffanie’s husband, Will, and their three children in time to take them to school. Tiffanie takes them most days, she tells me, before heading to her office in east London, where she works as the editor-in-chief of a TV channel. Then she’s back in time for dinner.
I’ve tried to dress in an outfit that’s both school-gate appropriate (what even is that?) and that will see me through a day of meetings and then dinner: a long gingham skirt, Marques Almeida denim jacket and Acne loafers. I lie on the back seat and read The New Yorker on my phone. Forty minutes later, I arrive at a large, slate-grey Victorian house with a Harley-Davidson outside (I later find out this was a “midlife crisis gift” from Tiffanie for Will’s fortieth).
I knock and wait nervously. I last met Tiffanie nine years ago when I was an intern at The Sunday Times Style. She was the editor: powerful, chic, untouchable. But beyond a blonde bob that evoked Paris, Texas, my memories of Tiffanie are hazy. What I have carried with me, though, is a sense that someday I might aspire to be like her. Now, aged 26, my own career has hatched. I’m at my desk seven days a week either writing, consulting for fashion brands or working for Babyface, the creative agency I’ve founded with my best friend, Claire. I hope that I’m a world away from the caricature Tiffanie paints of my generation in her recent book, Now We Are 40, in which she calls us “worthy” and “dull”, among other generalisations which range from the questionable (“There are no definitive fashion trends or musical movements and tribalism has died”) to the laughable (“They drink less, have less sex, go out less”). I’m excited to find out what this swap will teach us both about each other’s lives.
Taylor, the American nanny, lets me into the house, which is warm and busy. Rachel Cusk might have a field day, but I find the domesticity — a Buddha figurine, Abel & Cole boxes, artwork that reads “You’re the Cheese to My Macaroni” — comforting. My flat is a swanky but soulless new-build which my flatmates and I have tried to personalise with Ikea furniture. My room is 99 per cent clothes and washing. My bed is filled with books, magazines and underwear.
Tiffanie, however, has a beautiful, open-plan kitchen where her three children are eating boiled eggs. The children, Sam, 10, Bay, seven, and three-year-old Arty, are like Quentin Blake characters: gorgeous and wide-eyed, with elastic limbs and parted mouths, who sit like a judging panel on the opposite side of the kitchen island. Will, a salt-and-pepper-haired forty-something, darts into the kitchen, motorcycle helmet in hand, greeting me with a soft hello, before disappearing off to work at the film production company he runs.
Taylor asks me to run through some spellings with Bay before school, but because I’m nervous I’m rather useless. Thankfully, I’m let off the hook when instead she asks if I’ll help her select an outfit for school. This I can do. I’ve always been in love with clothes — it’s where most of my income goes. Together we select a sparkly dress and pink tights. We meet the boys downstairs. “Sam will ditch you straight away,” Taylor warns me, wishing me luck with the 20-minute walk. Three minutes in and he’s gone. I feel slightly sick.
At the school gates, I’m carried along in a sea of screaming children and rucksacks. After drop-off, I go for coffee with a group of mums around Tiffanie’s age (her “support network”). The gossip flows freely. “The girls were found in the bathroom with a ouija board,” confirms one, before another launches into a list of who’s who at the school. Apparently a Bafta winner directed their last nativity play. “Welcome to the north London media bubble!” they laugh.
The focus shifts to me and the life swap. No one misses a beat. “So, dating apps… Do you shag on the first date?” I’m asked. I almost spit out my coffee. “How many people have you slept with?” asks another. I break the news that Tinder is effectively the discount aisle at the supermarket; full of broken parts and stuff no one wants. Apps just mean my generation are a cohort of window-shoppers who are increasingly reluctant to make an investment in case they miss a tastier morsel. They look dismayed. “Everybody’s still sleeping with everyone though, don’t worry,” I tell them.
I like these women: they’re chatty, practical and seem genuinely invested in me. I say my goodbyes and head to Tiffanie’s office, which turns out to be a Nathan Barley-style converted warehouse space off Old Street. It’s one large open-plan room — bar Tiffanie’s office — littered with people hot-desking, chatting and sitting on large rubber balls in dark denim jeans. Tiffanie’s responsible for the editorial plan for two cable-news channels, which means lots of conference calls and meetings. It’s clear that she’s the boss, and I’m pleased a woman is in charge of such a male-dominated environment, but I can’t relate to her love of the office. She obviously thrives in structure and can be creative here, which I would find impossible. My thoughts keep returning to the children at home. I already feel attached to them. Being a mother must consist of this constant ebb and flow of angst and fulfilment.
Tiffanie’s husband Will texts: Japanese or French?” I opt for the latter. I’d been warned that date night means “too many drinks, bitching about the kids and bed by 10pm.” A night out for me usually involves clubbing or bar-hopping with my flatmates. I recently stopped drinking — it’s expensive and increasingly incompatible with my seven-day working week — but tonight I’ll park that and have a few cocktails.
Will is stylishly dressed, with a broad smile. Over dinner he tells me, cringing, that he met Tiffanie at Glastonbury in the Nineties. He’s the kind of person I’d have assumed I’d end up with at 18. Then you date enough bad eggs and egomaniacs for those hopes to dissolve like a Berocca on a hangover. I’ve been single for more than five years. It’s not that I don’t know men like Will — lovely, smart, kind — I just haven’t dated them. I favour moody emotional wrecks. Unfortunately.
Back at the house, my inhibitions lifted by alcohol, I look through my counterpart’s walk-in wardrobe. It’s a jumble of beautiful clothes and handbags. Now this I can envisage as part of my future. The large, lovely bedroom filled with family photos, however, feels less achievable. The idea of owning a house is rather unrealistic for me and most of my friends, and something few of us talk about.
Will has politely taken the guest room, so I lie down on their bed and stare drunkenly at the ceiling, trying to imagine committing to one person indefinitely. I value my independence, so it pains me to admit that I would like to meet someone. I feel both envious of the stability of Tiffanie’s life and scared to death by it.
I wake up with a headache and check my phone to see how Tiffanie got on in my room last night. My flatmates have texted saying they told her the teddy I thought I’d hidden was called Dalston, and she believed them. For Christ’s sake. I take a Nurofen and order an Uber, saying a hurried goodbye to the kids, secretly wishing I was staying to have breakfast with them. Instead, I’m shadowing Tiffanie at a talk she’s hosting at Quo Vadis in Soho.
I sneak in late (how does she manage to get out of the house on time with three children?) to find Tiffanie holding court, as elegant as I remember in a sharp black blazer. The room is full of Gen-Xers nodding intently as Tiffanie eulogises about rave culture and grunge, before announcing that the difference between her generation and mine is that “Millennials lack a sense of irony”. It’s a wholly unsubstantiated claim and overlooks memes (sacrilege), but I think she’s hinting at the wider, deeper gulf that divides us. Tiffanie at 26 wasn’t so dissimilar to me, except perhaps for the fact that she felt that life was hers for the taking.
I don’t enjoy the commute back from Old Street to Tufnell Park. One of the best things about freelance life is the lack of a journey to work — I love cycling and walking around London between meetings and never go near the Underground. Bliss. I’ve been fretting about being home in time to make dinner at 6.30pm, but thankfully Taylor has already messaged me and bought the ingredients for my prawn stir-fry. This is obviously how Tiffanie keeps all her plates spinning.
I loathe cooking. It symbolises everything I fear most: domesticity, routine and boredom. My peers may have been raised on a diet of Jamie Oliver, but I mostly eat out. If I must cook, it’s scrambled eggs or mashed avocado with hot sauce. I consider ordering a Deliveroo, but Taylor’s there when I get in. Surely no one can fluff a stir-fry? I add broccoli, noodles and prawns to a pre-made sauce. We all peer into the wok. It’s a brown, sludgy mess. I quietly serve the “food” and sit with the children. I ask them if they’ve seen Oliver Twist and they shake their heads.
After dinner we play. That’s to say, I’m beaten to a pulp by Arty and his wooden sword. It strikes me (as Arty strikes me) that being a mum is exhausting, even at 26. I’d be at a boxing class about now, or working late. I’m too selfish and half-formed to fully comprehend the sacrifice of motherhood, yet intoxicated by the strange sense of reassurance that I’ve been feeling being Tiffanie. Who knew responsibility could be so grounding?
Later that night, Tiffanie returns home and we’re alone for the first time. I ask her about the New Labour optimism under which she came of age. “I had this princess fantasy at 18,” she tells me. “I was reading Shirley Conran’s Lace and one of the characters was an editor of a fashion magazine. I thought, ‘How fucking cool is that? Move to London and work in fashion! Marry Prince Charming and live happily ever after.’ And I did just that.” Life as a twenty-something in 2017, however, can feel like you’re looking down the barrel of a very short gun. We’re a generation out of pocket, knee-deep in a housing crisis, held hostage by our mobile phones, with no hopes of a pension and few of home ownership.
On the flipside, we’re tenacious. We’re fearless, political, in the process of redefining our own punk and DIY scenes, self-publishing, recording our own music and tuning into pirate radio stations. Subcultures are thriving (the internet is great for that). We pub, dub, take drugs and go to raves, too, like every youth culture before us. It’s just that we’ve more weight on our shoulders and, increasingly, less stability.
I want to know how Tiffanie felt being me. “Anxious, because you’re a work in progress,” she says. I get it. At 18 I had looked at Tiffanie and decided that was what I wanted from life. Now, at 26, the world has changed, and so have my goalposts. Marriage, mortgages and middle age are things that happen to most of us, but living with all three, even temporarily, has reminded me to relish my own kinetic lifestyle before the inevitable ossification. Everything — or some of it — in good time will do.
Tiffanie Darke, 44, is an editor and author.
She is married with three children.
Millennials: sigh. We know all about them, don’t we? Take themselves too seriously, massively over-entitled, riven with anxiety, shut out of the home-owning classes by economic circumstance and a bad historical draw, low on humour, endlessly posting selfies and obsessed with clean eating, exercise and gender fluidity. What they could learn from Generation X! We who lived through the Nineties and redefined society — mainstreamed liberal values, worked for passion not money, and supercharged the arts and creative industries.
But Gen X are in mid-life now, and the trouble with mid-life is it is extraordinarily predictable. This life swap should shake things up, but I wonder how I’m going to break it to my husband of 10 years that a 26-year-old stranger is going to be his “wife” and the temporary mother of our children. And that I will be inhabiting her life as a single, non-drinking pescatarian living in a flat-share in Hackney.
Nellie arrives by Uber (she goes everywhere by Uber, I am to find out), glowing with youth. She has beautiful alabaster skin and long, raven hair. And she’s charming to boot. I should be disconcerted — after all, I’m groggy from a sleeping pill and wearing a jumper with holes in — but within three minutes the kids are smitten and even my husband smiles. This is going to be fine. Whether I’ll be able to fill her shoes as one of the best-connected women in east London, however, is debatable.
Nellie already has a consultancy job at a PR company, where she has scored the hilarious title of culture director. If this doesn’t tick off every sky-high Millennial expectation, I don’t know what does. I assumed she plays table tennis during her meetings whilst simultaneously conducting a Facebook Live session with an “influencer”, but in fact, she works from coffee shops, friends’ houses and the park — a prospect which fills me with fear as I set up my laptop in a Shoreditch café. I love offices, I love the structure, the community, the gossip… Working from a café all day is lonely, and I spend too much time ordering coffee and watching the world go by to get much work done. Nellie’s real passion is Babyface, the agency she and her best friend Claire have started, which acts as a networking platform for young women in the creative industries and brands. Both are working every spare hour they can to get it off the ground. I don’t blame them: earning £40,000 a year is never going to fund a mortgage in London, which is why Millennials are fuelling our start-up culture. And so it is that I find myself in the Ace Hotel at gone 6pm with Claire, finalising a shoot for Fred Perry at the weekend. Theirs is a gruelling schedule; but it has nothing on a full day’s work followed by an evening parenting three children.
For me, rare nights out involve getting together with my time-poor, frazzled mum-friends to down as much champagne as we can in the shortest possible time before we all fall asleep, preferably somewhere that serves food and where we can all sit down. Listening to poetry isn’t my idea of cutting loose, but here I am in a dark concrete bunker in south London with Nellie’s friend Taiba, who is dressed in black vinyl and pink faux-fur. She is skinny, overexcited and, to my relief, drinking gin. Wait, I thought Nellie and her friends didn’t drink? Some days we don’t,” laughs Taiba. Ah, that kind of non-drinking. Taiba runs a pop-up hair-braiding bar which is enormously successful. She tells me she gets Nellie into lots of trouble and keeps her out all night. I used to have friends like those.
There’s no bar at the venue and people drink cans they’ve bought from a nearby supermarket. It feels like a Nineties warehouse party, except people are sitting, listening to the DJ and an MC rapping into a microphone. The rhymes are intelligent, the music is clever. “What is this?” I ask Taiba. “It’s sort of future R&B,” she says. “The guy is James Massiah — he’s amazing.” He’s part of a Peckham arts collective which, I’m told, is “blowing up”, bursting with new voices and music. I thought Millennials were all Nick Grimshaws, and instantly feel an idiot for being so out of touch. I begin to love the music — it’s so different from anything on the hellish virtual circle that is my Spotify playlist, permanently tuned into BBC 6 Music and Ibiza chill-out playlists.
James is ramping everyone up for their night out, talking about ketamine, pills and dancing. Taiba and her friends are off to a rave (“sponsored by Nike,” they spit), and I feel a twinge of concern. “Don’t worry, I’ll be home by 2am,” she promises as she stumbles off, giggling.
I make the journey back to the flat Nellie shares with two girlfriends, Amy and Natalia, in Hackney. Amy is a buyer at Asos and has known Nellie for years; Natalia is a producer at ITV News and moved in last year. They throw open the door, dressed identically — high-waisted jeans with white crop tops revealing distressingly flat tummies. They have, totally seriously, been practising selfies, and show me the results on their phones. Amy, clutching a beer, can’t wait to spill the beans on Nellie — her chaotic life, her love of shopping, her erratic drinking/non-drinking, dating/non-dating habits, her workaholism, her clothes, her shoes … I decide to leave any further digging until tomorrow and clear the teddies off her bed to go to sleep.
The flat has binbags of clothes and shoes everywhere. Still, it’s clean and rather lovely — three big bedrooms and a huge living room, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hackney drag. Nellie has the largest room, with an en-suite shower. It’s a classic single girl’s boudoir, a palace of femininity and fashion. No room in here for a boy — especially not with those cuddly toys. The kitchen, meanwhile, is an apologetic galley which seems entirely redundant as no one cooks or, seemingly, eats.
Amy takes me through Nellie’s wardrobe. She pulls out a floor-length, red-lace negligee, which she claims cost £600; it was bought by Nellie for a Gucci party in Milan and hasn’t been worn since. This is quite a staggering outlay for a 26-year-old. How does she afford all this stuff? Her disposable income appears to go on self-indulgence — mainly clothes and cheap beach holidays, which sounds fun. Mine goes on violin lessons, rugby boots, three mortgages, various insurance policies, a car loan, the nanny, a cleaner and Lego. Even if I could spend spare money on myself now, I’d feel guilty.
Nellie suggested I join her dance-cardio class at Frame today — over my dead body. A forty-something friend of mine was recently reduced to tears there. I prefer running at my own pace, and yoga. I rifle through Nellie’s beauty stash and notice that although we have roughly the same amount of make-up, she wears far more than me. Millennials love a full face, whereas I’ve always been more of a no-make-up make-up kind of girl It’s the selfies, I conclude as I stumble across Natalia contouring in the bathroom.
I’m jealous that Nellie went out with my husband for a meal last night (we’re meant to go once a week; of course, this hardly ever happens), but on the plus side, today I get to try Tinder. Nellie is resolutely single, a self-confessed commitment-phobe and a voracious dater. Having been married for 10 years, I miss dating and have been waiting for a legitimate excuse to trial this smorgasbord of available men. In my twenties, a single man in London was a rare and highly valued object. You had to go to friends’ parties for any hope of a hook-up, where invariably you’d meet the same men over and again. Now, there are databases of them at your fingertips, literally 250 yards away. I know this because when Nellie’s flatmates set me up on Happn, I am alarmed to discover available men are categorised by distance from the front door. I can literally hook up with one now and meet him at the corner of the road. Terrifyingly available.
But the quality of the men is shocking. Profile pictures of lads clutching beer bottles with 20 mates, men in too-tight T-shirts and sunglasses describing themselves as CEO of a start-up, fat specimens posting pictures with their mums… I have never scrolled through a more unappetising menu. After 20 minutes of window shopping, the whole thing already feels hopeless.
Luckily, Nellie has set me up with Joe, a friend of hers. I know nothing about him except that he can’t meet me until 10.30pm. I’m normally in bed by then but I press on, and he texts me the name of a cocktail bar in Shoreditch. I opt for a margarita — served by a waitress with a soliloquy, alongside a pile of salt “foam” I must spoon on to the drink It is the most challenging margarita of my life.
Joe arrives a few minutes later, handsome, boyish, charming. He apologises for the bar and being late, and tries to order a whiskey. It comes with a blueberry pancake. I start off fancying Joe — he’s very good-looking, confident and just the right side of cocky and I wonder why Nellie has let this one go. He seems bright, polite, chivalrous (rejoice?) and is working for an independent magazine. But Joe is 27. His Whatsapp beeps in his pocket every 90 seconds, and he seems to have no inclination to silence it. Everything is “sick!”, which I find weird, as everything is also “sick” to my 10-year-old son.
After about an hour Joe suggests we head to another bar, but I’m desperate to get home and go to sleep. Arriving at my own house, I am unbelievably happy to see Will. I feel lucky to have him, kids and all those years together under our belt. I realise I wouldn’t want to be my 26-year-old self again for all the dates on Tinder. Nellie told me dating was a full-time job and I laughed at her. But she’s right. It’s devastating to put yourself on the line every time you meet someone for a drink. The expectation and disappointment, the endless letdowns, being two-timed, casually flung aside or, as Millennials say, ghosted.
I can’t sleep, as I have a strange sense of incompletion — of the date, of Nellie’s work, of where her life is going. For the last decade I’ve known exactly where my life was going. It used to bore me with its predictability, but now it seems comfortable, luxurious. My kind of stability must feel very distant to them. I can’t say it felt close to me when I was 26 either, but for me and many of my generation, it has come to be.
Technology is the big difference between us. The digital revolution has taken away secure employment but offered opportunity. Millennials know more about health and fitness, and inhabit a society with more problems which they are consciously trying to address. They are not sequestered in offices, but exist in their own communities, on Instagram and Whatsapp. They’re young, going for it, up for it, and I’m excited for them. But happy where I am.