Turning 18: What it’s Meant, Through the Decades

What were you spending your money on when you turned 18 – and what does it mean to be a young adult today, financially speaking and generally?

In our latest article, we look at exactly what it’s meant, through the decades, to turn 18. Read on for a warm and comforting slice of nostalgia via some extremely telling personal recollections…


Turning 18 in the 40s and 50s

Ah, the 1940s and 50s – what a time to live through. In 1941, states the Imperial War Museums site, ‘those aged between 16 and 18 were required to register for some form of national service, even if they had a full-time job’.

Boys received their call-up papers for the armed forces when they turned 18 and girls were also conscripted, either joining one of the women’s auxiliary services or taking on other essential war work.’

Nita Holder, from Wigan*, is well into her nineties today and says she remembers turning 18 well.

“I was a dressmaker, and my full-time wage was three guineas [around £1.05 in today’s money]’. Nita’s soon-to-be-husband, Aled, worked around the corner and they hit it off immediately.

“All we ever spent our money on in them days was the pictures. There were loads of picture houses and you’d travel everywhere on bike or by bus. You were just glad at the time that you could make ends meet. My boyfriend went into the army and when he came home on leave, he asked my dad if he could marry me.”


‘Nobody made a fuss of their 18th birthday like some do now’

Weddings in the 40s and 50s were simple but lovely, Nita remembers. “I paid for everything – and I made everything too”, she remembers.

“My mum and dad paid for the reception. Inside three weeks, I made my wedding dress, a couple of bridesmaids’ dresses, a suit, and a coat to go away in, as well as my mother’s coat and my mother’s dress.”

Nita said, “We only went to Blackpool for our honeymoon, as we didn’t have much money’, adding: ‘When we got married, we lived with my mum and dad for five years. It was just as hard back then to buy a property as it is now. You paid your bills first and you lived accordingly. Nobody made a fuss of their 18th birthday like they do today.”


Turning 18 in the 60s and 70s

According to a YouGov survey,Britons think it was better to be a young person in the 1960s and 1970s, around the time that Baby Boomers were young, than it is today.’

Interestingly, one in four (40%) believe this, compared to 26% who say the opposite. ‘A further 17% say that both time periods were equally good.’ states this article.

Christina Crimple, aged 70 from Huddersfield, turned 18 in the late 1960s. She says:

“I was married two weeks after I turned 18. I lived in a rented house and worked in a mill as a weaver”.

Most people settled down younger then – and people were relatively careful with their money, she tells us, while some of them enjoyed spending what they had left over.

Sixty-six-year-old Shaun Holdsworth, from Lancaster, firmly agrees. He turned 18 in the 1970s and said that for him and his circle of friends at least, life was great back then.

“In the 70s, most people (if they even had a car) would buy a second-hand one. Some people got bank loans to buy a car and, generally, you just enjoyed your weekends and spent your money – until you started saving your money, that is.”


‘People worked hard and played hard’

He went on to say that a few people began amassing belongings for what they called ‘the bottom drawer’ back then. “It was girls who did this mainly – and it was in preparation for settling down. They’d accumulate things to add to the drawer, so they’d have everything ready for when they moved out.”

Weddings weren’t extravagant like they are today, either, says Shaun. “The wedding gift list would’ve been a fairly new thing then. Most people just bought you want you wanted – they just came out and asked you: do you need a toaster? And then they’d buy you one if you did.”

“People worked hard and played hard. The 70s wasn't an era where people were too well off. A night out wasn't too expensive, though. You had a good night out in three or four hours; nights out generally started at 8pm and ended around midnight – and you could get home from your boozy night out on a bus. The pubs were packed and lots of them had loud juke boxes…the mobile DJ was a relatively new thing then.”


Turning 18 in the 80s

“I turned 18 in 1980 and it was all about having 'the key to the door'” says Sannie Smith, who’s in her 60s and from Clitheroe. “Everybody got a plastic key in a box for their birthday [even though, officially, getting the key to the door meant turning 21] – it was a bit of ‘tat’ really.” she remembers.

“Eighteen just meant that you're legal to vote and drink…not much else.” she continues. “My mum bought me a ring for my 18th, which I lost, so she got me another for my 21st, which I still have. No one got parties, holidays or driving lessons"


Turning 18 in the 90s

Sarah McVeigh is now 45 and turned 18 in the 1990s.

“Turning 18 meant going out with your friends – either to a party or for a night out – nothing fancy, just a get-together. It was a big deal but not in quite the same way as it seems to be now. It was good to know you had the chance to vote when you turned 18, though – well, for me anyway. Those were the Tony Blair days. How exciting (not).”

Which brings us nicely to turning 18 in more recent years…


Turning 18 in the 2000 and 2010s

While the 18-year-old of times gone by (the 1940s and 50s, particularly) might have already been well on his or her way to ‘settling down’, the Office for National Statistics says: ‘getting married at 18 is no longer a thing’.

Only around one in a thousand 18-year-olds got married in 2015, according to the ONS – a staggering five times fewer than at the start of the millennium. ‘Only 683 people aged 18 tied the knot in the UK in 2015, compared with 3,693 people in 2000.’

Far fewer 18-year-olds are mums and dads now too. Interestingly, the birth rate for women aged 18 fell by 58% between 2000 and 2016, while for men aged 18, the birth rate dropped by 41%.’

Interestingly, a 2021 article by UCAS states that a record number of students were accepted into university of college that same year – a 7% increase on 2020 and a new record.

It seems, then, that the trajectory of an 18-year-old now has remained the same for an 18-year-old in the 90s, with many – although not all (read on for more!) – choosing to go to university to further their education.


‘Heading into the big, wide world, but without the pressures’

“I'm a few months away from turning 40 but 18 seems like yesterday” says Lauren Holdsworth, who turned 18 in the noughties. “Back then, 18 for me - and the rest of my pals - meant (potentially) heading off to uni, or just leaving sixth form or college and getting a job. Basically, heading into the 'big, wide world' but without the pressures of yesteryear.”

Lauren says none of her friends were on the property ladder – and ‘no one even owned a car, from memory’. “It was all just about having fun, while maybe putting the building blocks in place for your career. But essentially, it was about meeting new folks (at uni or through work) and thinking about saving money later."

Sannie Smith says one of her daughters turned 18 in the 2000s. She said: ‘She was too drunk to remember her 18th, but I remember it! She got the first camera phone and went out for drinks. She also had friends at home first for drinks and cake.”

Another of Sannie’s daughters, Joelle, turned 18 in the 2010s. Joelle said: “I think for me, turning 18 was just uni, uni, uni. I don’t really know anyone who could afford a house or anything, so it was ‘go to uni, get a job, and make money’.”


Turning 18 in the 2020s…

Carla, from Manchester, turned 18 in 2023 and says the pandemic has defined many people’s outlook on the milestone age – and the options available to them.

“We didn't get to review our options as much. It was harder for us to decide: ‘oh I'll go to study this I'll get a degree in this’”, she says.

“It’s very unheard of to be in a stable, long-term relationship at this age, too”. Carla also adds that there seems to be fewer people going to university, as well, adding that many of her friends went from school to college or directly into apprenticeship: “On the whole, not as many people are going to uni now – it’s so much more expensive.” she says.

What did Carla and her friends do for their eighteenth, then?

“I was the first in my friendship group to turn 18, so I didn’t do anything too extravagant. Some of my other friends rented out venues, though.”

Eighteenth birthdays are very much seen as a big birthday – and a huge reason to celebrate, says Carla, but the pandemic not only put a stop to planned celebrations, but the various lockdowns also made it more challenging for those who were then 16 to get the careers advice they needed.

Carla continues: “People are living at home so much longer too, it’s so much more difficult now to move out and get a house.”

What do 18-year-olds in the 2020s spend their money on? Carla says it’s ‘clothes’ and ‘going out’, adding that a lot of people amongst her age group ‘aren’t too big on saving – although we should be’, she says.

What was your financial outlook when you turned 18, as opposed to now? Were you squirreling money away or living in the moment, like some of the people we’ve featured here? Join the conversation over on Facebook – and, if you want to save for a future milestone birthday – or a relative’s big birthday – check out our range of financial products**.


Until next time…

*Some names and locations have been changed

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