Enjoy your 20’s whilst they last, they say.
Navigating the inexorable tenuousness of being twenty something.
Whenever I’m signing up to something or filling out a survey, I’m awash with a nervous energy as I click the 18-24 age bracket. Whilst I cling to the frays of the millennial generation, I’m hardly a gen-Z either; the process feels confused. Lumping ages 18-24 together might ring categorically true for marketing and demographic purposes, but I’m hardly the same person at 23 that I was at 18.
At 18 – hormone-frenzied and fresh out of high school – on the precipice of the best years of my life, I looked to the future with an unchecked amount of optimism. In completing year 12, I had clamoured my way to the top of an excruciatingly difficult mountain and was immediately smitten and taken by the view. The years to come promised experience and excitement; an unbridled chance to navigate who I was, and what mattered.
This year, on a crisp August morning, I woke up as a 23-year-old. By no consequential feat, either. Simply, all the clock had to do was strike midnight. Sure, I’d dyed my hair a few shades blonder the night before, and the birthday excitement had added an ineffable spring to my step, but I was remarkably similar to the girl whose head hit the pillow 8 hours earlier.
The five years that separate my 18-year-old self and the 23-year-old who writes this – frantically tapping away on her Macbook – feel monumental. For one thing, I’ve replaced a milky mocha, for a strong long-black, and a prompt “no thanks” to sugar. Though the penchant for adventure still exists somewhere, it’s squashed under the weight of newfound stress, and a heightened sense of urgency.
At 23, I feel like I’m in a perpetual, unforgiving state of rush: the rush to harness my potential before the elixir of youth runs dry. The need to scrape together some semblance of a well-lived life. A career that promises longevity and wealth. A relationship that conveys equal parts partnership and love. A friendship circle that is both diverse and compatible, spontaneous but supportive. To waste time and energy is imprudent and irresponsible.
Since my birthday I’ve unequivocally bandied about the idea that “23 is the worst year of your 20s.” A conclusion I’ve reached – albeit – with no point of reference or comparison to ages 24 to 30. Though an admittedly unproductive and non-encouraging sentiment, I mostly say it because I think 23 is awkward. Some of my friends are working full time. Some are completing their Masters.
Though the penchant for adventure still exists somewhere, it’s squashed under the weight of newfound stress, and a heightened sense of urgency.
Some are moving overseas and kicking goals and chasing their dreams (two people whom, might I add, I miss very dearly). Some are single (exceptionally ready to mingle) and some are locked-in, loved-up and long-term committed. It’s either swiping ferociously through Twitter or through new listings on domain.com.au. The people occupying that middle ground – of settled to not-quite-so – are increasingly few and far between.
Anyone I meet who is 30 plus, or simply working full-time, looks back on their early twenties with a sense of ethereal pleasure; as a joyous, abundant life, sans worries, bills, kids and the like. As the gap widens between the person of your youth and the person now, the grass is glorified to an exceptionally vivid shade of green.
For me? 23 feels anything but. I feel like an observer sitting on the fringe of what is meant to be “the best years of my life.” Sure, things are objectively (and mostly subjectively!) going pretty well. But truthfully, I wonder if I’m doing this thing right. Like if I decline the invitation to go out on a Saturday night in favour of a practice exam, I’ve squandered five hours of partying and fun and drunkenness. Like when I remember this time, 10, 20 years from now, I’ll fret at my failure to soak up the quantum of fun that was on offer.
Elizabeth Day, an English journalist of critical and global acclaim, in her podcast – How to Fail – has highlighted a recurring theme. The guests she interviews, in naming their biggest life failures, constantly defer to having “failed at their 20’s.” More so, the failure to revel in the quintessential 20’s experience: where you’re blackout drunk on a Thursday night, but at your desk by Friday morning, where you’re scraping by your university classes but manage, by some miraculous feat, to land your dream job at 22. Throw in some one-night stands, missed 2am busses, aperol spritz’s, cheating boyfriends, unpaid internships, European hostels and a fast metabolism, and you’ve had yourself that perfectly imperfect 20’s decade.
In a world that demands forward-thinking, it’s hard to conceive of a life without these expectations. But such is the truth, that no two people tread exactly the same track. What I want from my 20s might be different from what you want: the distinction between the two is no more a failure than it is a fact of life. If peppermint tea and a messy bun truly, absolutely, sounds better to me than a high blood alcohol content and a smokey eye, you’d best guarantee I’ll take the former.
To summate your 20s as one all-conclusive decade evades the nuances of it all. In reality, your 20s can feel like a high-pressure vessel that’s ready to spontaneously combust at any given moment. In any case, I’d guess we’d better strap ourselves in and enjoy the ride. This is, albeit, only really possible when you relax your shoulders and sink into the vat of used and unused potential. A skill I am certainly yet to master. But – until then – if I replace the word “worst” with “best,” and lean into the discomfort of and awkwardness, I’d love to see what 23 serves up.
Rebecca Maher studies a Bachelor of Arts and Law at Monash University.