The unwritten rite of passage for every ripe new 20-year-old is a conversation about one’s childhood perceptions of what it meant to be 20. I see it every time. The minute the clock strikes midnight and the teenage persona tumbles to the floor, the birthday girl or boy fumbles through the cabinets of their mind in search of a way to make the day seem meaningful, usually finding that the best way is to turn to a friend and mention that when they were 12 they thought everyone in their twenties were full grown adults.
I, usually standing by the cake at these twentieth birthday parties, often overhear these conversations from afar and nod my head, acknowledging that no matter how overplayed the idea is, it rings true: 20 really does catch everyone by surprise, and somehow no one ever imagines it correctly in middle school.
But 20 is still something special. It’s when you can be dumb but not too dumb and when you’re considered young but not too young. It’s the foyer of the rest of our lives, where we stand and look around at what we’ve built or what’s been built for us and soberly consider the rest of our lives for maybe the first time. Looking back, sometimes it felt like the entirety of my adolescent life was preparation for my twenties, the time when I might actually marry and get a real job and be seen as equal to every other adult.
All in all, twentieth birthdays, and maybe even more so twenty-first birthdays, are symbols of the more general stage of life we’re all in. It’s the set of moments that fall after we become adults but before we feel like them.
Maybe that’s why everybody seems to be changing nowadays. They’re at the point where they see themselves through and through but don’t feel locked in yet. In elementary school and middle school and high school, I remember walking into class after each summer break, looking around at the friends I hadn’t seen in months and recognizing them as I’d left them. Many had new clothes and some had longer hair, but they all still wore Abercrombie button ups or Nike shirts that said things like “Shoot till my arms fall off,” so it felt more than familiar.
This year, I returned to campus to find that many of my friends had gotten into shape or thrown out their old wardrobe and started anew. People tell you college is a time to reinvent yourself; I just didn’t expect it to happen halfway through.
But if you look at the literature on quarter-life crises, it all makes sense. Your twenties are likely to be the first years in which you feel truly stuck, and you don’t have to wait to graduate to experience the effects. The later it gets in our college careers, the more our failed relationships and confusion about our futures worry us. Maybe that’s why, according to Harvard Business Review, the average age for the onset of depression is in one’s twenties. So what do we do? We adapt. We chase new feelings, new versions of ourselves, new experiences. We don’t let the old Taylor come to the phone anymore. She’d dead.
And maybe that’s not so bad. When you’re young, you think 20-year-olds are finally the people they wanted to be, that they’ve hit their prime and are now just gathering their spoils: careers and spouses and pets. In reality, we all still want a few things: to be taller, smarter, funnier, more self aware. We haven’t made it yet, and we’re not even close because that’s not how life works. It isn’t a journey to a finite point. We’re always learning, always fine-tuning, forever working it out as we go along. And maybe “working it out” means realizing in your twenties that it is time to start buying protein powder or wearing skinny jeans.
This year, I, in the company of Lil Yachty, the Hercules movie, the first Harry Potter book, and Good Will Hunting, turn 20, and I’m not sure how to take it. Even if I eventually stop feeling the need to reinvent myself, I’ll still have to deal with the influx of new responsibilities before me.
In a fit of unexpected insight, a friend of mine once told me that one’s maturity can be measured by their ability to turn down good things for better things. Now, with a couple decades behind me, I’m finally at the point where these types of decisions, the ones between good and better things, actually matter. I’m not just picking which Lunchable to eat anymore; I’m putting together a life.
But that’s how it has to be. When you’re 20, you know yourself well enough to no longer be surprised by the compliments or insults you get, and well enough to have at least a sliver of an idea about what you want out of life. I guess it’s only fair that all this happens around the time when you’ll need to put all that self knowledge to good use.
“When I was 20-something, I asked my father, ‘When did you start feeling like a grownup?’ His response: ‘Never.’”
― Shannon Celebi
Paul Russell is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.