The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By age 35, you should have saved up enough despair to understand this meme

(Mark Lennihan/AP)

This is part of an occasional series in which we explain what’s behind a popular meme. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon a joke, tweet, image, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had. 

The meme: “By age 35”

By age 35, you should know exactly why a certain tweet offering money advice was destined to become a meme.

The meme itself is easy to do: Swap out “have twice your salary saved” with something else unrealistic, too real or just plain absurd. It has blown up, particularly on Twitter, over the past several days as older millennials pile up joke after dark joke about their realities. The main thrust of the reaction: A retirement account, let alone one with “twice” your salary, is out of reach for many approaching 35. Or even a salary, for that matter.

However, not every “by age 35 ” tweet comes from a place of pure despair. For instance, this is my personal favorite iteration of the meme:

How it began

The MarketWatch tweet was hit first with baffled replies. “I think you meant to say, By 35 you should have debt twice your salary,” one Twitter user said. Another reply joked, “I can’t I have a serious avocado toast problem,” a callback to that time a millionaire told millennials that the reason they couldn’t afford a home was their love of avocado toast.

Soon, people who had seen the original tweet started making proclamations of their own.

Others got historically specific:

Why did this happen?

(Takes a deep breath.)

Those of us approaching 35 (hello, I am 33) are the oldest of the millennials. We lived through the recession as we tried to start our adult lives. Many of us are saddled with college debt. And we have been blamed for “killing” everything from Costco to light yogurt.

For millennials of color, it’s generally been even worse.

When older millennials were in our 20s, we were mocked for living with our parents as we survived an economic apocalypse. Now that the oldest millennials are in their 30s, we’re the subject of anxious news articles about how come we’re not buying houses (or at least buying houses without the help of rich parents) or having kids or, in this case, saving the money we don’t have for retirement.

In a follow-up piece, the MarketWatch reporter who wrote the original story dove into some of the reasons millennials reacted so angrily to the headline. Among them:

  • Few in their 30s are even close to reaching the “twice their salary” goal, assuming they have a salary.
  • According to some 2015 data, there are 12.1 million 30-somethings in the United States with student loan debt. Collectively, that group owed $408 billion.
  • Rent and interest rates are rising, but wages are not.

Also, millennials really like to mock the hopelessness of their futures online.

How to use it like you know what you are doing

It’s simple: Read (or live through) the above, dig deep into your reserves of despair and open up Twitter.

Not every good “By age 35” tweet directly mocks the economic realities of 35-year-olds — see the tweet about having a drawer of plastic bags holding other plastic bags. But all of them at the very least touch on the reality of being 35-ish now: closer to death, more boring than we were a decade ago, yet so far away from saving up what MarketWatch recommended.

Have the brands ruined it yet? 

Memes, like millennials, are the products of a cycle they can’t control. The cycle profits off them, even as it leads to their destruction. In the case of memes, the end of that cycle comes when the brands begin to tweet.

And yes, they have.

Good night, meme. I’ll miss you.

More reading: 

‘Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?’ is the new viral debate ruining your timeline and becoming content

The ‘American Chopper’ meme, explained by 6 ‘American Chopper’ memes

How a man’s viral Instagram ode to his ‘curvy’ wife went from ‘required reading’ to mocking meme