I’ve developed a theory based on my own experiences and the experiences of my friends and colleagues. The 20s can be a time of challenge and strife just like any other decade.I think twenty-somethings go through three distinct phases. The first phase is The Search for Validation/The Slutty Phase, the second phase is Loneliness/Drinking Too Much, and the third phase is Everything You Were Most Afraid of Has Come True/Death.
I am but one person with one life so I cannot speak for everyone in the world, and maybe your 20s were great and easy and good for you! But if somebody out there is in the midst of the Loneliness phase or the Death phase, perhaps this can be a comfort to you. You’re not alone.
The Search for Validation/The Slutty Phase
In your early 20s, you’re not a teenager anymore, but you kind of still are, brain-wise. Science says you don’t have fully developed impulse control until age 25. Before then, you are occupied with looking for opportunities for Things To Happen. You want to meet people and have experiences. Since it is 2014, you also will take pictures of the experiences, and put them on the Internet, as proof that you are alive in the world. This is why selfies are such a thing. I bet the Greatest Generation would have put a lot of selfies on the Internet if they could have. The Internet is a great, quick avenue to validation.
Another great way to find validation is by having sex with people. And since your parents aren’t around to frown upon your activities, you can do whatever damaging thing you feel like doing, to prove you’re alive.
There isn’t really anything wrong with this. It’s actually very fun! This is the time when you go to western Massachusetts to put on a theater festival with no money. One night you drink a handle of Captain Morgan’s with your friends, and then decide to go skinny dipping. In lieu of a lake or ocean or proper river, you all dip skinny in a shallow creek. You are so loud and disruptive in people’s literal backyards that the cops are called. You all crouch, naked, in the ankle-deep water. The cop takes pity on you and tells you to put your clothes on and go back to wherever you came from.
You tell this story a lot of times. You laugh. You were there, you were alive, you did things, and people know.
Loneliness/Drinking Too Much
After enough Things Have Happened, you have to get a real job and pay bills and stuff. You’re no longer part of an institution, like high school or college, so your life is lacking a bit in structure. You go to work, you go home. You don’t even have homework anymore, which you hated when you had it, but now that you don’t have it your life seems devoid of meaning.
Your friends move away to get their own jobs and you have to go to the gym by yourself. You make friends at work and go drinking with them, but it’s an uphill battle to bond and you don’t have TV friends anymore. TV friends are the ones you made early, who you can just sit and watch TV with. These people seem to disappear. You watch TV by yourself.
But you’re not completely alone. You have wine.
This phase is the secret killer of the 20s. You thought you were supposed to be having the time of your life, going out to fancy places now that you have a little money and limited responsibility. But you don’t have anyone to go anywhere with and you just spend a lot of time at home. Anyway, you have work in the morning.
Though nothing especially bad has happened to you yet, there is a dark cloud over you. The nothingness maybe feels worse than real tragedy because there’s nothing to point to and say, “This is what is bad.” Mostly you’re just not sure who you are yet and you spend a lot of time trying to define yourself by your job and since you hate your job, you sort of hate yourself.
You go out after work on a Friday with new work friends and drink too much and flirt with them and regret it. Much of your life is spent digging deep for the energy to go to the grocery store or do your laundry. You binge watch TV shows on Netflix.
Maybe your friends start getting married. You drink too much at their weddings and have tearful fights with your significant other. You drink too much at holidays and family parties, too. You have your last, greatest fights with your parents, digging up grievances from childhood.
Eventually, you get a hobby like training for triathlons or knitting. Maybe you volunteer. Maybe you fall in love. Or you learn to put yourself first. Things start looking up.
Everything You Were Most Afraid of Has Come True/Death
Just in time for it all to come crashing down.
This is the time when your grandparents die. This is the time you have three miscarriages in one year. This is the time you have a pulmonary embolism. This is the time your mom gets cancer. This is the time you find out that your boyfriend has been cheating on you. This is the time your thyroid has a nodule. This is the time you get divorced. This is the time your ex gets the dog.
It sounds insane, but this is my favorite phase. I find it preferable to the blank nothingness of the previous phase. There is a container for your despair. These nightmare events are absolute proof of your existence. You become part of the human experience. Suffering is something that everybody goes through, so you can take this opportunity to stake your claim as a citizen of the universe. You have felt pain and that means you are alive. You’re no longer floating through life, searching for a foothold. You have a foothold and that foothold is misery. You are walking on dry land and being burned by the sun but you know where you are.
The thing is, these horrible things that happen don’t kill you. You live through them and you come out a different, hopefully better, person. Your triathlons and knitting and volunteering mean more now. Your relationships, the ones that are left, are stronger. Your most trusted person or your own body has betrayed you, but now you know better than to trust that anything lasts. There is a certain freedom in this.
The reason I share this theory with you, strangers, is to suggest that people in their 20s are not self-obsessed, entitled millennials. People in their 20s now, and forever before and forever after, just want proof that they are alive, that they are not alone–that their pain means something.
So give the kids a break.