The Myth of 20-Something Freedom

[I wrote this four years ago, in 2012, and just found it now. The references are a bit dated but the post-teen angst is forever ❤️ Tess]

For the past few years, I’ve been living out of boxes. Even now that I’ve found an apartment I actually like, I can’t quite bring myself to unpack those last few kitchen items or tackle a pile of tangled jewelry I’ll probably never wear again. More telling than the boxes themselves is the amount of time I’ve spent worrying about how to make them go away or at least replace them with nicer-looking, more permanent containers.

It wasn’t always this way. In college, I moved from one dorm room to another, up to New York for internships every summer, and finally, after graduation, to the West Coast. I relished the ritual of making each space mine, even though I knew it was only a matter of time before I was on to bigger and better things.

When I recently got a call, out of the blue, from a boy I was seeing around that time, he asked me — teasingly — if I’d written my Great American Novel yet. The embarrassment I felt (what hubris!) quickly gave way to a troubling wistfulness. Trying to summon that girl who spoke so brazenly about her future, I’m faced with the prospect that, like many of the people I knew in college, she’s fallen out of my orbit for good.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in your 20s, mainly because everyone else seems obsessed with thinking about it. Portraits of this age group generally fall into one of two categories: those drawn by older hands attempting to recapture a bit of youthful brio, and those contributed by real-life 20-somethings. Because the practical barriers to publishing that once made the latter voices scarce (or at least harder to hear) have so rapidly eroded, many young people are, for the first time, witting spokespeople for their own generation, eagerly documenting their experiences on Tumblr to the voyeuristic pleasure of parents and bosses everywhere.

A quick look at the archives of Thought Catalog, spilling over with titles like “21 Ways You Should Take Advantage of Your 20s,” “25 Things I’ve Learned in My 20s,” “Why Being in Your 20s is Awesome,” “What 20-Somethings Want,” and “5 Mistakes Every 20-Something Should Make,” confirms that the site basically exists to feed this monster — although, if such entries are to be believed, it doesn’t require real nourishment so much as steady transfusions of Easy Mac, gummy bears, and vodka. While certainly penned with some degree of self-mockery, these posts still perpetuate the notion that millennial life is what happens when you’re killing time between a sex marathon and a brunch-fueled bender; readers are warned to apply caution before dipping their toes into the stagnant waters of adulthood, a life stage defined by icky activities like buying window curtains and learning to dress respectably.

This trope of the fabulously messy 20-something existence is reductive and tired, and it really bristles me, perhaps because of my job. You know the spacious tech industry office that pervades every grown-up’s fantasy — the one furnished with artful lithographs of catchy corporate slogans and accent-color couches just begging to be used for illicit late-night rendezvous? I work there. Mustache photo shoots and free massages are regular occurrences. If you’re looking for snacks, you can find them next to the kegerator.

The sunny packaging of our professional environment belies a product that is pretty depressing: We convince our (mostly female) subscribers to buy web coupons by suggesting they are out of shape, out of touch, and old. Writing copy for a high volume of these deals is a monotonous and often stressful endeavor, but I try to remind myself how lucky I am to work with exceptionally creative people at a job that is, at least peripherally, in my chosen field. And unlike the brilliant temp of 20-something lore who feels so above his station that he enjoys crafting his screenplay on company time — “You don’t owe your first job years of loyalty and your first-born,” advises one Thought Catalog piece, with no recognition of how many people might like to have that problem — I am acutely aware that my role is well matched to my skills and experience. I’m grateful, because I know I should be.

Still, there’s something uniquely disheartening about selling out for a salary that barely pays your rent and receiving, as your consolation prize, an unlimited supply of fruit snacks.

I occasionally house-sit for one of my mom’s friends. Because she doesn’t have children of her own, she gets most of her information from the Internet, and is convinced I’m throwing wild parties every night she’s away. I’ve tried to explain to her that instead of going out, which is expensive and exhausting after a long day, many of my friends and I have already adopted the adult habit of consuming our drinks at home, but she never believes me.

There’s something essentially human about the impulse to romanticize our experiences — to paper over any unsavory chapters even in the moment they’re unfolding — and if it helps her to see my life as a blissful escape from the boredom of middle age, that’s okay. It’s not all that different from what I do when I envy my sisters the camaraderie and the sense of purpose that (I imagine) come with marriage and motherhood.

What’s also implicit in the mythologization of the 20s, though, worries me far more than any trumped-up sexiness: a belief that the process of self-definition belongs to this decade, and this decade alone. There’s a scene from the first episode of Girls in which Hannah informs her parents, quite obnoxiously, that she can’t hang out with them: “I have work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.” I love the show, and I give Lena Dunham the benefit of the doubt that when her characters seem entitled, or self-absorbed, it’s intentional — so to me, this exchange deftly challenges our limited, and linear, trajectory of what maturity looks like.

Do we ever stop becoming who we are? Does hitting 30, or having our first baby, or ascending to the uppermost ranks of our chosen field really complete that process? I don’t buy it. And when we paint 20-somethings as irresponsible but free, the inevitable corollary is that 30-somethings are together but trapped. (I can already picture the frantic Thought Catalog headline: “Why Your 30s Are Going to Be Even More Awesome Than Your 20s.”) Everything that is endearing and enviable, if slightly worrisome, about 20-somethings suddenly becomes pathetic and shameful once they’ve burned through their young-person capital — which is one of the central themes of Leslye Headland’s much-discussed Bachelorette.

Like Girls, Bachelorette has inspired some suspiciously anti-women backlash in addition to some fervent praise, but for all that’s been written about the film’s ambition to expose the dark underbelly of female friendship, I don’t think enough has been made of the characters’ ages, which are at least as essential to the story as their gender. Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan are both 30, and Isla Fisher easily passes for a woman-child of the same vintage. This is a movie about the highly specific moment — at that uneasy juncture between the 20s and 30s — when it becomes apparent that self-absorption has outlasted its expiration date and soured into something even more rotten. When Bachelorette strives for poignancy in its final act, it charges Caplan, as Gena, with delivering the film’s thesis on wasted youth:

“It’s like I’ve been at a concert [for the past decade] and I’m swaying back and forth; then somebody passes me something, I drink it or smoke it… In the past 24 hours I realized I don’t even like the concert. I don’t like the music, I don’t like the band, none of it. And, like, maybe if I had just picked a different fucking band, maybe I would’ve had a better time at the concert.”

The problem in my case is how desperate I’ve been to abandon my concert-going self altogether. As it turns out, growing up isn’t one of those exercises where enthusiasm can stand in for actual aptitude, so leaving the show early doesn’t guarantee you a head start any more than being in the pit ensures you have a wild, carefree evening. And maybe if I’d stayed, I would have learned some beneficial life skills, like how to sneak backstage. (It’s worth noting that my very need to ask these questions unites me with my peers at all points of the spectrum: After Gena’s monologue goes over well with her ex-boyfriend, she tries it again on Dunst’s character, who responds — in a subtle but brilliant mumble — “Oh, please take your self-actualization somewhere else. I’m trying to sleep here.”)

A coworker who shares my wanderlust and general restlessness is fond of sending me text messages like “I’ve decided I’m moving to Joshua Tree” and “Do you think we have an office in Mexico City?” Even if I know these plans will never be realized — even if he knows that — I understand why he makes them. Plenty of situations that don’t involve kids and mortgages can make you feel trapped, and the notion that freedom comes easily for anyone is a pipe dream. Likewise, assertions that spontaneity is the sole province of youth always seem conjured up by people who’ve never actually been young. Whatever age we are and whatever concessions we’ve already made to adulthood, we all want to believe that we can just grab our things and head to a new city, or a new job, or a new concert, whenever we feel like it.

I guess I don’t really want to get rid of my boxes.