Text collated by Ciara Dossett
Recently a number of my friends and I have turned 20. We’ve been joking, calling each other old ladies in our birthday cards but why are we so scared of growing older? Here, a few friends and I discuss our feelings towards entering our third decade.
On my nineteenth birthday, my coworker handed me a cup of coffee with a nostalgic sniff and said words that changed my attitude to life forever. Maybe not quite forever, but at the least a significant period of time. ‘Nineteen was the best year of my life,’ she said, and as she was a great deal wiser at twenty-five years old, I took her at her word. So, I went about the next year living my life sure that it was to be the best time I did anything. First boyfriend? Best boyfriend of my life. First term at university? Best term of my life. First time in hospital? Best hospital trip of my life.
The problem was on my twentieth birthday. I woke up, and I cried. Well, perhaps not cried outright. But I cried in my head. Because I was no longer a teenager, I was no longer living a fun and carefree life. I was twenty, and I’d have to fill in a tax return. Twenty year olds did not have the excuse of ‘just being a teenager’. They were old and full of responsibilities. No one was nostalgic for their first year of responsibilities. But I was wrong. Nineteen wasn’t the best year of my life, it was just the best year of my life so far. Twenty was actually much more fun, especially after I got an accountant to do my tax return for me instead.
I entered into the first hour of my 20th birthday with little outward excitement or abnormality; I was sat curled up in my bed, hair scruffily tied up, finishing a movie. Seemingly just the start of another day that just happened to be my birthday. Yet inwardly, my head was filled with a whirlwind of thoughts that produced an odd sense of a new and heightened consciousness about ageing. I was entering my third decade and the notorious stage of a quarter-life crisis: the uncertainty between teenagerhood and adulthood, between complete reliance and total independence, between recognisable youth and, as my brother so understatedly put it, ‘’the unrelenting approach of death’’. It is this paradoxical limbo of 20 that can be somewhat unnerving and overwhelming- you feel at once terribly aged (let us all gasp in horror at the realisation that Finding Nemo came out 14 years ago) yet still awfully unprepared for your future in the ‘real world’ (not least embodied in the fact that it is no longer acceptable for your Mum to book your doctor’s appointments for you). The number 20 itself is thus charged with contradiction. However, let it not be necessarily negative. This limbo, this abyss, is a turning point of change, excitement and choice! It is a year in which most of us can look fondly at our teenage years and determinedly to our future ones. 20 maintains the youthful and forgiving elements of the past while bestowing a new sense of control and maturity. From all its daunting uncertainties, there emerges freedom and adventure.
For me, although it may seem futile, turning 20 seemed like a much bigger deal than turning 19. My fear of turning 20 partly came from regretting things things I never did. Like Theresa May, when asked what the naughtiest thing I’ve ever done is I am dumbfounded. Not only have I not done anything vaguely rebellious, I haven’t done anything particularly phenomenal either. Simone Biles is 20 and she has five gold medals and with only a slightly wonky cartwheel to my repertoire an international gymnastics career now seems unfeasible. Before I turned 20, I had somehow tricked myself into thinking that one day I would carry out one of these extraordinary feats at a young age. Now, the possibility seems unlikely.
I recently had to write an essay on British youth culture: images of Twiggy light-heartedly flying through the streets on a moped made me feel like I had wasted something, wishing I had done more with my teenage years. Perhaps this is part of the problem: so many of the images of what is seemingly the ‘epitomé of female teenage culture’ are unattainable. In so many films and TV shows teenage girls are played by older women and thus their composure and allure are impossible for us mere mortals to meet. There is a contradictory pressure in popular culture for girls to be both youthful and ‘together’. The Dancing Queen was only 17 but simultaneously young girls in many popular TV programmes, Rory Gilmore of Gilmore Girls springs to mind, seem to have their whole lives perfectly planned. From their perfectly curled hair (seriously who looks like that all the time?) to their straight A grades. In this youth culture girls are encouraged to be perfect whilst boys often receive the treatment of ‘boys will be boys’. None of my male friends, for example, seem to feel scared about turning 20. As Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, said in her 2016 Ted talk “we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave”. This social pressure for perfection is perhaps part of the reason for my short list of youthful indiscretions.
Feature Photo: Siblings Sharing Birthday Party – Corbis – XX Century in Black and White Photos BBC