The Great 20s Myth

Apparently, 20somethings are having a moment. Well, it’s about damn time. This moment needs to turn into much, much more than that. More 20somethings need to talk about the fact that this can be a terrible decade, discuss why, and throw out some life rafts of useful hope so that we may all survive until our 30s come to the rescue.

The Slate article above – while acknowledging some of the problems of being in your twenties – is a classic example of The Great 20s Myth. This is the myth that your 20s are the best years of your life. Never, we are told, will you be more beautiful, thinner, look better, have more of a wonderful time, have more sex, have more great sex, and meet more wonderful people.

Waldman’s piece is, of course, just one of many things floating around about being in your twenties at the moment. You needn’t read all of the article, just look at the photograph and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It is the doorway to the deception that your 20s are one long sun-drenched, hazy day full of sexy and formative ‘fun’. A group of beautiful, tanned, bambi-limbed friends jumping in the air fuelled, presumably, just by the sheer joy of being alive. They are having the time of their life – of course they are! They’re in their twenties!


The worst bit about all this is the myth that it doesn’t happen and that it isn’t supposed to happen and that you are in fact enjoying yourself all the time. After all, look at all your friends Facebook photos – don’t they seem to be having the best time, ever? It is this which creates the intense feeling of loneliness – the feeling that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.

Twentysomethings, we must unite against the oppression of the older generations who say that their challenge is the most difficult. We can defeat them, we just have to shout a bit louder: ‘No! It’s all shit for us!’

Most myths are extremely frustrating. Something that you – and pretty much everyone else – know isn’t true, yet somehow insists on persisting. Just like the idea that Suri Cruise is the result of real sex, the myth that your 20s are the best years of your life just will not go away. The most frustrating thing of all is that most people not that long out of their twenties (along with, of course, all those people currently undergoing the torture) will admit to this myth, this lie, this great big enormous deception committed by late thirty, fourty, fifty…somethings. Is there a government program to fit everyone aged 37 and over with rose tinted contact lenses?

The moment you realise that most other people are aware of this myth goes something like this:

[Twenty seven year old sits with thirty six year old colleague having a cigarette outside because she just cried in the loo at work.]

27 year old: “It’s just all a bit shit. Lonely. Career prospects, financial prospects, love prospects, diet prospects, all of it.”

36 year old: “Funny you should say that. I know they’re meant to be the best times of your life but actually, my twenties were pretty terrible. I was all up and down, high and low, in and out, not really sure what I was doing or where I was going.”

I bet thousands of conversations have gone on like this and are going on right now up and down the country and around the world. So why on earth does the myth stick around with as much determination as trickle-down economics and Madonna?

Granted, Waldman (presumably a 20something herself) describes this cruel decade as “the no-man’s-land between childhood and stable adulthood” and admits that we are all at once “deflated and recession-squeezed; peculiarly savvy and adrift, connected and lonely, knowing and naïve” but the piece is peppered with quotes from (I’m guessing) non-20somethings about how glorious these years actually are.

Probably when I’m in my mid-30s or mid-40s I’ll appreciate how formative my twenties were (I really hope so, because I need some consolation prize for just getting through it). But right now, such retrospective wisdom is beyond me. Thankfully there seem to be an increasing number of vaguely realistic TV shows – I am of course talking about Girls – as well as a few books and films which discuss and elaborate on what your 20s are really like. At the moment (not including some brilliant older stuff), this discussion is dominated by Americans – the Brits need to catch up fast and do it even better.

The central paradox of flailing your way through your 20s, hoping desperately to come across dry, secure land before you drown, was so beautifully summed up by that great philosopher for our age, Britney Spears (whose wisdom on such topics is rivalled only by Kelly Clarkson) when she sang (sang?) I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.

With the line I’m just trying to find the woman in me she got females (and probably many, many males) in their twenties around the Western, privileged world screaming along in unison of thought and agreement. I for one am desperately searching for the woman – as opposed to the girl – in me. I know she’s in there somewhere. Occasionally – when, for example, I am at work or when I am telling my mother how to live her life better – the woman in me slaps aside the flailing, silly girl and rears her coiffed, combobulated, short haired head and emerges like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Praise be! The adult is here! I can navigate life; I can run in high heels, I am a woman. And then, just like that (not just like that, of course, usually having been out for three nights in a row or after a particularly dreadful one night stand) she disappears, tutting and shaking her head disappointedly, as the girl once again takes over and I return to eating toast and ice cream for four days straight. Sightings of ‘the woman’ are certainly on the rise as I approach 28, and she sticks around for longer than she used to a few years ago. But these sightings remain rare, too rare. At really dark periods she disappears for weeks at a time.

Twentysomethings, we have a battle on our hands. A battle to claim our decade as the one that’s worth talking about, dissecting and discussing. Only when we have entire debates in The Atlantic about The 20s Myth, sectors dedicated to the hedonistic highs and the disorientating lows on Radio 4, and enough good (and bad) Rom Coms about the difficulties of our decade to fill the Bfi film archive will we know that we have achieved equality. Until then, we must fight on.


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