The premise of the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that a man is born old and ages backwards. On the outside at least, he lives in reverse, seemingly doing everything in completely the wrong order.
Whilst the film is, of course, fictional, a slight hint of it exists in the current generation of 20-somethings. Despite life expectacy being around 80 years, social media is awash with various memes, jokes and worries from young people who all feel like they’re “old” and falling behind in their perceived timetable of life.
The perceived timetable is embedded into us as children. We are taught that life is essentially “born, school, work, family, retire, death” and this subconsciously puts the pressure on us from an incredibly young age. Not only that, but the timetable is clear as well: GCSEs at 16, A-Levels/College at 18, graduation at 21. Following that, there’s a normalised expectation that a successful student should be able to find a job very quickly after graduating from university.
Lucy, 24, partially blames this perceived timetable for the problem. “I think there’s so much pressure in graduating when you’re 21 or leaving school when you’re 18 and having a fully formed direction in life. That wasn’t the case for me.”
This pressure to hit milestones at certain ages certainly appears to play a large part in this phenomenon. A different Lucy, 23, noted that deviating from this timeline leads to unexpected outcomes which can make you feel far older than you are. “Starting uni at 20 had me labelled a mature student, which surprised me as I was barely out of my teen years. By the time I started my studies, my friends were graduating.”
A man in his early 20s who wished to remain anonymous had a similar experience. He took a gap year before starting university, a year which “felt like an incredibly long period, an era almost, exacerbating this “older” feeling I’d had for a while”. Once he was at Uni, he then found he was the oldest student there. “The other students were slightly younger and therefore of course, ahead in a significant way, so endless comparisons (of where I should be etc.) ensued.”
That isn’t always the case, and for women who want children, being unable to find a partner can also play on their minds as they enter the battleground of life. “If you’re a woman who wants kids then you’re also thinking about dating and finding the right partner before biological clock etc, and I dont even really want to date now but that’s a small concern too”, said the 24 year-old Lucy, and her 23 year-old namesake agreed with her. “Although I’ve never thought about having a family, I think this partly relates to my biological clock – women who get pregnant at 35 are often labelled geriatric. It feels ‘the right way round’ to have a stable career mostly settled before having children. It feels like a short window in which to achieve career success before settling down into adult/family life.”
In the most predictable development since Manchester City’s last win, social media was deemed to be a significant factor, through both peer comparison (“seeing people on Twitter achieving incredible milestones, though fantastic, makes me feel slightly jealous and inadequate” (Lucy, 23)) and influencer culture (“you see really famous tiktokers making a mint and becoming “business owners” when they’re 16 so you have this warped fallacy” (Lucy, 24)). Comparison is the thief of joy and unfortunately, social media allows people to negatively compare themselves to others in an instant, which leads to foreseeable results.
Some feel old for more unique reasons. Unlike most, 24 year-old Asadu actually did get into business at 16 but encountered financial problems which forced her to really focus on it. However, this created a knock-on effect in her head, leading her to crave more success. “I started doing business really early and the thing is when you get on that path, it’s not very easy to stop. You want more, you want more, you want more and you crave success. You start becoming responsible for people which only makes you want more success. You know what respect feels like and you want more of that.” It meant that she had what she describes as a “teenage adulthood”, missing out on the more typical activities of late teens.
At its heart, much of the problem boils down to one word: pressure. We don’t feel old because our knees are cracking and we’re going grey. We feel old because we don’t think we’re keeping up with our timetable and that we are therefore too old to be at this stage of our life. Whether it’s 22 year-olds who are yet to graduate, 23 year-olds still living at home, or 24 year-olds yet to find their stable career job, so many of us feel the weight of pressure that society has put on us to hit milestones at certain ages. Not only are we looking forward with those worries, we are also hyper-aware of the 18-20 year-olds right on our tail, who could nip in ahead of us and harm our careers in the future. There are so many factors at play here and all of it together makes us feel anxious, burnt out and old.
And as we struggle to keep to our timetables, our student debt continues to rise, as do house prices. Salaries, however, remain pretty fixed, making it ever harder to move out even if we do manage to find a job. None of this is to mention COVID’s halting of life as we know it and cheeky 10 year-olds who ask their 23 year-old teachers if TV was “black and white when you were little”.
That’s just taking the Mick.
Perhaps we’re using the wrong terminology. Most of us don’t feel old in the traditional sense of the word; rather, we feel behind and therefore too old for our current situations. Whilst society continues to tell us where we “should” be at, it’s important that we remember that no two people live the same life, that it’s impossible for everyone to conform to the timetable. Some will achieve success early, and good for them. Others, however, will experience more of a slow-burn in their rise to success – and that’s okay too.
If you, dear reader, are a young 20-something feeling old and anxious about your future, just remember: you’re on your own path. Don’t let parents, universities or sarky 10 year-olds get to you, just keep doing what you’re doing. It’ll all fall into place eventually.
Words by Benjamin Hobson
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