Time for a little bit of nostalgia: who remembers what it was like to be 12 years old? I can remember it pretty clearly – year 8 at school, butterfly clips were still in, S Club 7 and Hear-Say were storming the charts, and the biggest thing to worry about was what to wear to the disco with the local boys’ school. Ah innocence… Another thing I remember about being 12 is all of the doom-and-gloom warnings I received in the weeks running up to my 13th birthday. Tales of ‘terrible teens’ plagued all of us, horror stories of older siblings with horrendous mood swings were standard lunchtime topics, and we’d frequently write charming phrases such as ‘hope you don’t turn into a moody bratty spotty awful teenager’ in each others’ birthday cards. Lovely. The point is, we were sort of forewarned that our teens would bring a fair share of drama. It seemed to be a rite of passage. Some suffered more than others, but after flouncing away from a blazing row with my mother or failing to resist the urge to hurl something breakable across my bedroom, phrases like ‘it’s ok, she’s just going through the difficult teen phase’ made everything a little more acceptable.
Fast forward thirteen years, and suddenly life ain’t so easy to explain. Why is it that we were mentally prepared for being teenagers, and warned about the hardships and emotional trauma that phase of life would bring, and yet fuck all was said about our twenties??
Perhaps the first couple of years of your twenties were pretty simple. Most of my friends and I were still at university, and had a fairly uncomplicated existence made up of drinking, sleeping, more drinking, the odd lecture, and an annual panic when exam season rolled around. Up until final year, we knew exactly what we’d be doing in 12 months’ time, therefore zero forethought or planning was needed. But then, oh shit, we graduated and were chucked out into the big wide world. And THIS is what we should have been warned about.
I know I’m not the only one who spent most of their education being promised the job of their dreams, only to discover that about 1001 other people wanted that job and nope I had no way near enough ‘experience’ to get it. Nor was I the only one who had grand plans to fly the nest and move to London asap, only to find that it was pretty much impossible to do so on a graduate salary. That is, unless you were willing to continue your student habits and survive on baked beans and couscous for the next few years… Then there was the shock of not being 10 minutes’ walk from all of your closest friends. What was this forward planning shit? What do you mean, you’re not free until next month? And of course, to make it all worse, there were the unavoidable smug fuckers who for unknown reasons you were friends with on Facebook, and there they were living it large in their dream job and their dream pad with all of their besties having Instagram-perfect barbeques every bloody weekend. Not that I’m bitter or anything…
A quick note on the role of social media in all this: the very nature of social media means that we instantly have access to people’s lives in a way that previous generations have never had. And generally, we’re only going to post photos and tweet pithy one-liners that we want other people to see. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Posting a heavily-filtered Instagram snap of my holiday in Marbella: YES. Tweeting about the fact that I spend nearly every Saturday night in my PJs watching X-Factor: NO. Whether we actually think ‘this will make everyone else jealous’ or not, the effect is pretty much the same, which means that it’s very easy to assume that your contemporaries are leading the perfect life while you’re looking at another weekend developing your relationship with the Dominos delivery guy. Comparison is a dangerous thing.
The fact is, your twenties are the crucial years in which you really shape your identity. Released from the cliques and unwritten rules of school and university, suddenly you can be whoever you want to be, which in itself is pretty terrifying. Life is simpler when you’re being told what to wear and where to go and who to be friends with. This new-found independence is daunting and often overwhelming, as well as exhilarating and liberating. Living in a big city can give you a degree of anonymity: if a girl on the tube stares at your outfit in horror and mutters some catty comment to her friend, you can give precisely zero fucks because they don’t know you, you don’t know them, and the likelihood of you ever bumping into each other again is about one in three-million. You can compartmentalize your life: work vs personal. Just don’t go into overshare mode at the company drinks party… You can also make grown-up decisions like getting health insurance and going to the dentist regularly. Look at me, I’m an adult now!
And yet, underneath all this, there is that feeling that you’re madly treading water and actually don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Much has been written about how we ‘Gen-Y’-ers have a disproportionate sense of entitlement. We’ve all been told that we’re going to be CEOs by the time we’re 30, and we’re all looking at taking early retirement and living comfortably in our country residences with a pied à terre in London. Oh and chuck marriage and kids in there for good measure. Well, I turn 30 in 42 months (shit) and I can guarantee that I will not be a CEO by then (unless it’s of Charlotte Rottenburg Inc., net value £50). All of those career seminars and internships suddenly mean sod-all, and unless you’re in one of those really structured industries (law, military, accountancy, medical etc.) you have to become pretty nifty at beating off fellow Gen Y-ers with a professionally barbed stick to get the jobs and promotions you want. It doesn’t help that we’re constantly being confronted with slogans such as ‘love the job you do and never work again’. Whoever came up with that deserves a slap in the face and a wedgie for good measure. You know that little ‘People You May Know’ tab on LinkedIn? Don’t click on it. All that will happen is 20 minutes of self-flagellation whilst you scroll through profiles of people that you sort-of know who seem to have the perfect job. I can guarantee that they too will be working long hours, will have moments of self-doubt, will have had days where they feel like chucking their keyboard at their boss’s head, and will have had a small cry in the loo. It’s just that no one will ever admit it.
And there lies the root of the problem. We’re so busy presenting a glossy and photo-ready front, teamed with an innate sense of competitiveness and overuse of the word ‘fine’ that most of us are left with the feeling that we’re the only ones who are groping through the dark years of our twenties. Of course, our closest friends and family will know the truth, but these truths are generally only disclosed behind closed doors and after the best part of a bottle of wine has been consumed. We feel embarrassed to admit that we feel like we’re struggling, and it goes against the social grain to admit to feelings of petty jealousy brought on by someone’s engagement photo on Facebook. I get the feeling that if we were all a little more honest with each other, and spent less time poring over the details of other people’s lives on social media, we’d be much more content with the hand life has dealt us thus far.
I could spout all sorts of touchy-feely nonsense about what doesn’t kill you make you stronger and how Rome wasn’t built in a day, but that would be incredibly patronising and not wholly relatable. I’m not in an elevated position to give life advice, but having been through a shitty couple of years where the highs only made the lows seem that much lower, I feel that I can speak with a certain degree of experience. So the next time you find yourself alone at home at the weekend convinced that everyone else is at some giant ice-skating party that you haven’t been invited to, or when you’re staring at your work emails wondering what your life has come to, just remember that you are far from being the only person who feels that way. Your twenties are rough, no one prepared you for it, and it can all feel terribly unfair (especially when that snotty brat who you played hockey with seems to have it all and can’t stop shouting about it on Instagram). But it will get easier. And when in doubt, drink wine and whack on some Taylor Swift.