The party favors are ready and the invitation list is set. But for the first time in my life, I’m dreading my birthday party because of the number of the candles: 2-0. Everyone knows that your 20s are for figuring real life out — working a real job, paying apartment rent and learning how to do taxes. More monumental is the prospect of “settling down”— marriage, a two-car garage and, eventually, children.
But how am I supposed to settle down and find the one when I still haven’t found, well, anyone in the first place? I never really jumped on the baby fever bandwagon, and I can tally my romantic experiences on the fingers of one hand, headlined by a PG-13 make-out in an elementary school parking lot.
As a part of a generation that celebrated 18th birthdays with drive-by celebrations and prom with Zoom calls, turning 20 feels more like a funeral for missed teenage milestones than a celebration.
When the pandemic hit during my senior year of high school, I had it better than most — both my parents kept their jobs, I was able to live in the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my freshman year, and my symptoms were only mild when I fell ill with COVID-19. All things considered, I’m extremely lucky. For many teens, the pandemic has become a way to find themselves — exploring their sexuality, discovering their inner selves and developing their fashion sense. For others, remote work finally gave students the room to explore interests in other areas of their life.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the impact the pandemic had on teenagers, even those in privileged situations like myself. When the aforementioned COVID-19 test came back positive within the first two weeks I was at college, I felt extremely isolated. I gained, then lost, then regained weight during periods of depression in lockdown. The following summer, I started medication for ADD and considered going on antidepressants. My experience was a commonality among the spiking numbers of teens that sought mental health help during the pandemic. A 2020 CDC report found that young adults reported the highest level of symptoms of depression and anxiety, and a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds seriously considered suicide.
Simply put, the pandemic exacerbated the pre-existing worries that come with getting older.
The same month that a New York Times article compared this past summer to the 1967 summer of love for New York’s 20-somethings, I found myself working my dream New York City internship from my childhood bedroom due to remote work protocol. Now midway through my sophomore year of college, my last normal year of classes was junior year of high school. 2019 feels far away, but the reminders of upcoming fellowship and course enrollment deadlines are more constant than ever.
More stressful than picking a career is realizing that I’m now supposed to relate more to romantic comedies about 20-somethings figuring out relationships and work than coming-of-age movies about teenagers getting drunk. How can I find solace in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “500 Days of Summer” when I never went to a party like Costa’s in “Project X” or had a first love like Baby’s in “Dirty Dancing?” My upcoming birthday has only emphasized that my life gets further from “High School Musical” and closer to “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin” each day I age, no thanks to missed socialization opportunities during the pandemic.
These are supposed to be the years where we experienced the carefree “good old days” of our youth, but the pandemic has made it feel like I’ve spent most of them pining over memories that never came to life
Worsening this loss of youth, I can’t help but lament over the sexism that comes with aging. Men are given the ability to grow into their age: to let their newfound maturity fix the mistakes of their youth, shed abs in favor of dad-bods and redeem their wrinkles with an endearing sense of humor. We don’t afford this same privilege to women, who experience a sexist form of ageism as their youthful features fade. Sometimes it feels like I’m racing toward a 25-year-old expiration date without ever taking advantage of what’s supposed to be my prime.
Yet while the pandemic has altered an important period of growth, it’s also shown that the adult workforce isn’t set in stone. Business models built around people not working from home have had to rapidly shift their daily operations, leading to a rise in co-working spaces, outdoor dining and at-home beauty care. Never before have so many Americans taken a chance on nontraditional businesses, from outdoor glamping to baking bread kits.
I have no desire to wear braces again, and you couldn’t pay me to retake high school precalculus. I’ve come to terms with not having a graduation or senior prom, and the missed in-person college game days of freshman year are in the past. But as I gear up to start a new decade, I can’t help but feel like my teenage years have come to an awkward, penciled-in finish.
When I turn 20 today, I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a part of me also saying goodbye to my childhood. But I’m also going to acknowledge the power of my future — one that I have control over, regardless of circumstance.
My 20s might be filled with kids and a 9-5 job, but they don’t have to be. The pandemic has taken away an image of what growing up traditionally looks like, but it’s also provided a blueprint for futures that bend traditional work roles and defy gender dorms, allowing us to define what constitutes success — and happiness — on an individual basis.
While I’m dreading the clock striking midnight on this upcoming birthday, I’m also looking forward to putting these missed teenage moments behind me — after all, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Rachel Hale is a sophomore studying political science and journalism with a certificate in jewish studies. Do you agree that the pandemic has complicated the aging process? Send all comments to email@example.com.