I am 25. I am getting old.
Have often have you encountered this? If not with 25-year-olds then with 26-year-olds? Or, indeed, 24-year-olds? Or 18-year-olds?
Me? I am 25. I am getting old.
It is said with all the weariness of World War Two veterans. It encourages 50-year-olds to beat their kids with two-by-fours, and 80-year-olds to beat their grandchildren with their zimmer frames.
Nonetheless, I am 25. I am getting old.
What do we mean by “getting old”? Not that we are at risk from heart disease and dementia. Not that our joints are freezing up and our backs are aching. Not even that our hair is falling out or turning grey. When the middle-aged lament the symptoms of “oldness” they are describing different phenomena to us.
Is “getting old” about promotion? Marriage? Childbirth? No, the men and women who arrive at such milestones of adulthood are, I think, the least likely to bemoan their birthdays. They have, to some extent, accepted the ageing process.
“Getting old”, for a young adult, is a period of realignment between the ambitions of one’s youth and the expectations of one’s adulthood. It is the stage of encountering the limits of a future that at one time had seemed grand in its potential. It can be a time to fight against the odds to realise one’s dreams or to lock them up with other childhood possessions and rethink one’s hopes for life. It can inspire wisdom or drinking.
One should not lapse into generational narcissism. There is nothing that is unique to millenials. Still, what our parental predecessors had to a greater extent were structured expectations: a sense of a logical progression from schooling to work, and from courtship to marriage. This was not as true of them as it was of our grandparents but it was far truer of them than it is of us.
Millenials have been raised with the expectation of choice, and the expectation of inspiring choices. Millions of them have attended universities, choosing subjects as diverse as mathematics and postcolonial studies. Technological developments and lifestyle changes have offered us the hope for interesting new career paths. There is freedom to experiment in one’s romantic life, and online dating can make one’s opportunities appear endless.
Most millenials have far less choice than they imagined. The freedom to aspire to something is not meaningful without a significant chance of fulfilling one’s aspirations and it is the second part which has proved unattainable. Degrees, doled out in their hundreds of thousands to aspiring journalists, actors and entrepreneurs, turn out to be less useful than the students once imagined, and hundreds of thousands of disgruntled sales representatives and data entry clerks are left with little more than debt. In their dating lives, meanwhile, they enter a more stressful, dog-eat-dog environment than that of their impressions, which can chew them up and spit them out, ageing and alone.
“Deal with it,” I hear curmudgeons say, “Grow up. Move on.” Perhaps one should. But we have to acknowledge daunting economic obstacles that stand between young twenty-somethings and their futures. One might think that the high number of young people who live with their parents is a symptom of childishness and indolence but why then do more Eastern Europeans live at home? Are young Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians idler than the English? No. But it is damn hard to move out as wages slump and rents steeple. Aside from practical inconveniences this enables a neotenous perspective in life as one has neither the inspiration of independence nor the disciplinarian of responsibility.
Beyond these considerations there is a more subtle and, dare I say it, spiritual problem to address. We have less of an idea of what constitutes the good life. There is no “good life”, in fact, according to a lot of people, but merely “lifestyles”, none of which are more or less worth having. Many thrive in such individualistic environments but many more are daunted and confused by a mess of traditions, ideologies and status games. They drift out into the ocean of adulthood and, years on, are scared to find themselves no nearer land. It is this realisation which inspires the thought of “getting old”.
This is not intended to prompt tears of sympathy. Young people are still far better off than most people around the world, and far better off than most of their predecessors. We have been offered a lot of chances that we should have taken, and faced a lot of temptations that we should have spurned. Nonetheless, this conflict between elevated hopes and diminished realities can be hard to accept. If faced with a young person who talks as if an old age pensioner resist the urge to scoff. Instead, encourage them to see this chapter as a challenge.
Did I mention? I am 25. I am getting old.