The media and advertising portray your early 20's to be the greatest time of your life. “You are in your prime” they say. They tease us a life of purpose, fun, freedom, adventure, connection, travel, parties, sex, concerts, well furnished apartments, great food, etc. So why are so many early 20 something’s struggling? If this is the greatest time of our life, why do so many of us feel like sh*t?
Expectations. While I do think there’s a beauty to being a young 20 something, I think too many of us get caught up in the expectation of what it should be compared to what it actually is.
Disclaimer, this is my analysis of the general population of early 20 somethings. I know that not everyone fits into this category, but quite a lot of people I know in this age range seem to generally feel similar things. A feeling like we’ve been lied to. A disconnect between who we are and who we want to be. So here’s a couple reasons why I think your early 20’s are overrated:
Having met most of my friends through university, a lot of people I know have a post-secondary degree. Further, most of us go through nearly 2 decades of school pursuing this one thing — graduation. We think graduation will be this big ordeal, and that all our life problems will be fixed once we graduate and get a job. Wrong.
The truth is, this is the same with every goal. Once we reach it, there’s always going to be more on the other side to strive for — but that’s a topic for another article. The point here is that although we’ve spent our entire youth “building skills” and “developing ourselves” to ultimately get a job, the pursuit doesn’t end once you graduate.
Real life is different from school. Once you do get a job or start your career, you are essentially starting from the bottom again (unless you’re one of those prodigies who started pursuing their “passion” at a young age and somehow have found ways to make money off it too). That feeling of being a college senior and being at the top of the world? Throw that all away. Odds are that you’re just about to be the most junior person in the next organization you join.
Sure, you still do have some experiences which you can draw from. It’s not like you’re 10 years old and haven’t done much with your life. I hope that by now, you’ve gotten to experience at least some of the beauties of life. I hope that you’ve travelled and seen at least a bit of the world outside of your hometown. I hope you’ve had fun nights out with your friends. I hope you’ve loved someone, and maybe had your heart broken a couple times (yes it’s sad, but I can’t deny it’s one of those things that just happens). However, despite all these experiences, there’s still so many more experiences to go — both fun and not so fun.
You’re broke and probably burnt out
As I’ve already begun to discuss, the entry level job market is the worst. Speaking from experience (or no experience, as per above), way too many of these entry level jobs pay so little and grind you to the bone.
Now when comparing your life to an ad or movie where the young people seemingly have all this free time and are always doing cool things, this is just a recipe for disaster because it just so happens that we life in a society which runs off money. Thus, so many young people are getting exploited because they feel the need to “become someone” quickly, or maybe fund the lifestyle that they aspire to have.
Even if the career you’ve chosen is “your passion” or is “your life-purpose,” there’s a high likelihood that the entry level jobs in that field won’t provide you the amounts of passion and purpose which you sought (at least not all the time). Hustle culture in society has made it acceptable to work ungodly hours for a paycheck, and has also created this expectation that if you want to be successful, you should be a millionaire before 30. The earlier the better.
That’s not how it works. I live in Canada but let’s look at the US for a second. Global Wealth Report states the US has about 20 million millionaires, which compared to their population of around 330 million people means about 6% of Americans are millionaires. From those top 6%, only 1% are aged below 35 years old. This means that 0.06% of the US population is a millionaire before 35. I’m willing to bet that percentage significantly decreases as you go below 30 years old.
So don’t worry if you’re not rich and are grinding your face off for not that much money or purpose. Worry about taking care of your health so you don’t burn out while you develop long term career opportunities.
Connecting with people (on a deeper level) is harder
You’d think that once you have all this freedom, meeting new people would be incredibly easy. This is not necessary the case. Even if you do have a great knack for meeting new people easily, the odds of sustaining these interactions into longer term friendships or relationships is much lower that I could have imagined.
Again on the thought of why real life is much different from school — I think there’s an aspect of being forced to be around people that helps you find the types of people you enjoy being around and don’t enjoy being around. Hopefully after numerous years of that, you have an idea of who you vibe with. However, now that everyone is free to hang out with whoever they please, things get quite transactional.
Nobody is forced to spend long amounts of time with others anymore. So for those like me who seek a deeper connection when meeting new people, there’s a risk that if you don’t click early on, then you both might just be reluctant to show each other more of your authentic selves. I think this is a sad phenomena because with most of my closest friends, I didn’t feel like I truly knew them or feel connected with them until several interactions into our friendship. Yet, I find so many young adults succumb to the mentality that “if someone doesn’t easily fit into my life anymore, they don’t belong in it.” This makes it so hard to actually get to know people because they just aren’t willing to share their authentic selves up front.
It’s true to some extent, that the people in your life should match your energy, thus you shouldn’t share everything about yourself right away to people who won’t reciprocate the investment in the relationship. However, long term friendships / relationships don’t get built in a day.
You need to both put in effort to actually get to know the real side of each other. You both need to be willing to be vulnerable and communicate. You can’t just expect that the other person will be the one to always initiate a conversation or ask to hang out. Everyone has a limited amount of time and energy in their day, and it’s hard to tell who to invest this time and energy into. So if you don’t invest time and energy, why should they? This is exactly what creates the transactional nature of many initial interactions / early-relationships, and both parties are left not knowing how much to invest.
For me, I find myself leaning toward despising this transactional side of relationships, which leads me to over-invest in people who don’t match my energy and level of investment in our friendship/relationship. I’m still trying to find the balance between being open to really taking the time to get to know someone on a deeper level, versus only investing my time and energy in people who actually match my energy. However, my overall point is that all this only contributes to the difficulty of creating long lasting friendships / relationships, and that I believe deep connections are getting rarer these days.
You know people in all different life stages… and it’s confusing
This isn’t a completely bad thing, but on the theme of unaligned expectations between media and reality, this phenomena just makes everything very confusing. One of your friends might be trying to have a hot girl summer, while another one of your friends just got married and bought a house. Your sibling might be still in school, while your friend’s sibling is a manager at their job. The coworker you’re closest with might be ready to switch up careers, while you’re just starting yours. These are just a couple examples of how everyone has their own path, and there’s not really a correct way or timeline to do things.
When you look up to various people, it makes some decisions hard to make because you don’t know if it’s right or wrong for you to follow in one person’s footsteps, or if you should follow another person’s footsteps. Really, the answer is to pave your own path, but what does that even mean? Your guess is as good as mine.
The consequences of being reckless are higher
I’m all about having fun. I’m not trying to say being in your 20’s won’t be fun, because there will be plenty of incredible moments that will stick in your long term memory. Some of these experiences might involve doing crazier stuff than you could in high-school. Plus, now that you have more independence and maybe even some funding to actually do things you want to do, recklessness becomes more available. However, as my roommate mentioned to me once — “what you can do is not always what you should do.”
This just refers to how with increased freedom comes increased risks. Kind of like Spiderman — “with great power comes great responsibility.”
For example, I was never one to really drink or party in high school. I didn’t really have freedom to go out much, didn’t have much money to spend, nor a wild friend group to do wild things with. However, once I became an adult and starting making my own money and hanging out around downtown after work, I started spending more time with people who were all about work hard play hard.
At some point, it got pretty bad for me when I was making the most money I’ve ever made at that point, and had the most freedom I’ve had at that point. This was a recipe for me rationalizing the opportunity to go out and party like I never did in high school, which burned my money and destroyed my internal organs.
Luckily I don’t have any serious medical conditions and I grew out of that pattern pretty quick, but my point is that even though now I could go out and party every night and be reckless, my body and mind can’t take it like it could’ve. Plus, I have a day job and rent to pay so I can’t just screw around and blow all my money on stupid stuff.
Overall, you are still figuring your sh*t out.
This is the overarching theme of your 20's. Very few early 20 year olds actually have their life together. The truth of the matter is that so many of us still have various childhood traumas that we need to be dealing through. Even if your childhood was “decent” — there’s likely still things that you need to work through mentally to be able to balance being a responsible adult while still having fun.
Alongside all the mental health issues we need to work through, there’s also the general expectations placed on us by society to be a certain level of maturity. As a teenager, you likely felt like you were being treated as a kid and expected to be an adult. Now that sucks because you didn’t know how much to lean on — should you act more like a kid or more like an adult? I think it’s the former, and that you should enjoy being a kid with no responsibilities when you can. Now in your early 20’s it’s kind of the opposite where you’re suddenly treated less as a kid but you still feel like a kid in comparison to all the other adults out there. So similar effect where you don’t know where to lean more to — should you act like a middle-aged person with their life together, or act like the naive little child you are?
I still don’t have the answers here really. Also, it’s not my place to give answers. I don’t think there is a right way to go about your 20’s. As much as I reference people who “have their sh*t together” — some part of me believes this concept doesn’t actually exist. It’s all relative. To some people, I might seem to have my life together and be living quite nicely. To some other people, I might be behind and not have achieved the things they’ve achieved.
Does that even matter though? No. I think what matters is that you take the time and go through the necessary processes of healing yourself from the mental wounds inflicted throughout your earlier life. From there, we can start to develop the proper mental systems to continue going on in life with a positive and resilient attitude.
You don’t need to have your life together in your 20’s. There is no perfect version of your 20’s. Just enjoy it, including the good and the bad. And remember, 30 is just around the corner…
Thanks for reading! As always, this was mostly a a letter for myself to reinforce things I am still working on in myself, but hopefully this provided at least some value to one of you. Please let me know if you liked (or didn’t like) this – I’m always down to chat! Catch you in the next one.