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Do we view birthdays as milestones or deadlines?

IMAGE VIA @MALI_BAKES/INSTAGRAM

WORDS BY SUNNY CHISHOLM

It feels like our birthdays have evolved from being innocent celebrations of life to deadlines in which targets must be met by.

Against all logic, I never expected my early twenties to end. For a long while, I had only ever known the life of a student: a cycle of weeknight drinks, late-night assignments, unpaid phone bills, weekend shift work, non-existent hangovers and little accountability.

Day-to-day it felt like nothing was changing, and it’s only when I look back on (and cringe over) the naïve, wide-eyed kid I once was, that I realise it finally happened: I grew up. I can hardly believe that I’m a (mostly) self-reliant, fully-fledged person. I’m now someone that primary-aged children would refer to as an adult or, even worse, a lady.

The funny thing about youth is that it’s wasted on the young. We wish our adolescence away in a desperate hurry to grow up. We try to look and act older at every opportunity, and for what? Once we actually are older, we aimlessly flounder around grappling with the realisation that nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing and that independence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

When we’re young, we’re measured by our potential and what we could do, but as we get older, we’re measured by our achievements and what we have done. The shift occurs surreptitiously at first, almost overnight, but the nagging feeling that we’re running out of time to ‘make it’ soon becomes impossible to miss.

Suddenly, we wake up and realise that concessions are no longer being made for us. We can no longer escape the consequences of self-sabotaging, careless or reckless behaviour. In other words: we’re expected to have our shit together.

But how? Nobody gives you a how-to guide when you turn 18 and you soon realise that the novelty of being grown wears off real quick. In fact, there’s a very short window of time where we’re actually content with our age. For most of our lives, we’re stuck between feeling co-dependent, clueless and eager to do everything, or overwhelmed, clueless and panicked by the fact that we haven’t done enough.

My next birthday will be my twenty-fifth. Kind of a biggie when people theoretically map out their lives. It’s a transitory time where we bid farewell to our early-twenties and enter our mid-twenties. A time where my friends and I no longer share the same streamlined ‘path’ and are instead finding ourselves at conflicting stages of life.

I feel too young to be settling down but too old to be living at home. Too young to be saving for a house deposit, but too old to still be registered under my parents’ health insurance. I feel as though I’m in the throes of enormous internal change while navigating a familiar state of limbo.

Because of this, I’ve become acutely aware of not only my age, but also the age of everyone around me. I’ve developed a masochistic obsession with looking up those whose careers I admire on LinkedIn, or searching the Wikipedia pages of highly accomplished people to see how I measure up in comparison.

By the ripe old age of 25, F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first book, Paul Keating was elected to the House of Representatives, Kylie Minogue had released four albums, Elle Macpherson had been nicknamed ‘The Body’ after a record number of Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers, Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar and Cathy Freeman was a Commonwealth Games gold medallist three-times over.

It seems that no matter what profession you’re in, someone has already done what you could only hope to achieve over an entire lifetime, when they were a mere twenty-something.

So, what kind of person do I want to be? And have I already run out of time to be her? Despite being ‘well-adjusted’, tertiary educated and having a kaleidoscope of opportunity, I have no idea what direction I want my life to take. I’m riddled with the privileged paradox of choice, unable to commit to opening new doors if it means shutting others.

As we get older, I can’t help but feel as though our birthdays have evolved from being innocent celebrations of life to deadlines in which targets must be met by – with every ambition becoming less attainable and realistic with each lap around the sun.

Why do we set such high expectations for ourselves when we know that, through no fault of our own, we may fall short? I’m certain that these anxieties weren’t an affliction shared by my baby-boomer parents. Personally, I think it’s partly due to unrelenting social standards, and the fact that there are fewer achievable concrete markers of adulthood.

The traditional indicators of growing up such as buying a house, getting married and having children are being pushed back, leaving us with a disconnect between where we thought we would be and where our lives actually are. We look to our achievements to validate our sense of self while navigating a no man’s land without any clue when we’ll reach a sense of certainty.

But the fact that times are a-changing isn’t all bad. Nowadays, we can expect to have five separate careers and 17 employers during the course of our working lives. This estimate is based on the assumption that today’s school-leavers enter the workforce at 18 and are likely to retire in their 70s.

Our career progression and sense of achievement will no longer be linear. Rather than just climbing the career ladder one rung at a time, our jobs will present a series of snakes with those ladders too.

With the increase in life expectancy among my generation, it’s fair to say that every phase of our life will (or at least, should) lengthen proportionately. When my grandmother was my age, she already had children. She skipped the indulgently selfish stage that is your early twenties and went straight from childhood to adulthood in one swift step.

But because I’m at least a decade off even considering having dependents, does that make me a teenager when measured against my grandmother’s trajectory? And if so, can you blame me for wanting to stretch out this nomadic, drifting state for as long as possible?

Given the very real chance that I may live to 100 (ignore the deteriorating state of our climate in these calculations), and won’t be retiring from the workforce until I’m 70, then I refuse to retire from my youth when I’m in my mid-twenties.

I hope that we can all take a little comfort in knowing that we have plenty of time to decide who we want to be and what we want to do. Statistically speaking, I have 75 more years of decisions ahead of me.

When in doubt, remember that the most interesting people you meet are usually the ones that follow their interests. And while it’s fair to say that we’ll probably never, ever feel like a proper grown up, trying on different suits for size is all part of it. That’s what our twenties are for.

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