This morning, I got an email saying I’d officially made it onto my partner’s health insurance. I also responded to a party invitation four weeks in advance, checked on my Roth IRA, and helped my childhood babysitter’s 10-year-old daughter out with her English homework.
I couldn’t imagine any single morning consisting of these four, distinctly adult-feeling activities as recently as three years ago. But there I was, 27 and sitting in the Park Slope adjacent apartment I live in with my boyfriend, and suddenly I felt very, very grown up.
I can’t recall going through my so-called “mid-20s.” Instead, it felt like I blinked at age 23 and suddenly I’d woken from a several-year drinking binge, 27 years old with mysterious body aches and a retirement plan. At 23, being an adult was a fun experiment in which you tested the limits and tried out a bunch of jobs you knew, deep down, wouldn’t suit you—but it was all about the experience. I turned 23 right around the time “adulting” became a verb, after all. Now, it’s no longer a verb. It’s just a lackluster reality.
Friends, at least those coddled by liberal arts college up through age 22, have echoed this mysterious absence of their mid-20s as well. Lauren, a 27-year-old who lives in Long Island, described an early 20s awash in optimism. “The world is your oyster and people are still treating you like your first job is to learn and have fun,” she said, “and then for whatever reason there’s a really intense shift from you being expected to have fun and learn, to you being expected to have your shit together.”
This plays out in a number of different ways. For the past several years that we’ve both been in New York, I’ve been going to Lauren’s house for Rosh Hashanah dinner. About two years ago, I took my younger brother along. After the meal, he commented that this was the most adult dinner party he’d ever been to with people our age. Though my brother had meant it as a compliment, Lauren’s partner, a couple years younger than her, “almost cried” at the lameness of our adulting reality.
Flash forward to this past Rosh Hashanah at Lauren’s, which she described as their “most successful yet.” It felt entirely “adult”—we’d come together as three couples, all living with our partners, and one younger, single friend of the hosts, to talk politics (grim), debate Zionism, break challah, drink wine, and make each other laugh until it was time to go back to the city at a reasonably early hour (10ish). The shift had happened—we were no longer “trying to play adults and feeling silly about it,” as Lauren put it (aka “adulting”), we were just adults enjoying adult activities.
Another friend of mine, who’s about to get married, agreed that she skipped right from her early 20s to her almost-30s. She attributes this in part to a physical move, a job switch, and meeting her boyfriend (now her fiancé), all which happened when she was about 23. In other words, she’d gone from “figuring it out” to “figured it out” in one fell swoop at the time when her “mid-20s” would have taken place.
Then, of course, there’s the marriage aspect. It’s been coming up with increasing frequency. For one, I had to check the “domestic partners/married” box when I joined my boyfriend’s health insurance. And just two days after that, my former roommate got engaged.
She and I had been living together for four years up until a month ago and have been best friends since we met as 10-year-olds at sleep-away camp (where all nice, young Jewish girls go to meet their best friends). We’d had a pact to marry each other if no one else had asked us by 45 since we’d been awkward 13-year-olds who assumed we’d never get dates.
Now, all of a sudden, we wouldn’t have to make good on that pact. We’d moved out of our whimsically-decorated shared apartment, which people often told us looked like “a kindergarten classroom” (a compliment), into separate homes that our friends called “grown up,” and just a month into this new life she had gotten engaged. There was no steady transition—instead, a text from her one Saturday morning at 9 a.m. saying to call her as soon as I woke up.
Knowing my former roommate, who will sleep through an entire weekend/a nuclear explosion if you let her, I naturally assumed someone had died. When I FaceTimed her, concerned, and got the news, it took a showing of the ring for me to actually believe what she’d told me.
Moments like that and our grown-up Rosh Hashanah dinner embody that sense of immediate shift into genuine adulthood. Before those moments, acting like adults was like being preteens trying on makeup for the first time. It’s exciting, and it looks good on you, but it doesn’t quite look right. Then all of a sudden you’re 19, going to your first internship at an office, and your lipstick-eyeliner combo feels natural, maybe even moreso than going in bare-faced.
Lauren suggested finances might lie behind the lack-of-mid-20s phenomenon. “We had this idea that by our 30s we’d have our shit together, like our parents before us did, and that overwhelming realization that we don’t have our shit together is almost like a trash compactor where one end is our early 20s and one end is our late 20s, and you don’t get to exist in your mid-20s,” she explained. Unlike our parents, we haven’t been gradually saving to buy homes or start families—the meager average salaries for people our age don’t permit it. But now, that trash compactor of financial pressure is closing in on us.
Then again, what the New Year’s dinner and my friend’s engagement have in common is their ultimate purpose. Both serve to establish families. For those of us at the Rosh Hashanah dinner, our parents mostly live in different states, and it’s hard for us to take time off work/spend the money to visit just for the holiday. Being an adult means creating your own family where you live, and we were comfortably doing that by celebrating holidays with the same friends each year and leaving behind childish marriage pacts for the people who might actually be willing to sleep with us for the rest of our lives.
That was the shift. In our early 20s, we weren’t looking for families—we were too busy partying, or whatever. Then one day, without warning, our bodies started getting too physically exhausted to go out all the time, so we needed to find people who’d hang out with us at home.
Or, maybe there’s no mid-20s because there’s actually no late 20s. It’s your youth and then everything that comes after. After all, as my friend’s Uber driver described growing up the other day, “It’s all downhill after 25.”
Image via Flickr/Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva