At sweet 16, you’re allowed to drink and drive (though not at the same time), at 17 you’re the dancing queen, and at 18 you’re an adult. But what about turning 20, which has no legal implications, but still feels like a milestone for many young people? Do you wake up one morning and feel like an entirely new person? A proper adult even, forever removed from the strange sphere that are the teenage years? So many questions – and unfortunately, not even nearly as many answers.
If anything, it seems strange to expect such a profound change from a single day in your life
When turning 20, you will already have been an adult for two years, at least according to UK law. For most, turning 18 has probably been an anticlimactic experience, which, of course, makes sense if you think about it and about the way birthdays work more generally: you’re only one day older than the day before, and it’s only in comparison to the way things were a year ago that you might be able to notice more significant changes in yourself or your circumstances. If anything, it seems strange to expect such a profound change from a single day in your life. Surely, turning 20 cannot be so different from this, or even have much of an impact at all?
Legally speaking, this might be true, but the imagined impact should not be underestimated, nor should the rumination that comes with it. This particular birthday opens the door to an entirely new chapter: Welcome to your very own Roaring 20s, these years of your life that are so often described as formative. They are seen as the time to grow into the person you are going to be pretty much for the rest of your life, the time to find out who you are, and what you want out of this life, the time to discover your calling, and forge meaningful connections that last a lifetime.
But while one day it might feel like you’re on top of the world, the very next day your options and the many paths you might take can move in on you
If you’re a university student, at 20 years old, you are most likely in your second or third year, so the end of your undergraduate degree is looming ever closer, and with it, a potential quarter-life crisis. Your reflections on what to do with your life after university are likely to intensify: “Do I even like my degree? What kind of life do I want? Do I even want a career? How about just eating fruit in a patio during the day and watching the sky at night?”
My family thoroughly enjoys quoting 12-year-old me as saying that “being a grown-up seems so terribly exhausting”. What can I say – even thinking about being a grown-up can be exhausting. Not quite knowing where you’re headed, and being aware that there is more than one route you could take, can be the most glorious feeling. Having options, both compared to previous generations and to others our age who are not as lucky, is a huge privilege. But while one day it might feel like you’re on top of the world, the very next day your options and the many paths you might take can move in on you, take away the very air you need to breathe, and make you feel entirely alone not only in this strange, strangling jungle of opportunities, but in the world.
Many young people experience this kind of crisis in their early twenties
What’s more, with big crises like Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and climate change patiently waiting at the back of your mind, there is a host of options for your subconscious to choose from when deciding why you should experience anxiety about the future on this particular day. As a woman, you might not only ask yourself whether you want to have children, but also wonder if we will ever reach gender equality – I might have many more opportunities than my grandmother, but I’m still scared to walk home alone at night. And as much as I might try, I will never entirely fathom all the shades of angst that are experienced by people of colour, members of the LGBT+ community, or those belonging to other minorities or marginalised groups.
Taking political action so as not to allow your fears to paralyse you is one way out of this pickle. Another one is taking consolation in the fact that many young people experience this kind of crisis in their early 20s, which is why the term quarter-life crisis has been coined in the first place. Ask your friends how they feel about the prospect of properly entering adulthood, and their answer will likely not be that different from yours. This is not to say that your thoughts and worries are not valid or not important. It simply means that you are not alone.