Words by: Daisy Henry Art by: Stephanie Wong
Being in your twenties is a confusing time. Graduating from Year 12 feels like it could have been mere years ago and the idea of people you know getting engaged or owning property seems absurd — surely we’re too young for that! Yet as I think about it, my valedictory was six years ago, some of my friends are in long-term relationships and a lot of young people are already saving for house deposits. Um, when did everyone turn into grown-ups?
When I was younger, my understanding of ‘adults’ was largely informed by American movies and the lives of people around me. On one hand, I pictured the hot, stylish, independent, career-focused woman who lived in the city and had a great sex life (read: Jenna Rink in Suddenly 30). But on the other hand, I thought that at some point, you had to settle down in the suburbs, get married and have children (read: most of the adults in my life). However, I do think that being in your twenties carries its own distinct feeling. We’re paying rent, earning our own money (albeit not much), and making pivotal decisions about our lives. Yet, at the same time, we’re hitting Afterpay on things we don’t need, spending too much money on a cocktail at a trendy, inner-city bar, and self-consciously evaluating how well we’ve performed in a social setting. We can vote, and we pay tax, but we’re constantly on the brink of an existential crisis about our purpose and whether we like the person we’re becoming. And sometimes the distance between feeling dependent and unanchored, to feeling confident and independent, is a chasm. It can feel like waking up and realising that the people in your life are achieving milestones and no one thought to tell you that you’re approaching the deadline as well.
But when exactly do we become an ‘adult’? Is it when we hit a certain age? Do we wake up at 18, 25 or 30 and suddenly have our shit together? I doubt it. Personally, each year that has passed since I turned 18 did not make me feel any more grown up. If anything, as the years passed, I’ve felt less sure of who I am and what I want to do with my life.
Maybe we can measure adulthood by milestones then? Get a full-time job, couple up, move out, get married, and have children. This mantra is deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that no matter how progressive or open-minded we consider ourselves, it’s hard not to associate these markers with successfully growing up on some level. Our culture has worked hard to sell us a clear and linear path for growing up; a path that is strongly associated with ideas of a nuclear family and making money. But do we realise how exclusionary and exclusive adulthood is if we define it by only these things? Not everyone is allotted the same opportunities or jumping-off point. Not everyone aspires to, or values the same things (sorry ScoMo, but not everyone wants to buy a house).
Granted, times have changed. In 2022, women have far more options, and marriage doesn’t provide the same degree of economic and social security as it did for our grandmothers and mothers. Instead, the idea of a ‘grown-up’ woman in Australia in 2022 has pivoted fiercely in the opposite direction.
It’s hard to separate what it is to be a modern, independent woman from the productivity-driven #girlboss hustle. To be a successful adult in today’s world, I feel as though I must have flawless skin, be leading a not-for-profit, travel the world, invest my money, and be in the midst of at least one entrepreneurial endeavour. The current Sally Rooney-esque vibe shift of being a woman in your twenties who isn’t in any rush to settle down, is career-driven, has lots of sex, uses a menstrual cup, can confidently order wine, and enjoys cheese platters with friends while discussing topics like fast fashion, the use of plastics and global politics… well, it’s also a lot. Though some of the pressures of growing up (and keeping up) have evolved, it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared.
Many of us lost almost two years to isolation and lockdowns over 2020–21 — a time that we thought was going to be spent working, earning money, moving out or travelling… stopped. Milestones that we might have had lined up, ready to check off the list, were temporarily put on pause. We emerged two years older without necessarily feeling it.
But by no means is being in your twenties a bad thing. If anything, it’s an important time to be gentle and to learn about ourselves. Yes, being an ‘adult’ can be associated with a certain pressure to keep up, and it’s exciting (although slightly daunting) to have so many options and pathways ahead. However it can also be an incredibly rich time to try new things, to experiment and to learn to be okay with failing and going at your own pace.
Growing up is an abstract concept. You don’t all of a sudden become an adult. No one gives you a certificate to say, ‘congratulations, you finally got yourself together’ and ‘well done for remembering to pay your car registration on time’.Instead, perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn from ‘coming of age’ is to get to know ourselves, question the scripts we feel like we have to follow and make our own decisions. Ultimately, we can move at whatever pace we want to, and we can reshape and reframe milestones so that they align with us and our values.