The 20s: Our Hardest Years

Fashion shot of a trendy group of young people
Fashion shot of a trendy group of young people

No one beyond their youth wants to be in their twenties again. "I'll take the body, but I wouldn't want the life," a 66-year-old woman assured me. These are the most difficult years of all. We have to figure out who to love, how to love and what we should do with our lives. Most of us end up living through several answers to the question, "Who am I?" Searching for what feels right tends to be arduous and confusing, with the ache of considerable trial and error.

On top of these pressures, choices made in our twenties feel like the hinges upon which the rest of our lives will swing. We wonder if we are supposed to make our own fate, or if there is something distinctly ours waiting to be found that we could miss if we do not watch out for it. We keep hoping to run into our destiny, to recognize it when it is in front of us and to have the courage to seize it. If nothing so clear as this presents itself, we feel lost -- and then we blame ourselves for our aimlessness.

Meanwhile, it can seem that everyone else has things together. We hear over and over again that these are the best years of our lives, so we are ashamed to let anyone see our suffering. We are careful to hide the worst aspects of our self-doubt, maintaining a social surface that goes on proclaiming how much fun we are having. Our society's false veneration of youth thus leaves legions of us feeling stranded in a private struggle.

In retrospect, we realize that there is nothing anyone can do but go through these years of insecurity. We find out who we love by loving, what we can accomplish by trying things out and what we need by aching from what remains unfulfilled. As we fumble our way through mishaps and dilemmas, we slowly accrue a sense of ourselves. Most importantly, we gain the relieving conviction that these struggles do not belong to us alone.

By the time we leave our youth behind, we have the benefit of every crossroad we have already passed. There have been hundreds of roads not taken. We worry much less about making a wrong choice, since some of our carefully considered decisions have led to dead ends and some of our gut impulses have led to unforeseen gains. We realize that the very idea of a wrong or right choice is falsely polarizing. No matter what decision we make, we know we may end up pining for some aspects of the life we declined even as we celebrate the many advantages of having let go and moved on. This is how it is for everyone, but it takes a long time to recognize this basic commonality.

I say it is time to get rid of the excessive esteem for youth and to shout the opposite message from the rooftops. As we get older, we know so much more about how to get through our difficulties. We cope with mishaps and losses with the benefit of every prior mistake, our individual pile of regrets and the determination to make use of what we have learned. This process of accrual keeps going, so long as we don't get lost in the detour of drugs and alcohol or other ways of avoiding the growth that comes with pushing through the challenges that come our way.

The truth is that life gets better as we get older, on every level but the physical. What seems bewildering or insurmountable when we are 20 is usually much less threatening when we are 40 and may be a breeze when we are 70. I am talking about the heart, mind and spirit -- not the body. Getting older is despicable only if our measures of worth are based around flexible joints and rapid word retrieval. Self-confidence, a sense of what matters most, the ease that comes with knowing who you are -- no one who has earned these advantages would trade them to be young again. We need to let young people know.

Adapted from: "Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older," Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.