“This is the time of your life,” the nurse said to me as she searched for a vein. At 27, I finally had health insurance and could get the colonoscopy that doctors had been suggesting for years, so I was feeling pretty good about things—as good as one can feel after having spent the previous 12 hours in the bathroom. But she wasn’t referring to the procedure; she was talking about my age. Even at this very odd, very vulnerable moment, I represented to her freedom and opportunity—your 20s, supposedly the time of your life.
Many people roll their 20s through a sugar coating of nostalgia. But framing young adulthood as the best time of life is a little grim, as it puts a limit on growth. This glorification of youth also seems to assume that everyone has the same resources; moves on the same timeline, in the same way; and has the same kind of life, one filled with adventure and experimentation.
This decade is supposed to simultaneously be a golden age of rootless freedom and fearless exploration and, somewhat contradictorily, the time when you’re meant to figure out your career, your relationships, and your life goals. That’s a lot of pressure.
Over the past few years, I’ve spoken with dozens of 20-somethings from all different backgrounds and in all sorts of circumstances to learn how they understand this time in their life. The young adults I talked with didn’t articulate far-flung fantasies of a #bestlife as Instagram illustrates it. They described a desire to simply feel like enough. They wanted more nuanced conversations about what making your way in the world as a young adult actually means.
Fifty years ago, the sociological markers of adulthood included finishing high school, entering the workforce, moving away from home, getting married, and having children. Now, according to a 2017 study, Americans consider the most important adult milestones to be graduating from college or another postsecondary program and achieving financial stability, both sometimes impossible feats. As the researchers Alexis Redding and Nancy E. Hill recently noted in The Atlantic, the ability of young adults to enter adulthood has always been tied closely to how well the economy is doing.
And the economy is not in our favor. Though we’re the largest part of the workforce, young Millennials own less than 5 percent of the wealth in the United States. When Baby Boomers were in their 20s, they controlled about 21 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, from 1979 to 2019, productivity rose 72 percent in the U.S. while hourly pay increased only roughly 17 percent. During the pandemic, young people have been unemployed at more than double the national average, and rates of uninsured young adults have risen, according to data from the Center for Law and Social Policy.
We all might be grappling with the chaos of finding ourselves and all that comes with it—dating, changing family dynamics, work stress—but the stakes are not the same for everyone. “Defining adulthood for oneself has in many ways become one of the pressures of this developmental period,” Dalal Katsiaficas, an educational-psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. “Those with the most power and privilege in our society tend to narrate endless options of what adulthood can look like.” Meanwhile, many of those who are more marginalized describe what she calls “foreclosed” opportunities—some feel locked out of ever achieving adult status, while some take on adult roles much earlier than others.
I’ve been running on a treadmill with little sense of direction, just forward, forward, forward, misguidedly believing that when I “figured it out,” whatever it was, I would finally feel released from the sensation that I was the only one who was lost. I felt disappointed in myself when I dropped out of college, when I lost jobs, when I Googled what a 401(k) was. My missteps felt like personal failures instead of a normal part of life—that is, until I started having honest conversations with other people in their 20s.
The narrative of the wild-and-free 20-something is far from reality for many. "Someone who is white in their 20s already sort of has more privilege than someone who is of color, so they have more social mobility and more opportunity to accumulate generational wealth," Zaria Howell, 21, told me.
Howell is about to graduate from college, and finding the perfect job isn’t necessarily their top priority. They’re thinking holistically about community, joy, and fulfillment. They are also looking beyond their 20s. “I think it’s harmful to, say, you know, forget about this whole lifetime that you have to accomplish your goals, to meet new people, to travel to new places, to learn new things.”
Robert Zambrano, 25, told me that he failed out of college because of personal issues, and was subsequently forced out of his family home. For three years, he was in an electrical union, training to be an electrician, but he found breaking into the old boys’ club difficult. “Every moment we examine the broader mainstream portrayal of twenty-somethings, it just continually fails to match any reality that we live in,” he wrote me by email.
That includes the trope that all of young adulthood is blissful Instagramming and soul-searching, as if 20-somethings aren’t also caretakers, breadwinners, and parents. LaTesha Harris, 23, began working as a young teenager, helping her mom with rent and utility bills. “Adulting has been very much tied to financial burden,” Harris told me. The majority of people she knows, she said, have no money, no respect from anyone older, no autonomy in the workplace. “It’s like there are a lot of things to realize about yourself and also the world in this time period,” Harris said. “Because that’s such an overwhelming task, I can't see how anyone would consider this the best time in your life.”
Showlin Salam, 26, did everything young people are encouraged to do: She pursued an education as a first-generation student while working full-time, graduated, and got married. Up until recently, she was a frontline worker doing 12-hour days at a pharmacy, where she dealt with customers who spit and coughed on her. Despite reminders to “take care of your mental health,” she was given no resources to do so, and is experiencing anxiety and depression. The “You’re young; it’ll work out!” talking point isn’t helping. Young people aren’t searching for glamorous versions of happiness, Salam told me. Instead, she feels like she’s barely hanging on. “I’m looking for being content, and just finding joy,” she said. “That’s what we are looking for, as Millennials and Gen Z, because of this instability that we're living in right now.”
The one-size-fits-all narrative of your 20s needs to change. Reports on young adults moving in with their parents at record rates spin that as a moral failure, rather than an economic side effect or a choice made for cultural or family reasons. Remarks about young people being lazy ignore how few jobs are available. Quips about students needing to work overlook how many are working—and how many are still experiencing basic-needs insecurity. Moans about 20-somethings not having kids rarely mention the child-care crisis.
According to Katsiaficas, we need policies that support affordable education, living wages, student-debt relief, and a sense of safety and belonging in society—quality-of-life issues that, once addressed, would allow people of all ages to imagine futures that are self-directed. “These are basic needs that have been steadily eroded for young adults,” she said.
We are growing into ourselves across a whole lifetime, not just throughout one decade. Let’s all retire the idea of our 20s as a #bestlife—and just strive for a good one.