Terrible 20’s: the battle ground to adulthood

Courtney Downing | The Duquesne Duke

By Robyn Rudish-Laning | Editor-in-Chief

Courtney Downing | The Duquesne Duke
Courtney Downing | The Duquesne Duke


When my best friend of seven years texted me a photo last week, I was expecting a picture of her puppy Cooper or a cute project she just finished for her house. I was not expecting to see a diamond ring on her hand and the message “I said yes!!”

In the moment it took me to realize what I was seeing, I experienced every emotion possible. From excited, surprised and happy to anxious and dumbfounded, I felt things I never expected to feel when my best friend got engaged.

Don’t get me wrong – I love her dearly and am genuinely happy and excited for her. I just wasn’t expecting this news.

There are things that will inevitably happen for many of us in our 20s. We’ll see our friends get engaged, married and start having babies. Taking on bills of our own and being responsible is a necessary and expected evil. No matter what comes, there will be some things we probably won’t be prepared for.

I, for one, feel like I’m light-years behind those friends who are making serious commitments and moving forward in life. While they’re saying yes, planning weddings, establishing a home and raising families, I have a fish and count dressing appropriately for the weather and remembering my lunch as a win.

In high school, I thought I’d have it together by the far-off age of 23. I’d be out of college with a good job, ready to settle down and get started with the rest of my life. At 23, I can barely tell you what I want for dinner, let alone exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life.

A quick Google search or conversation with those friends who aren’t quite ready to head down the aisle proves that most of us in our 20’s feel unprepared, confused and a little lost.

According to a 2012 New York Times article, there is a movement among sociologists to mark the 20s as a distinctive life phase. Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett is leading this charge to recognize the stage after adolescence as “emerging adulthood.” Rather than jumping right from the terrible teens to a full-grown adult, Arnett suggests that changes in societal norms and institutions like higher education and the American workforce have made way for this added life phase.

So what makes our life progression different from, say, our grandparents’ path? Namely it’s the emphasis placed on higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3,351,049 degrees were awarded to individuals during the 2009-2010 academic year, ranging from Associate’s Degrees to doctoral degrees. In the 1959-1960 academic year, only 476,704 people earned a degree.

Because we’re spending more of our lives in school than ever before, we’re prolonging the period of identity exploration, self-focus, instability and feeling in-between who we are and who we want to become, Arnett said. In his research he found that men and women between the ages of 18 and late 20s are more self-focused, less certain about their future and more optimistic than they are at any other point in their lives. At the same time, people of this age feel dread, frustration and confusion about what lies ahead. Sixty percent of those Arnett surveyed said they felt caught in between being a child and a grown up.

This unsure sense of self is why many Millennials, or those of us born in the 1980s and ‘90s, delay making most traditional life decisions, like buying a home, settling down in one place with one person and starting a family.

Women who earn a college degree in particular often postpone achieving more traditional milestones in order to get ahead professionally. Fifty years ago, the average age of brides in the United States was 20.5 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2012, the average age had risen to 26.6 years old.

Even though I’m still 3.3 years away from reaching that average age to have my stuff together and settle down with that special someone, watching everyone around me reach that point ahead of schedule makes me feel like I’m behind the times.

It’s like every movie or TV show that depicted its main character as going to college, finding their soul mate and promptly graduating, finding their dream job, getting married and getting it all right the first time around has set us up for unending failure.

There are a litany of things that will blindside you in your 20s. You may watch all of your friends settle down and have a family before you’ve even settled into a job you like. Your first job (or seven) may not be what you expect them to be. You may never know what to expect next. Some of us may cope with these obstacles by curling up on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and hiding away from the world for a few days. Others may handle these situations by heading out with some friends for a few hours or keeping active.

Don’t worry. It’s “emerging adulthood” and, while they may not be the best years of your life, you will emerge victorious.

And, even better, your 20s only last a decade.


Robyn Rudish-Laning is a graduate media practices student and can be reached at rudishlaningr@duq.edu.