Your Roaring Twenties

There is immense pressure to make the most of your twenties.

Cali Yee / 12.14.21

This essay appears in the Age Issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

The Roaring Twenties and the decade of life in which I am currently living—my twenties—have something in common. Not the flashy flapper dresses, abolished alcohol, or even the secretive speakeasies (although those do sound cool), but the way in which both eras are romanticized.

That the Roaring Twenties were spontaneous, free-spirited, and fun is today so well-accepted that they are often chosen as a theme for parties—just ask any college student or young adult. The era calls to mind The Great Gatsby, minus all the death and despair, and double the soirée. It was a time for women to explore fashion choices and push back on social constructs—they could wear shorter, more extravagant dresses and vote! A time when couples could drink lots of bubbly at glamorous gatherings. As Fitzgerald writes in his seminal novel:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

But—as with all parties—the fancy hor d’oeuvres are demolished, the “yellow cocktail music” stops, and the tired guests return to their real lives and their real problems.

I’m reminded of the rosy lens through which many people look back at their twenties. The strangeness of utter independence and the difficulties of newfound responsibilities are glossed over by exaggerated stories of glory days. Our twenties are to be when we find a spouse or travel the world—the decade when we are in our prime, when we “find” ourselves, when we discover all that the world has to offer.

Maybe your twenties were or currently are like that. And if that’s true, I salute you. For me, these years are more about making sure that no one finds out just how bad I am at being on my own. I find myself qualifying my current job situation—and lack of money—by using big words and telling myself that it’s okay that I didn’t pursue a more lucrative profession. Hopefully I will actually believe it someday.

There is immense pressure to make the most of your twenties. Carpe Diem: Seize the day! Rainesford Stauffer, writing in The Atlantic, understands this predicament:

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.

We are still in the early stages of adulthood and therefore should have nothing to complain about. Our bodies are nimble, not yet worn down by the weight of aging. We have things like Google and Taxes for Dummies, which can supposedly give us all the answers we need in life. But the paradoxical nature of what our twenties are supposed to be—a time to dream and discover our identity while at the same time finding a stable job, beginning to manage our finances and save for retirement—is both confusing and overwhelming. Many of us feel the need to perform at 110%, to the detriment of our mental and physical wellbeing. We come to think that life requires us to always be in a state of doing rather than a state of being.

We twentysomethings should be taking every opportunity presented to us, so that we don’t waste our young years. Stopping to smell the roses, or taking a mental health day, only wastes valuable time that could be spent networking, planning, or meeting a future spouse. We are allowed time to figure out who we are as long as we are simultaneously contributing to society and discerning our vocation.

Just getting on your feet? Are you going to apply for an internship, a graduate program, or go straight into the workforce? In each case you’re expected to apply with some sort of letter of recommendation—confirmation that someone else sees you as worthy and suitable. You’ll need some proof of either a high school or college education, though many prefer that you first accumulate plenty of debt by pursuing a Bachelor’s degree. Then they’ll ask for at least two years of experience—but won’t explain how you should have experience if you aren’t given the opportunity to get said experience because you first need experience.

Now, I understand that some of these things are inevitable, yada yada yada. But it becomes exhausting to put yourself out there to be evaluated and judged. You begin to realize that you’ll never reach the top of Mt. Expectations before your efforts are squashed, like a bug, by a pair of brown leather penny-loafers.

…..

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” [Gatsby] cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand… He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…

In Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby would rather reside in the mirage of his past love story with the effervescent Daisy than come to terms with the reality of their fragile, faded relationship. He wants to grasp tightly onto certain parts of his past, as if they are still his to hold. Ultimately, his idealism dies with him, but not before it pushes Daisy away with its impossible expectations. Gatsby chooses to believe he has control of his fantasy until the very end—even as the seasons change, Daisy disappears, and his dream falls away with the autumn leaves.

Like Gatsby, we too would rather forget our problemed history, and romanticize our past. We cover up our failures and mistakes in order to avoid our shame. Maybe our elders are doing a similar thing when they talk about their glory days. Like when an uncle recounts his casual and carefree bachelor days but leaves out the part about the string of hearts he broke—or even when his own heart was broken. It’s tempting to reminisce about the fun times in order to compensate for the hardships of growing up and becoming independent. Or to take the Daisy Buchanan approach: to deny our sadness and feign indifference, to focus only on that which brought us momentary happiness, money, or success. Open space to grieve the end of childhood and mentally prepare ourselves for adulthood is so readily traded for fake niceties that give off the impression (through our unshed tears) that we are having so much fun!

If this was all true one hundred years ago, imagine how much worse it can be in the era of social media. The highlight reels of Facebook and Instagram exhibit the best, most aesthetic parts of life. Facebook is where you tell all of your extended family and high school “friends” that you’re engaged—not of the moments in which you felt lonely. It’s also where you share the news of your job that pays six figures, the one you struggled to get after being laid off the previous year. Instagram is where one finds the “candid” photos of friends laughing the night away, and “effortless” pictures of charcuterie boards and latte art. We wouldn’t dare post photos of us actually laughing, double chin and all.

People may share how they are struggling—but only after they’ve been through the thick of it and made known what they’ve been doing to improve and make the most of their situation. Real life is rewritten as a triumphal narrative, filtered and curated. I know for certain that I’ve participated in this performative authenticity. 

Thus begins the cycle: Pretend that life is good, or that it is getting better; act as if there is nothing in the way of your being young, wild, and free; endure the endless pressure and expectations to measure up and achieve success; bury the truth of what is really happening. No one wants to confess their deepest hurt, and no one wants to hear how you are truly struggling. 

But to look only at the good things of the past—to fail to see the fullness of the lives we’ve lived, including their trauma or hurt—only convinces us that our present reality is not enough, that we are not enough. 

It’s a good thing that Jesus doesn’t work in the same way that we do. He doesn’t place expectations on us to measure up, to solve all of our issues. And we can’t even begin to hide our problems from Him, for He already deeply knows our struggles. They are not only known but also empathized with, and are in the care of His gentle hands. We don’t need to know exactly what we want, because Jesus didn’t come to fulfill our desires, but to give us what we need.

And what we need is to be reminded of the truth—how broken we are, how much we need not something, but someone, to save us from ourselves and our books for dummies. Our fallenness is at least one thing we all have in common, no matter our age. And unlike romantics who rave about the Roaring Twenties, folks who tell crazy stories about the good ol’ days, or the Daisy Buchanans of the world who pretend that they are “p-paralyzed with happiness,” Jesus doesn’t sugar coat brokenness.

It doesn’t always feel good to peel back the layers and see the reality. In fact, it can really be quite scary. But the altar has room for our joys and our sorrows. We are loved—all the way through—no matter how many speakeasies we are hiding underground.

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