Something is happening online wherein it has become fashionable for objectively young people to say that they feel hideously, grotesquely old. The sentiment is everywhere: self-deprecating, semi-ironic bemoans of being an elderly hag surrounded by mere tots. On Twitter, 17-year-olds go viral for feeling ancient compared to the middle schoolers on their timelines. On Instagram, meme accounts share images of the Golden Girls captioned with “me watching TikTok.” On TikTok itself, college kids act as though they’re too washed to be on the app at all, while commenters praise Selena Gomez as the “queen of aging,” as if by 28 one should expect to be a rapidly shriveling crone (which, if you’ve ever read one of the dozens of BuzzFeed articles about the difference between being in your early 20s versus your late 20s, is in some way accurate).
There is now a kind of cottage industry for this precise emotion, made up of memes, listicles, and trend stories that are often in imagined response to missed milestones like making Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list or the presences of unfathomably young children. If deep-fried Minions memes are emblematic of boomer Facebook groups, the 20-something version is a tweet that says, “u know you’re past 25 when your ideal Friday night is a murder podcast and a face mask.” There are, by my count, at least 10 stories in major national publications about how TikTok makes people as young as 18 feel too old to be there.
“[Posts] about feeling old consistently do really well,” says Sarah Merrill, the creator of the popular meme account @BigKidProblems, who describes herself as “31 going on 85.” “I live on the internet and make memes for a living, but I cannot for the life of me figure out TikTok. I’m like, ‘This is where I become irrelevant.’”
As someone who covers the current “young person” app, I hear this a lot from people, regardless of age. They say they can’t get into TikTok because it makes them feel like an Old, that they’re too tired to learn the dance moves or understand the memes. No one should spend time on a platform they don’t care about, but to avoid something just because it triggers some horrible realization about your own mortality — despite often only being a few years removed from the age of most of its users — suggests that something is extremely wrong with the way we think about growing up.
This might sound counterintuitive if you’ve kept up with the news over the past decade. Adulthood, by most measures, is starting later for young people; millennials are delaying marriage (or not marrying at all) and delaying homeownership (or realizing they’ll never be able to buy a home anyway). Though the oldest millennials are in their late 30s, media still treats us as though we are permanently floundering 25-year-olds, and yet an element of this is our own doing: We are the inventors of ironic or infantilizing trends like “adulting” and “I’m baby,” the age group that’s still weirdly obsessed with having been deemed “gifted children” and its resultant effects on our mental health. Though the term “Gen Z” has largely replaced “millennial” as shorthand for the increasingly loud and frenzied discussions about youth in the media and online, in the popular imagination, both groups barely seem to count as grown-ups at all.
So why, then, do young people say they feel so old? There is a case to be made that everyone in their late teens and 20s — often a time of seismic life upheaval — experiences some degree of a rapidly fading youth. These years are often a second adolescence that’s arguably scarier than the first: For many, it’s the first time they’re without financial support, the first experience living without family, or their first time in the workforce. For others who’ve been working to support their families from a young age, they’re grieving a lost youth and an uncertain future.
There are pressures to have it “all figured out” within 10 years or risk fading into obscurity as you stare down the barrel of 30, the culturally agreed-upon moment where you’re supposed to suddenly have your life together, if for no other reason than because it is a nice round number.
24 year olds spiral out about being old more than 34 year olds— Reed Brice (@thatdangdingus) September 16, 2020
But there is also a case to be made that the feeling of being so old, so fast, is particularly resonant right now. “I think previous generations have probably felt this but at a much smaller scale,” explains Emily Cogswell, a 24-year-old in retail management in Albany, New York. “They just had their social group to compare themselves to rather than literally every single person in the world.”
She’s referring, of course, to social media, where it is possible to measure oneself — quantitatively! — against virtually anyone else. “Women have this pressure to get everything figured out, get married, and have kids while we’re still hot,” she adds. “But we also have to reach the peak of our career by then. How does one person do that?”
I found Emily because she’d tweeted about the phenomenon I kept seeing everywhere. “U guys are really weird ab age,” she wrote. “Like as if aging is the worst thing that can happen to anyone and it happens as soon as they’re older than 25.”
There is self-deprecation at the root of age panic, a well-intentioned attempt at irony and relatability. But the more I hear people lament how ancient they feel in the presence of people younger than them, the more depressing it sounds. Devon Price, a social psychologist and professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, articulates this well: “We have such a strange relationship to age in our culture,” they explain. “We sexualize very young people and we teach people that youth is the time of your life, that it’s when you should be achieving the absolute most. So if you haven’t done that then there’s something wrong. It kills people with insecurity.”
This, Devon argues, is what feeds into the idea that younger people are an existential threat. (I am reminded of a certain scene from 30 Rock in which Tina Fey sees a group of teenagers nearby and mutters, “Oh, no: youths,” before running away.) On some level, this fear is warranted: The existence of young people tells us that we are not young, and to be not young in America is to be rendered largely invisible, desexualized, and economically worthless, either forced out of the workforce or required to be there longer than one should.
“That’s the thing that I hate about the generational wars. Zoomers and millennials have adopted this belief that older people are all bigoted, conservative, and privileged,” Devon says. “Really, we’re both screwed over by a lot of the same systemic forces. It’s a very easy way to divide people instead of us realizing that we’re all exploited workers and that we’re all overworked.”
Love... we millennials are like the Golden Girls on Tiktok pic.twitter.com/ZK49I53m6z— Bobby Berk (@bobbyberk) January 10, 2020
That we feel pressured to be wunderkinds or risk eternal obscurity is itself a product of this broken system. “Our very competitive capitalist system says by this age, you’re supposed to achieve this particular thing,” Devon adds. “And increasingly, those benchmarks of success are not attainable to people. Having children at a certain age, being able to buy a house, being financially independent — those are the things that we taught would be satisfying and bring your life meaning, and now people can’t get those things on a very fundamental economic level. It makes people feel like failures. One way that they express that is, ‘Oh, my god, I’m so old, and I still haven’t done XYZ.’”
If millennials were screwed by the Great Recession, entering the workforce to a crappy job market and saddled with skyrocketing student loan debt, just to be kneecapped by the pandemic, it’s unlikely that Gen Z, the oldest of whom are in their early 20s, will fare much better. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, why “feeling old” often sounds exactly like despair: It suggests that the fun part of life is over, yet the stable part of life, the one with a house and a family and a career, feels both out of reach and overdue.
This is a central idea of Anne Helen Petersen’s recent book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, which tracks how tax laws, the gig economy, and the Great Recession, among many other things, screwed over young people (and unlike the viral essay that preceded it, how they have also had devastating consequences for anyone alive right now no matter what year they were born).
“The internet isn’t the root cause of our burnout,” she writes in the opening chapter, “but its promise to ‘make our lives easier’ is a profoundly broken one, responsible for the illusion that ‘doing it all’ isn’t just possible, but mandatory. When we fail to do so, we don’t blame the broken tools. We blame ourselves.” This, she argues, gives iPhone-addicted millennials and zoomers vastly unrealistic expectations about what our lives should look like, and therefore outsize self-hatred for when we don’t meet those expectations by a certain age.
“24 year olds spiral out about being old more than 34 year olds,” reads a tweet from comedian and performance artist Reed Brice earlier this month. Reed is 33, which means he’s over the hump of early-20s age panic. “Turning 30 was the best thing that ever happened to a dork, because now the pressure is off for me to try to be cool,” he told me.
Culture moves faster than it ever has — there are more TV shows, more TikToks, more niche memes and internet drama than any one person could ever possibly keep up with (and even if they did, what kind of hellhole life would that be?). We forget how boring being a teenager is, how much time we had to fill up with invented narratives simply to entertain ourselves or distract from the crushing weight and powerlessness of being confined to your parents’ house. Of course teenagers are more familiar with newer songs or newer memes. What else are they going to do!
It’s also impossible to talk about the fear of aging without talking about the precise terror that it represents for women. Our worth is inseparable from our youth, so much so that embracing the effects of time is considered a radical act (see: grombre hair or the entirety of the skin care industry). Any attempt to describe exactly how much this fact is intrinsic to our selfhood will sound trite, but here is an example from my life:
When I was 19, I had never felt so old, and never more conscious of the fact that I was still so young. Living in New York City as a young woman will do that to you, but my clearest, and saddest, memory was at the bars I would frequent while underage, all too aware that the only power I had over the 20-something men — men I thought had glamorous jobs and lots of money but who were of course all perfectly average 23-year-olds in the East Village — was that it was sort of sexy that I was too young to be there. I may not have been the skinniest or the most beautiful girl at the bar, but I was always the youngest, and that felt like something. My age felt so cosmically significant that it instilled in me a deep fear of every birthday that followed, as though I was slowly being stripped of that one gasp of agency I cherished so much.
Like almost every other woman I know, I am still weird about age, and the fact that 30 is not so far away looms ever-present in the decisions I make and the culture I consume. Complaining about your age should be a boring and embarrassing thing to do, because everyone is rocketing toward our twilight years at the exact same speed. But it is still so, so much better than being 19, or 15, or 12. This, I think, is what we tend to forget when we openly envy teens: Being a teenager sucks.
“There’s so many great things about getting older,” Devon says. “People tend to become more satisfied with their lives and their relationships. Upsetting emotions tend to be less intense. You have more of a sense of perspective on negative things, because you’ve seen it before. We have fewer relationships, but we invest in those relationships more deeply.”
This is the trade-off we were supposed to make when we graduated from the chaos of teenagehood, that life would become more satisfying, that we would become wiser and more at peace. That people in their 20s still feel used and tossed out is not because they are suddenly being confronted with teenagers on TikTok, but because of our failure to support young people in their pursuit of a fulfilling life: to help them out of student debt, to provide affordable housing, to offer jobs with actual benefits. The sad part is not that we are old. It’s that we’re too old for this shit.