The Dream of Our 20s is Alive on Instagram
I was taught, by the capitalist creators of Barbie and her Dream House, by multiple episodes of Friends and every other TV show ever, as well as by my own idealistic ambitions, that my 20s would be the prime of my life. That my 20s would mean living in the Big City in an apartment with exposed brick and a dishwasher, sipping on trendy cocktails in a trendy cocktail dress at a trendy bar, and altogether living my life like the flamenco dancer emoji (I imagine her to live a very full life).
This dream of my 20s, the one built up by years of wealthy-friend-group sitcom reruns and limitless daydreaming, was a lie. Okay, maybe my 20s will turn out okay; I'm only like, three years in. But right now, everyone I know is pretty lonely, hella broke, trying to "figure it all out" and worst of all, constantly inundated with useless information about how other twenty-somethings are wasting their precious youth. It's not quite what I bargained for, I guess. Adults that have surpassed their 20s speak of us with slightly jealous disdain, and tell us we damn well better appreciate our still high-functioning metabolisms, lack of creases around our eyes, and our bright futures, our lives still so full of opportunity. We have our whole lives ahead of us! The youth is wasted on the young! I get it, I low-key hate sixteen year olds for the same reason. But it's not the wrinkle-free, worry-free dreamland we were promised. The idea that we are capable and still young and hungry enough to do anything we want is paralyzing and terrifying, enough to ignite weekly quarter-life existential crises. On the one hand, I could find my passion in these crazy and creative years, and spend the rest of my life making the world a better place by living out my dreams. On the other hand, life is pretty much a meaningless series of unrelated events, and we're all going to die one day anyway, and a hundred years from now it won't matter that I dated my cover letter wrong, so I'm going to go eat a whole bag of cheddar rice crisps and watch 30 Rock until I fall asleep.
All I wanted, my entire young life, was to grow up already. Only in my senior year of college did I start grasping at time, watching helplessly as the seconds ticked away and the lie of the carefree postgrad early-20s life began to fall away. All of us felt the pressure from the Real World start seeping in through the cracks of the Spanish-style architecture; heard the horror stories from those beyond graduation about the very real depression, lack of political correctness and weight gain that awaited us. We felt time thinning out, knowing that our days of dorm-room dance parties and Friday afternoon hikes and bottomless tater tots, and someone in the next room to ask if those weird little bumps were razor burn or herpes, were coming to an end. What could we do to slow the time and numb the pain but to listen to the Head and the Heart on repeat and drink too much wine on a beach? We waited to be miserable while we hoped that we would be the lucky ones to escape the misery. Sure, most of us have jobs or grad school. And we all have friends and books and movies and hobbies and sometimes sex. And yet we sit in a miserable discomfort, like a tooth that just starts to come loose, or one of those bandaid dresses that’s a size too small. We have transitioned into a new phase that doesn’t feel quite right in our bodies or our hearts yet. No one is in the apartment they want to live in for the rest of their life; no one is at the job they’re ready to call their career. We watch each other with curiosity and jealousy and careful judgment—not always ill-intended, but always put in context to tell us how to feel our own lives. How did she get that job? How does he afford that place? Why didn't I major in Econ?
We compare and contrast ourselves with each other, armed with Instagram pictures of our high school friend’s Fulbright in Morocco and Facebook statuses about our cousin’s fiance’s med school interviews and gossipy texts about how much a former college hookup makes working for Google, social media our cheap and easy weapon in our constant battle between self-doubt and self-confidence. The underlying question always remains: what are we supposed to be doing right now?
I'm not hating on social media here. I love SMS; I follow so many people on Instagram, the app stops letting me scroll down any more before I can even see all the cool pics I missed, and I should probably be appointed a Facebook addiction therapist. But I love social media for the same reason everyone else does, which is editing and cropping and re-adjusting the shadows and saturation and degree of vignette in my life to make it look awesome and to make all them bitches jealous. (What did you think I was going to say, "reconnecting with old friends"?) The trouble with that is, twenty eight seconds I after I post my timeless #sunset on #SantaMonicaBeach Insta, someone else is posting their #sunrise in #Bali pic, which is infinitely cooler and more impressive than mine. It's an unwinnable game, the Cool Life Game. But the Instagrammed Cool Life isnt real life; it's a highly selective and exorbitantly edited version of the truth. And it's even worse than the growing-up-thinking-my-20s-will-be-rad lie, because it's backed up by filtered photographic evidence and witty Timeline banter. Now that I'm actually in my 20s, the lie is everywhere, and it's expanding at an ever increasing rate, collecting hashtags and the lost snapchats along the way (they have to be stored somewhere, right?) Everyone else is doing it right, living that 20s dream. They go wine tasting in Santa Barbara, and they make their own salads with like, three fresh ingredients, and their selfie smile doesn't seem to be masking a deadness they truly feel inside.
The worst part is we know it's a lie, that the Cool Instagram Life is not anyone's reality. I cannot count how many conversations I've had that go a little something like this:
"I saw those pictures of the concert you went to/your study abroad in Italy/your grandma’s 80th birthday party! That looked so fun!"
"Yeah... It was alright. Tbh they were really bad live/it rained the whole time and the Italians were really racist/it rained the whole time and my grandma was really racist."
And I can't pretend I'm not equally guilty of this; everything looks better when X-Proed or Nashvilled, and because I learned in my Media Theory class that social media is about presenting the self you want to be and want others to think you are, why wouldn't I post selfies from parties that look fun even if they aren't fun--and hey, why not the classic toes in the sand pic? No one needs to know that the water is too cold to swim in and that I got sunburnt to a fine red crisp and that my entire life will be infiltrated by rogue grains of sand for the next few excruciating days. I'm 23 and I'm at the beach! What could be better?
Well, a lot of things. But our social media selves don't share those things; we wouldn't want to or even know how. So instead we scroll and click and like and comment "omgg jelly" and relentlessly stalk other people's lives, believing they are prettier and funner and more fulfilling than ours, and try to figure out how we can have that, how we can get there.
The Internet and people in Real Life tell us to start saving for retirement, and to take advantage of (relatively) hangover-free drinking, and to read the Iliad, and stop comparing ourselves to other people, and make vision boards, and date around, and find a life partner and settle down, and take time to relax, and learn how to cook. There's so much I could be doing with my life everyday that I'm not doing. Everyday I wonder if what I'm doing is what I'm supposed to do at this time in my apparently pointless, endless life, and if I did something different, if I'd be more like that girl I know from college that got everything she wanted.
And then I realize that I've probably never even talked to that girl in real life, and my idea of her life is completely based on her Facebook presence, and start to wonder if that girl is actually as happy and proactive in her own self-actualization as her profile would suggest, and then I look at my own social media presence and it looks eerily similar, despite the fact that I almost constantly feel like a huge failure/disappointment to my ancestors. And then I wonder if this girl and really anyone who’s had any semblance of success in this world has felt just as confused and unaccomplished as I do and if everyone I know has been, or still is, just a little miserable? And if it’s okay to be miserable, even while I'm trying my best to be grateful and not entitled, and involved and socially conscious, and ambitious and scariest of all, happy? I don’t know, and I won’t until I'm old and wise and look back on my own misery to retroactively decide how miserable I really was. Luckily, I'll have my Instagram pictures to show my grandkids how #awesome my 20s were.