How To Survive Your Twenties

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How To Survive Your Twenties

21 September 2016

As our columnist turns 30, he calls time on his youth, and looks forward to embracing a life more ordinary.

So, then. That was that. As I look back on my twenties – which came to a delightful close last week on a sun-drenched Umbrian hillside – I’m tempted to go out on a limb and make the early prediction that they’ll go down as the most enjoyable years of my life. Certainly, they’ll be remembered as the most hedonistic; I’m not sure that my liver could take another decade as debauched as the last. As I sit at my keyboard writing these words, though, another possibility occurs to me: could they also turn out to be the most disappointing? Allow me to explain.

When you’re 20, you stand on the brink of a strange new world, as exciting as it is uncertain. Brimming with youth, faced with near-infinite possibilities, you allow yourself to fantasise about what the future might hold. You imagine life as it might appear in a coming-of-age movie or music video: one long, sepia-tinted summer, all Instagram-perfect sunsets, romantic encounters with beautiful strangers and parties that last until dawn.

It doesn’t cross your mind, of course, that the next decade might be rather more ordinary than all that; that you might spend great swathes of it sitting at a desk or on a train; that it might be punctuated by just as many plummeting lows as ecstatic highs. In your starry-eyed state you fail to predict the heartbreak, frustration and just plain tedium that the next few years will all but invariably hold. You don’t realise just how quickly time will pass you by. By these unreachable standards, even the happiest decade might seem disappointing.

Still, the idea that turning 30 should prompt some sort of existential crisis has always seemed absurd to me. Not because I doubt that such crises exist; on the contrary, I know plenty of people of my age who carry around with them a crippling awareness of the fleeting nature of all things. It’s just that I have no idea why you’d wait until your 30th birthday to have one.

“Approaching 30 is a bit like having a terminally ill relative,” explained a 31-year-old friend of mine over drinks last week. “You grieve for them before they’re gone. By the end, you just want them to die already.”

“Totally,” agreed another. “I was so, so relieved when I turned 30. It was like my age bracket finally tallied with the person that I knew I was in my head. I honestly think I’ve been 30 since the age of 25. That’s when X Factor contestants stop being classed as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ and start being classed in the ‘over’ category.”

I can relate; my own personal crisis was music-related, too. It occurred in late autumn 2013, at the age of 27 (and two months), when I realised that I was older than Mr Kurt Cobain had ever been, and that I was probably going to have to abandon my dreams of becoming a tragic rock star.

It was the Nirvana frontman’s suicide in the spring of 1994 that popularised the legend of “The 27 Club”, the name given to that small but influential group of musicians who never made it to their 28th birthday, which counts among its register such illustrious names as Messrs Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and Ms Amy Winehouse.

It wasn’t as if I’d ever harboured any great desire to join this so-called club, and at any rate I doubt they’d have considered my membership. Of the two criteria for eligibility – one, to have forged an era-defining career in the arts; and two, to have died a tragic and untimely death – I’d singularly failed to meet the former, and had no intention of meeting the latter.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of passing. I was now older than one of my childhood heroes, and had very little in the way of fame and fortune to show for it. I remember sitting on the roof that afternoon three years ago and watching as a storm blew in and tore all the remaining leaves off the trees.

This wasn’t the first time that my dreams of musical superstardom had been dealt a blow. In 2007, while I was completing my penultimate year of university, a handful of recent graduates returned to their alma mater to extol, on behalf of their new employers, the virtues of working in the City. They arrived at the common room laden down with leaflets from a variety of faceless financial institutions, of which one in particular caught my eye.

Its cover displayed a stock photograph of a music concert. “Ever dreamed of becoming a rock star?” read the cover. “When you hear that our clients include rock stars and sporting heroes, it may open your eyes to the exciting world of Tax Consulting. It’s more rock and roll than you think.”

“It occurred to me, at the age of 27, that I was probably going to have to abandon my dreams of becoming a tragic rock star”

Were my eyes deceiving me? The leaflet seemed to be suggesting, without a hint of irony, that setting up an offshore fund on behalf of a rock star is the same as being a rock star. That Bono’s tax advisor is basically an honorary member of U2. What calculated nonsense, I thought, crumpling the leaflet into a ball and throwing it at the nearest bin.

It wasn’t until several years later, while sitting on the roof and watching that storm blow in, that I finally understood the true message hidden in that leaflet: that your twenties are going to be a horrible disappointment; that you’re highly unlikely to achieve your dreams; and that the sooner you pack them in for something sensible, the better.

Young man in a hurry, eh? What’s that all about, then?” is a question I’ve had to field on more than one occasion since beginning this column in June of last year, and one to which I’ve provided a variety of answers: “it’s Fight Club meets Sex And The City”, or “it’s Portnoy’s Complaint, only with less Judaism” or something equally vague and misleading. But as I bring it to a close with this, my final entry — look, I’m 30 now, this “young man” shtick can’t last for ever – it’s time, in the style of TV legend Mr Jerry Springer, to offer my final thoughts.

Youth comes in two stages. There’s the first stage, when you think that it’ll last for ever. Then there’s the second stage, when you’re suddenly and horribly aware of the fact that it won’t. This second stage, marked by anxiety, feelings of loss, and a terrible fear of withering on the vine, is what made up the subject matter of this column. It’s a time when you come to terms with the fact that your life might be a little bit more ordinary than you have dreamed. And you realise that actually, that’s not such a bad thing.

Look after yourselves, and each other.

Illustrations by Mr Giacomo Bagnara