When I was in high school, I remember one of my friends proclaiming that 26 is the average age of a first marriage in the US. Years later, I cannot remember from which website or magazine this was gleaned, however, this factoid for some reason is still stuck within the fibers of my twenty-something brain.* I remember when we as high schoolers imagined our futures based on this tenuous statistic. In an ideal world, we would all meet college sweethearts between the ages of 18 and 22, start our careers and continue dating right out of college, become engaged at 25, and pronounce “I do’s” at 26. And, as an addendum, by the ripe age of 29 we would be expecting the first of multiple babies. With this frame of mind, our high school selves conceptualized our 20s to be a busy decade filled with personal and career achievement…oh, how reality has a way of complicating things.
I think about church bells at 26 now, because I recently learned that my cousin, age 26, is marrying his college sweetheart, also 26, in the fall. Somehow these two people managed to fall into our “perfect” life timeline. Looking back on my high school friends now (roughly 24 – 26 years old), one of us is married (at age 23) and the rest of us are still figuring it out. Now in my mid-twenties, I do not see life so clearly as I did as a teenager.
As a kid, life seemed like a staircase with one way forward. Now, life is more like an M.C. Escher painting where you can climb and climb and can never really be sure whether you are going up, down, or sideways. One thing that my friends and I did not consider in high school was the possibility of continuing school after the completion of a bachelor’s degree. In my high school friend group, I remember that there was exactly one friend who knew that she was destined for higher (higher) education, as her parents instilled within her that she must become a general practitioner. Even this friend who had her sights set on the ivy leagues, ended up pursuing a PhD in math rather than an MD. Life did not turn out the way that we expected. I believe this to be the case, because there are simply more opportunities in the world than we had imagined as suburban teens.
One’s twenties can be an exciting and messy period. The world is abundant with opportunities but offers little guidance on what is right and what is wrong. Some of my childhood friends took giant leaps. One landed in Los Angeles and is working as an Associate Producer on a TV show. Another friend has moved out to the mid-west and is pursuing her career as an engineer. One other is still spending every night in her childhood bedroom and taking graduate classes. With no clear path forward, we are all still moving.
Without a reliable roadmap in life, I think it is important to keep on “moving” in one’s twenties. Feelings of being “stuck” and anxiety over one’s future can trigger the fabled “quarter-life crisis.” This phenomenon describes the feelings of doubt and disappointment about one’s career, relationships, and finances—aka all the hallmarks of twenty-something life. Attempting to predict the future is about as sensible as allowing one’s preoccupations to overtake one’s life.
My life is not on track simply because there is no longer a track to follow. Age is just a number. Unless we are talking about important developmental benchmarks like when babies begin to say their first words or walk, then we should not give into the urge to judge our lives based on artificial checkpoints. If it is your birthday, then let’s celebrate. If you are changing jobs, then let’s go out for drinks. If you are going through divorce, then I wish you happier years ahead of you. Wherever we choose to go, Dear Reader, let’s try our best to aim for happiness.
*P.S. I just searched for the figure and the Atlantic claims: The average age of first marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22 (!) in 1960.)