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Why Your Early 20s Feel Like a Colossal Mountain

Feeling lost in your 20s? Science says it’d be strange if you didn’t.

Image of a climber standing atop a mountain, looking into the distance where another mountain stands.
Credit: Shutterstock/m.mphoto

The average home-leaving and marriage age is quickly increasing. Higher reports of 20-somethings not feeling mature enough to make the decisions before them. A pushback in the reaching of adult milestones. A simple question remains: why? Is being a young adult in the 21st century really that hard?

Many boomers put these statistics down to plain ol’ laziness and the products of a spoilt generation. Psychologists and experts in the young mind tell a different story.

Is the Brain to Blame?

Melinda Beck, health columnist for The Wall Street Journal, comments on the delayed development of 20-somethings:

‘Neuroscientists used to think that the brain was pretty much done forming shortly after puberty, but scans of thousands of subjects at the National Institute of Mental Health has shown that there is a lot still going on well into the twenties, including some really crucial link-ups between the pre-frontal cortex – the executive suite of the brain – and impulse control and emotions. And having to make major life decisions before all that happens is not necessarily a great thing.’

Melinda Beck, The Wall Street Journal health columnist
An image of The Wall Street Journal health columnist Melinda Beck discussing the delaying of adulthood.
Credit: The Wall Street Journal

Beck acknowledges a gap in the literature surrounding the young adult brain, which has gone largely unstudied for some time. This has aided the long-believed understanding that new adulthood is as good a time as any to make life-altering decisions.

With this new focus has come knowledge suggesting that the processes happening in the teenage mind are not too dissimilar to those of the 20-somethings.

In the teenage years, neurons and pathways form and change quite rapidly, strengthening or weakening depending on how often they are used. Non-firing brain cells wrap neurons in fatty white tissue (myelin), increasing the speed electrical impulses travel along the neurons’ branches. Each of these processes are vital development happening in the growing mind.

Symbolic image of a man watering a tree consisting of a brain.
Credit: Shutterstock/Pictrider

This is all to say that these changes, although less prevalent in your early 20s, continue for much longer than first thought. It also means that deciding on your life partner or picking your forever career, for instance, while noble and impressive choices to make at a young age, are not always best made at this stage in life.

The Science

The ’corpus callosum’ is the connective bundle of neural fibers that joins your left and right brain hemispheres. This is the biggest source of white matter in the brain.

A 2004 study showed that this keeps growing right through to your mid-20s. How does this affect you? This part of the brain helps us do many things, namely coordinating our senses, joining experiences and emotional responses to stimuli (the world around us). Your prefrontal cortex (the house to emotional intelligence and high-level cognitive processing) also undergoes significant improvement in your 20s.

Sounds tiring, right?

So, next time you cry at that picture of a smiling alpaca or feel stupid for thinking you could go to a concert the night before a 10 a.m. lecture (been there), don’t blame yourself. Blame your brain.

Fulfill Dreams? In This Economy?

Reports show that 20-somethings are taking increasingly longer to make life decisions, like marriage, finishing school, finding a career, etc. Science says it’s neither a surprise nor a bad thing.

‘One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.’

Robin Marantz Henig

Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University calls this phase ‘emerging adulthood’, affecting particularly those in developed nations like the United States and Canada who are subject to several societal, cultural, and economic factors which may not be as prevalent elsewhere.

Issues like record inflation rates, the cost-of-living crisis and a competitive job market mean that the priorities of young people have had to grow and change.

An image of a young person concerned about their finances.
Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes

Can we blame 20-somethings for prioritizing financial security when butter costs what you could once get a taxi for? Is it really that surprising that more young people are extending their time at school to achieve jobs that help pay said extortionate prices?

All this considered, it should be no question that a first-world society, culture and economy has added to the weight on the shoulders of young people.

Darn You, Society

We’re all guilty of it: comparing ourselves to others and holding unrealistic standards. Clarity is something rarely afforded to the self-critical mind. It forgets that there may have been different interests, obstacles or opportunities which brought us closer or further away from the lives of our inspirations.

We can’t totally blame our self-deprecating minds for creating themselves, though. Society has a large part to play in the standards we set for ourselves.

Jemma Sbeg’s acclaimed podcast The Psychology of Your 20s addresses many pressures young people face due to society. Episode 122: The Pressure to be Exceptional in Your 20s notes the deep societal obsession with success and an individualistic conception of happiness that swarms modern media. Examples include Forbes’ 30 under 30s and the highly publicized stories of young geniuses/entrepreneurs. Sbeg notes that these are wonderfully inspiring stories but should not be used as tools for comparison in our own lives.

Image of a man resembling Einstein holding up a child to complete an equation on a blackboard.
Credit: Shutterstock/Di Soccio Massimo

Access to examples (which are the few and not the majority) are so easily found online that you can convince yourself you’re slow or doing life wrong. Equally, leaving a regimented system like school where everyone’s paths are virtually the same for a time means that the freedom to choose your own pace and options can feel scary.

The short answer? You’re not slow; you just have a lot of influencers on your For You page. That girl you went to school with might have a successful start-up and a partner of three years, all before she’s 21, but you may have a novel within you waiting to be written. You cannot be late to your own life. You will arrive at the places you need to be when the timing is right. Don’t doubt that.

Better Late than… Early

All of these factors considered, scientists actually argue that we are better equipped to make life-altering decisions in our late 20s and beyond. Even past the 20s, supposedly fully developed brain cells keep growing and changing, so we’re never really ‘done’ growing anyway. When it comes to that mortgage and the question of kids, though, tell your parents the science suggests you put it off for a bit.

Written By

Second-year English Literature and Creative Writing student at Cardiff University with a love for writing, art, bees and an unhealthy obsession with Pride and Prejudice.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Natalie

    September 17, 2023 at 10:50 pm

    An impressive and thought provoking read .

  2. Emily Paradice-Ruan

    September 18, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you Natalie! x

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