Ever notice how young people talk about their age versus the old? When we’re children, we always round up. “I’m almost 8″, or “I’ll turn eleven this year.” Then, around middle age, the verbs get indistinct . “I’ve just hit 40″, or “I’m past 50″. That’s understandable – once you’re an adult your age becomes a taboo, rather than a celebration. But have you ever noticed how in your twenties there’s no standard procedure? Your age doesn’t come up as much, if at all.
Until Marriage, You’re All The Same
I started noticing this effect while abroad in Barcelona at the tender age of 21. I partook in the usual expatriate behavior: partying, exploring the city, and generally being social with anyone who spoke my language. Everyone was excited and full of life – because they were as young as I was (or so I assumed.) Imagine my surprise when I discovered my fellow playmates were 25, 28, even 31 years old! Turns out the opportunity to go live in Spain and take classes is just as appetizing for a 30 something as a 20 something. The lifestyle we were living was one familiar to any unmarried cosmopolitan around the world – it doesn’t matter how old you are as long as you can keep up with the nights.
Up until this point in my life, I spent time almost exclusively with people born within 18 months of me. In school, your friends are your grade. To associate with or date someone even one or two years ahead or behind was a spectacle worthy of school-wide gossip. I remember talking about 8th graders like they were a different species in middle school, and while the grade boundaries broke down slightly as we neared graduation, these arbitrary divisions were still the primary determinant of one’s social circle. After college, your age doesn’t matter – everyone is an adult.
Now I regularly spend time with people who are old enough to be my parents, if they had made some exceptionally poor life decisions 15 years ago. Imagine the scandal that would cause in high school! It’s still cause for gossip when the relationship is romantic, but somehow it doesn’t matter as much when you’re just friends. Yet I’m not hanging out with teenagers, so the gap still exists when I look down.
What brings about such a drastic shift of age range? I think it’s two things – the shift in activities, and the shift in maturity.
You Befriend People Doing What You’re Doing
Your options in life are always limited by what you’re exposed to, and in school you’re only ever exposed to people very close to your age, due to classes and sports. In college the lines blur somewhat to include any other undergraduate, since you’re both on campus doing the same things blur to any other college student. But the moment you choose to venture off campus into the world at large (or are forced to do so by graduation), the sky is the limit. It’s no longer how old you are, it’s what you’re interested in.
Whether it’s salsa classes, car modding, or yoga, there’s a group of people out there you’re going to interact with once you dive in. And they don’t care how old you are – all they care about is how interested you are in the subject. You don’t have to talk about age related things like jobs or classes. Instead you can talk shop about the intricacies of some dance move, a sweet new racing stripe, or how to hold a warrior pose. The language of a craftsman is universal, as soon as you’re old enough to appreciate it.
(Who Are In The Same Stage of Life)
Therein lies the maturity aspect. The difference between a 14 year old and a 15 year old is much greater than the difference between a 24 year old and 25 year old, even if the time differential is the same. When you’re young, your mind and body are developing at a rapid pace that makes it hard to connect with someone at a different stage. Activities change fast – from toys to sports to girls to drugs, or whatever it is for you. Once the 20s roll around development is essentially over, which means you can connect with anyone else. You’re just another adult talking with the grown ups.
Now the stages are much larger. I see only three left, after this current young bachelor stage: married, kids, and empty nesters. Once you enter those stages there’s no going back – you can’t live a freewheeling life once you’re chained at the hip to someone else, and that gets even more so once the kids come around. Then you’re back to associating with others of the same ilk, whether it’s at couples dinners or the kid’s soccer practice.
It sounds obvious when laid out like this, but for me it’s still a shock to be able to walk into a room and get treated as an equal by 30 somethings. I used to be the kid getting shouted off lawns, and now they care about my opinion? I sure don’t feel like a full fledged adult yet. But I also don’t want to be in the same place I am now in 15 years. Does that mean I’m just associating with the slackers and n’er-do-well’s of the last generation who never got the ‘Marry and have kids’ memo? No, I think I’m just finding the people who are super into the things I’m into. And sometimes I know more than they do about such subjects, which remains another shock, but one that makes sense. I’d hang out with someone younger if I thought I could learn from them.
I’m interested to see if others find this as noteworthy as I do. Do you notice the age gap in your social group lengthening, then contracting again once spouses and kids come into play? Is there another plateau later in life when the generations blur or coalesce further? I guess I’ll have to grow up and find out.