What Happens When You’re 26

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I turned 26 last week, so naturally, I have been casually musing about how I feel about the age. There’s nothing acute, stark, painful, or anxious about this age. But upon closer, lazy inspection, 26 is surprisingly important, and full of moments that possibly mark a more substantial, albeit subtler, transition than any other year of your 20s (except 21. Let’s not pretend anything can come near the irrevocable freedom that comes with that birthday.)

So I started writing this list of things that happens when you’re 26, and halfway through, I realized that last year, I wrote a very similar article about turning 25, which I had completely forgotten about. After experiencing a moment of disquiet concern that I might be going totes senile in my “old” age, I realized that it was not only okay, but entirely appropriate to write one of these again, and maybe every year. So fuck it — let’s do this.

26 is perhaps a little less monumental than 25, at least on paper. You can already, drink, drive, vote, buy cigarettes, rent a car, and you’ve already gotten stoned and thought about “what it means” to be a quarter-century years old. Since there’s no definite benchmark to look forward to, 26 often just easily walks in one night while you’re out with friends at your usual bar, half celebrating, half just having a normal night. You’re 26. No big deal. Thanks for buying me a drink. No, I’m gonna go home early. But as the days pass, things settle in and new thoughts surface; turning 26 brings about a simmering realization that you’re entering your “late 20s”, which will turn into 30, and then quickly 40, beyond which is basically a landslide to the grave. Okay, it’s not quite so dramatic. It’s more like 26 shows up in the middle of coffee one morning and hands you a freshly printed memo that reads: “You’re going to get old one day and die. You’re cool for now, but it will happen. You’re officially on notice. You won’t be young forever.” And then 26 struts out of your office, like an unconcerned dick, having nonchalantly just changed your entire perspective. But it’s okay! 26 is a strange age that simultaneously feels older than you expected, but still refreshingly, hopefully, thrillingly young. It’s possibly the one age where the expression “youth is wasted on the young” holds no authority; we are undeniably, wildly young, but we’ve been young for long enough to know how valuable it is to be so. We have more respect for our youth because, while we aren’t there yet, we can see that it will be done one day. I mean, weren’t we just 19? These blissed out, stressed out, sexed out times will be behind us one day soonish. So maybe 26 doesn’t make you feel old at all; maybe it makes who violently re-commit to being young while we still are.

As far as distinct experiences that will likely befall you during this secretly magical year, there are more than you would think. Ask me again in a few months, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

You will realize that 7 years have passed since you maxed out and subsequently ignored your first credit card and now that shit is off your credit report. Sweet freedom. You will drink heavily in celebration, and vow to be more financially responsible going forward.

You will actually be more financially responsible going forward. It’s taken this long, but you finally understand that the fleeting disappointment of not buying some bullshit thing you want is nothing compared to the persistent, soul-gnawing discomfort of perpetually trying to catch up with your bills and never having money.

You will develop a crush on a 21-year-old, and since you’re still not quite used to the idea that you’re older than anyone who is old enough to be sexually ripe and have chest hair and shit, it will come as a jolting surprise to realize the vague cougarishness of the situation. Since you’re not really old (I mean, for fuck’s sake, you’re 26. Let’s keep shit in perspective), the thought of being the older, more experienced party is novel and a little thrilling and a little adorable and a little hot and a lot good for your ego. So you pretend that the age difference doesn’t matter. After all, you didn’t decide to like this person because of their age; they’re completely great and definitely not like other 21-year-olds. Except that he is. Eventually, he will do something so painfully, disturbingly age appropriate (the list of possible things your crush could do that would immediately emphasize his inexperience is endless), and suddenly reality is, like, a thing again. You realize that there is a reason why, at 21, your 26-year-old dates often ran off in a blur of eye rolls. And for a minute, you feel a pang of loss, not necessarily for this particular young man, but for all cute 21-year-old boys everywhere who you just now realized aren’t worth the trouble.

You will stop fighting with your siblings. You will either come to see the futility in creating conflict in the space between your two worlds, of trying to convince them of how lame and misguided they are, or you will realize that there is, really, shockingly little space between you (once you strip away all the self-righteous, hyper-hip pretense you’ve been wrapped in during your early 20s) and become best friends. Either way, family holidays are likely about to get a lot more tolerable. (And if your siblings are simply too vile for this to be true, 26 is also the age when you learn how to use alcohol not just for intoxicating purposes, but for carefully measured medicinal ones too. Sedate yourself and power through family time.)

You will not only realize which friends have no place in your life anymore, you will be surprisingly comfortable with letting them go. You get it now. ”BFF” refers to the intensity of the connection two people feel while they are friends, not necessarily to the duration of the friendship itself. People evolve and change and if we actually did stay friends with all the same people we befriended our freshman year of college, it would be indicative of an embarrassing stagnation in our personal development. The key to long-lasting friendships is finding people whose life lines grow parallel to our own, not forcing ourselves to be stationary points who never move for fear that they might move away from each other. #MathIsOnlyGoodForMetaphors

You will have a front row seat to the spectacular array of lifestyles and experiences that show you just how different this age can look on different people. Some of your friends will be doing exactly the kind of reality-defying, irresponsible, drunken antics that we all did when we were 20, and you’ll get the see the varying shades of quiet, self-loathing awareness that they’re getting too old for it. Some friends will be getting married (hell, some will be getting divorced), some will be having babies, some will be rising to challenges, some will be making real money for the first time, or crumbling beneath pressure, or failing to live up to expectations, or exceeding expectations, or buying a house, or having parents die, and so on. 26 can be very old or very young, depending on any number of factors. Your 26 is quite unlikely to look like someone else’s. Which is why it’s so fun. This is no one’s beginning, and no one’s end. This is the rising action of our narratives; the foundation has been established, but it’s still anyone’s guess where the story is going. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Producer at Thought Catalog. Follow me on Twitter.

Keep up with Jessica on Twitter and grownunknown.com

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