Sitting in the Kirkland dining hall last Thursday, I divulged to a friend (with barely repressed excitement) that I would be soon possess the Holy Grail of college life—a real ID—when I turned 21 at midnight. After the requisite “dude, that’s awesome” and “find me later and I’ll buy you a shot,” he dropped the bombshell.
“Speaking from experience [as he is a year older and, therefore, infinitely wiser],” he said, “enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s nothing left to look forward to. One day you’ll turn around and you’ll be 30.”
And with that, my appetite for steak fries vanished. From this new, enlightened perspective, my twenties are just a prelude to 30 and my thirties are just a prelude to 40 and my forties—well hello, middle age. Suddenly, the benefits of being legal seemed to pale in the face of impending obsolescence. To be completely honest, it’s been-there, done-that with pretty much every watering hole in the Square, and they’re all slated to dry up anyway. Perhaps it’s worth that little rush of fear one experiences before encountering a bouncer of unknown conviction just to have a few fingers still latched on to the biggest Holy Grail of them all: youth.
If the idea sounds a little ridiculous, it is; or at least, I tried to rationalize it as so after the initial panic wore off. But there was still a nagging sense of “what if?” hours later, and I started to wonder if the assessment that 21 is the “end of the road” had any validity. With the minutes ticking rapidly by, had my golden days already begun to escape my grasp?
Dusting off the “grown-up” heroes of my childhood, it was a shock to learn that I had lapped them all. Nancy Drew (don’t laugh) is as perpetually 18 as her strawberry blond hair and two-dimensional storylines; Jane Eyre is 19 when she reunites for good with a late-thirty-something Mr. Rochester (why did that always seem romantic before?); and the life crises of Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood have come and gone by 20. Worse yet, Romeo and Juliet (at approximately 16 and 14, respectively) are practically prepubescent.
Of course, literary figures are probably a poor basis for comparison. Unfortunately, a glance at pop culture today provided little reassurance. At 21, according to a recent issue of Cosmopolitan, most runway models are “washed out.” Hollywood dictates that 21-year-olds pretending to be four to five years younger than their true age are as “hip” as it gets—think Kate Hudson in “Almost Famous,” or anyone who has ever appeared on Dawson’s Creek. And the musical preferences of teenyboppers—Britney Spears, N’Sync, Hanson—are given billing as some of the top rock n’ roll songs of all time in Rolling Stone magazine.
Harvard has taught me that this obsession with youth should be able to be explained quite simply using the principles of the free market (thank you, Ec 10). On some level, this makes sense. Teenagers spend more leisure dollars in the United States than any other age category, making youth—and their preferences, including their standards of beauty—the sexiest, most powerful demographic out there. Once such a demand—here, the desire to be young forever—is identified, a good market will allow solutions to materialize.
Thus it is now possible to purchase youth in bottles of a hundred different shapes and sizes. We can artificially make our skin look tighter, zap signs of aging out of existence and cause our gray hair to disappear or our missing hair reappear. For science-fictionally inclined, even a rudimentary form of cryonics has become a reality.
Economics alone, however, can’t possibly explain why there seems to be a societal aversion to growing older. After all, it’s a preference that long predates the advent of the “invisible hand”: how many fables are structured around the foolishness of mortals grasping at immortality? There’s just something about being young that makes us seem one step farther away from the inevitable, that makes us to appear—however irrational that belief might be—to have that much more time left. Modern society, for all of its benefits, can do little more to assuage an age-old fear of death than to dress it up in cosmetics and collagen.
But knowing all this still doesn’t answer the original question: is 21 as good as it gets? Reaching for the aspirin in the bathroom cabinet on Friday afternoon, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror and—for just a moment—wondered how many times a week I should be exfoliating. For such a newly-christened adult, however, the distance between 21 and 30 seems as endless as ever. I can wait at least another year.
Alixandra E. Smith ’02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.