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What the world taught me before my 22nd birthday

Well, I officially feel old … I turned 22 this past month! Over the past few years, I haven’t been a big birthday person. When I was little, I enjoyed the celebrations my mom would put together, from the Hello Kitty to the Lizzie McGuire-themed parties. But in recent years, I haven’t felt the need for a star-studded dinner or an extravagant cake. Turning 22 was no different, except for the startling realization of how weird, chaotic and underly confusing your 20s can be. 

While I’m hurtling towards the finish line of my senior year of undergrad, others are getting engaged, tying the knot, having kids, traveling the world … you name it. There’s so much happening! It’s the first year, at least for me, that it feels like I’m really forced to work out what I’m doing with my life: from contemplating grad school or starting my first career job to putting money towards a 401K and deciding where I’d eventually like to live. While I’ve often heard that your 20s are supposed to be “the time of your life” — where you’re “wild and free” — it seems safe to say that it’s more like a decade of ups and downs, full of struggles but also great surprises, growth, and self-discovery. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all narrative for how your 20s are going to go. If these past two years during the pandemic have taught me anything, it’s that while the #BestLife Instagram fantasy sounds great, I (as I’m sure many others do) simply desire to feel like enough. Undoubtedly, making your way in the world as a young adult is no easy feat. What was viewed as “entering adulthood” 50 years ago is not what it is today. The pattern of completing high school, joining the workforce, moving away from home, getting married, and having children is no longer completely relevant. Today, completing college and even more postsecondary education and/or achieving financial stability are often markers of adulthood, which is much easier said than done (especially in today’s economy). Defining adulthood can be a pressure within itself, and not everyone is on the same playing field. While some may achieve what is seen as adulthood early on, others — especially those who are more marginalized — may feel “locked out” of such status. 

Particularly in the midst of the pandemic, life is looking different for many people. I grew up imagining that I’d immediately live on my own after college. Was I crazy for thinking that I’d have that kind of financial security? The challenges of the ongoing pandemic have altered plans for much of the world. Either way, I’d still be living with my parents. This, I found, is something many young adults are now facing, including me and at least three other recent or soon-to-be college graduates on my hometown street alone. Recent reports state that young adults moving in with their parents are at record rates — and it shouldn’t be seen as a moral failure. It can be a beneficial choice, often made for economic, cultural or familial reasons. 

Too often many also make remarks about students needing to work more but overlook how many are working and still face basic-needs insecurity. And don’t even get me started on the moans about millennials and Gen Z not having kids when we live in such precarious times and especially in the midst of a childcare affordability crisis. I, for one, have realized how kids come at a (very) high cost — either financially or opportunity-wise. For many, it doesn’t mean they don’t want kids, but the traditional social norm of getting pregnant in your 20s is simply no longer fitting for everyone … as I said, there’s no one size fits all narrative.

While turning 22 (or any age in your 20s) may not be what it’s traditionally cracked up to be, it can’t be that bad. Taylor Swift said so herself! As I’ve grappled with the fact that I’ve officially entered a new chapter in life, I’ve reflected on some of the things I’ve learned:

  1. People often expect 22-year-olds to have accomplished a lot. A full-time job lined up with health benefits and a huge salary and dental insurance … the list could go on. You don’t have to have it all figured out! Everyone is on their own timeline. 
  1. Take some time to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You might find a new hobby you never expected to love. And if not, you’ll at least learn something about yourself.
  1. When it comes to friendships and relationships, focus on the people who truly love you, and let the others fall aside.
  1. Accept your mistakes, but don’t dwell. With so many changes, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. And that’s okay. You can’t do everything, you can’t know everything, and you can’t be good at everything. Learn from what happened, own it, and move on. 
  1. Work like a boss (aka try your best). Things won’t always work out, but if you can say you gave it your best effort, you’ve accomplished something great.
  1. Be financially smart by opening a Roth IRA. Even contributing just $100 per month can be a good investment. 
  1. Talk less, and listen more. I wish someone would’ve told me to shut up every once in a while! You can build truly great relationships by letting others speak first. 
  1. Sometimes, it may feel like you’re failing at something or just can’t get it right. But take a minute to consider that maybe you’re the only one who’s trying!
  1. Don’t pressure yourself to fit an ideal. Your successes cannot be compared to anyone else’s. As Olivia Rodrigo says in her song “jealousy, jealousy,” “Their win is not my loss.”
  1. Don’t take life too seriously. I’m still working on this one! Life will feel easier if you learn to take things with a grain of salt.
Madison Rudolf

George Mason University '22

Madison is currently a senior at George Mason University studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Sustainability Studies. Madison enjoys using journalism as an outlet to write and inform about the environment. She is also a Strategic Communications Intern for Mason's Office of Communications and Marketing writing stories for the Mason website and The George newsletter. Outside of school, Madison enjoys running, reading, and exploring Washington, D.C.
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