Over 25? Well, now you're old

The boomers didn’t trust anyone over 30. Gen Z is ready to lower the bar. And they have done this by acting like life ends at 25. This is all over social media. You’ll see younger people acting like 30 is old, and 40 is practically at death’s door. However, I don’t think that this is young people being ignorant. I think it reflects an interesting change in the cultural perception of how we perceive age, maturity, and extended adolescence all play a part in this new idea.

Age Gap Relationships

One of the interesting observations I've made is how much more age-gap relationships are criticized than they used to be. Keanu Reeves was praised for daring to date a woman only 10 years younger than him, while Leonardo DiCaprio has become an internet meme for his penchant for dating girls under 25 while he is in his early 50s now. For many years, men dating younger women was expected, if privately looked down upon. However, it has become a new front in the culture war. Folks, many women, criticize the power dynamics between an older person and a younger person. This is even true for those around college age. You will see phrases like "What is a 21-year-old person doing dating an 18-year-old?" It's only a three-year age gap, but people act like it is a vast chasm that should not be crossed by anyone interested in romantic partnerships. This is quite a change from my Grandmother, who married a man 11 years older than her when he was 17 in 1955. It was considered a good match at the time.

The shifting attitudes about age gap relationships are where the idea of extended adolescence becomes obvious. This is rooted in many older women, who dated an older man when they were young and had experiences that have changed with time. Some of those experiences were positive, but many were also negative, and that has set people, especially women, against significant age gaps in relationships.

Adolescence is a modern phenomenon that only occurred after World War II among the broad masses. In the 1920s, young people (white) would say, "I'm free, white, and 21." This means they had reached the age of majority and could vote and do as they pleased. Much of the access to adulthood was eventually lowered to 18 (voting being the biggest example). The age to consume alcohol was raised to 21 in 1982, and Congress raised the age to buy cigarettes to 21 in 2021. When does adulthood begin? Are we merely turning the early 20s into teenage part two? When can we say that young people are ready for adulthood? 25? 30?

Online Pressures

I think the bulk of this phenomenon comes from online culture. Digital culture has always been the purview of the youth. Youth culture has thrived on the internet, especially since the advent of social media. Culture is youth-focused, and the internet has supercharged the effect for 20 years. As each generation comes up, the media obsesses over their purchasing preferences and attitudes towards work, life, and society as a harbinger of the future. This means that the narrative changes from generation to generation every decade. First, it was Boomers, then Gen X (Time quipped that they were the Slacker generation), Millennials (the lazy, dumb, entitled generation), and Gen Z (introverts!). Next up with be Gen Alpha in a few years, and the cycle will repeat.

Social media didn’t hit its stride for Millennials until high school and college. Although Myspace and even Friendster (aww, remember Friendster?) were around, Myspace was the first network to get common. It was a domain of the youth of the day. When Facebook arrived in 2006 and went public in 2008, this tended to happen long after the fraught youth of Millennials who made the services famous. The smartphone raised the game, and now even our youngest citizens often will find themselves on Tik Tok and Instagram.

When a 12-year-old as 2.5 million followers for doing dances and funny videos, it is hard to appreciate the accomplishments of your own life, no matter the age. The world happens faster and younger. Getting popular seems to be a game of how soon you can get attention and how you can monetize it. For those who didn’t manage to create a hit Tik Tok, getting older can seem like a death sentence of irrelevancy. In a world increasingly driven by this kind of attention, it can leave some young people, already insecure, feeling left out. This also adds to the perennial idea that if you’re going to be successful in life, you have to do it when you’re young.

It can be embarrassing to see people living their best lives online, and what do you have to show for it all? Youth is a great time to set yourself up for life by seeking out secondary education or building work experience, but those things don't pay off by 25. The hard work of building a life doesn't make for pretty Instagram photos. It requires discipline, self-sacrifice, and delayed gratification, the opposite of what social media prizes and promotes.

In addition to that, the voices on social media that get elevated tend to be younger and not older. The latest influencers tend to be in their 20s, not their 40s. YouTube is not suggesting videos from people who have built a life. The only exception to this is in the parenting space, where parents tend to use their children to get likes, clicks, and views. It is easy to feel irrelevant and out of touch.

Technology moves fast (and is speeding up!), which means the youth are the first to new apps and doing things that the rest of us must learn to use later on as they gain mass adoption. Those who keep up with the latest thing stay relevant, while those who don't get left behind. This used to take years or even decades; it can happen in 2-5 years. Our lifestyles change to accommodate these new technologies and these ways of using our smartphones and other devices. How can you build anything long-term on this basis? You can't, and that is where the agility of youth is so helpful. What does that mean as you age and build a career and a history? It means you get left behind, which might happen in just 5 years.

This adds to tremendous pressure on younger people, making anyone over 25 seem ancient. Things move fast. For someone who is 20, 5 years is an eternity anyway. Add technology and digital culture to the mix, and 5 years might as well be 50. In 5 years, things we use every day might be a meme for being old and outdated.

No access to adulthood

The other aspect of this extended adolescence is systemic. Our economy is not built the way it used to be built. It is difficult to make adulthood milestones for young people today. Millennials feel this especially. How can you feel like an adult living with roommates in your 30s? How can you feel like an adult when buying a home or having children are simply out of reach?

Gen Z arrived on the scene with these conditions already well in place. For them, adulthood seems like a series of problems and pitfalls. Hope for the future seems like a folly. Every passing year is just an uncomfortable reminder that the world is spinning around; some folks are making it, and others can’t keep up.

How can you feel good about growing up and getting older and feel a sense of your own personal success? When you can’t access the things that are the usual symbols of that, it is hard to wonder what you’re doing wrong and why someone on Tik Tok is making millions while you’re figuring out how to pay rent and hoping that you can pay the electric bill with your tips. It’s not fun, it sucks, and it’s a grind.

Getting older used to have advantages. Being more secure in yourself and the financial security of owning a home and making more money. The promise of retirement loomed large for the people of the 20th century. In the 21st century, this system has gotten quite precarious. Even half of Boomers don't have any money saved for retirement, thanks to the denouement of pension systems. For Gen X, it's even higher, and Millennials likely won't be able to retire at all.

Owning a home is something that some people can access. Still, with the affordability crisis around cities where jobs are, and the rising costs of homeownership, only 52% of Millennials own their home. The overall homeownership rate has plunged since the financial crisis from 80% to a modest 65%.

All of these factors also make it harder to start a family for those wanting to have children. Children are not cheap, and we expect much from parents to care for their children. Our competitive economy means that parents must pour more resources into their children so that they can be successful in life (or so it seems). Having the resources necessary to help your kids prepare for a competitive, globalized economy isn't cheap either. Young people getting ready to start a family knows how difficult the economy can be and understandably want better for their kids. Instead of sending kids into the world without the education or skills they need, people choose not to have children. Many won't have the space for the financial cushion to support a family anyway.

No access to a meaningful life

This last one contributes to the “over 25? Old!” phenomenon. It is much easier to pat young folks on the head when you have your own meaning and purpose in life. You might not make the most money, but you might at least have something to show for your years on the planet. Most folks under 40 likely don’t have that. There are a few, but this isn’t the case for the vast majority. Adulthood in these modern times has become a slog of managing student loan debt and not having much of a future. Pile on top of domestic issues, things like climate change, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic(s), and the rest, and it is hard to scratch out any meaning and positivity from life. After 25, it seems like washing dishes and issues until a sad death. I’m not saying this perception is accurate or representative of anyone, but it is easy to see how some people would think about things this way.

As I've spoken about during this piece, the things that give life meaning are increasingly out of reach for many. Car loans are now 7 years long, housing is expensive nearly everywhere, and what used to be considered a good salary is now merely survival levels. $75,000 (the median) used to mean something in this country. For many, it is the bare minimum to get by. Humans cannot thrive just getting by in their lives.

History has repeatedly shown that for humans to have a fulfilling life, they need to be able to thrive and have some stability in their lives, including food, shelter, and personal contact. Without these things, everything starts to become meaningless. Life already can seem nihilistic enough as it is, bringing in a precarious economic situation leaving people scraping by, and meaning flees from the scene.

While it is true that only ourselves can give meaning to life and its vicissitudes, operating in the world confidently, understanding how it works, getting a reward for hard work, and seeing yourself grow over time is an essential aspects of fulfillment and meaning. This has gone from our society. Add in the statism within politics and the inability to change the material conditions of society. It can be hard for anyone, especially young people, to see any advantage to growing up, getting older, and building a life.  

The reality is that we will grow, make mistakes, and have setbacks. I've written before that society is much less forgiving of mistakes than it used to be. People with a criminal record can have difficulty finding employment or renting housing. Felons can't vote in most states, and the stigma of being an ex-con will follow folks for life, even if the crime was non-violent. These realities are no longer confined to those whom they most affect. Thanks to the smartphone, these realities are in our faces and in our pockets daily. Young people are under no illusion about what they face in life. The disillusionment of this moment can contribute to the idea that anyone over 25 is just ancient. Getting back on top can be difficult when life happens and things go awry (as they occasionally do).

What does this all mean? It means that we have people stuck in their homes that they can't afford, driving cars that will break before they are paid for, and working long hours for pay that can't begin to keep up with inflation. We have a society of people who can't find fulfillment and personal satisfaction in their lives because it can't come from their work, yet work is a constant preoccupation. For young people, it seems like the wrong move can end their life in misery. Pile on digital culture and its various pressures alongside the systemic issues, and it is no surprise that it might seem like life ends at 25.

An unfinished coloring book (A Short Story Collection) by Cameron Cowan

an unfinished coloring book is a collection of short stories from Cameron Cowan. These short stories explore dramatic moments in the lives of everyday people. The collection also features the exclusive release of The RKO Killer: An I.G. Farben Mystery.

The collection includes:

The Diner

What happens to the employees of a diner that are being torn down to make way for a new interstate? This is their last night in The Diner.

The Swedish Connection

Two artists, one relationship failing, and a really bad bottle of alcohol. Two men talk about their lives, their hurts, and their problems over one really bad bottle of vodka that they can't stop drinking.

The Kingdom of Nordstrom

The world has ended and the air had gone sour. One drifter finds a colony of people surviving in a derelict mall in Tacoma. Will he stay in this new kingdom or will he continue to wander the highways?

America Discount World

Set in the near future, America's cultural heritage is on sale to the highest bidder. Dale has made a life selling off America's cultural heritage and when a soon-to-be-divorced reporter comes to interview him about it; a new relationship just may form.

The Classy Drug Dealer

Andrej leads a quiet life running his dry cleaning and laundrette. However, it is only a front for his real business. When the consequences of his actions walk through the door one night, Andrej is forced to sacrifice everything, even his own life.

Beverly Gardens

Set amid the California housing crisis, 4 tenants in an aging building try to figure out how to survive in a world that is trying to kill poor people and preventing them from surviving and living.

Windswept Wastes

The cold war is on and America is building its nuclear arsenal. Set in the years at the end of Vietnam, one man gets a job making nuclear triggers at a Colorado plant. This is his story.


What is a teenager is a bland suburb supposed to do on the weekends? In this story, two boys find a great place to party and we learn about the secret and seedy underworld of the American suburb.

The Ticket

Topher has just a few hours to get to the lottery office in Olympia, WA to turn in a lottery ticket that will change his life. There's only one problem: he has no way to get there. Will he make it? Can he get the money in time?

The RKO Killer

In this collection exclusive, Isaac Farben is hired by KYW radio in Chicago during the roaring 1920s to find a criminal who is making headlines for an exclusive radio interview. Farben travels with his trusty assistants Mr. and Mrs. Rustin and Anna Fowler to southern Illinois to find this man and bring him back to the radio station.

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