This weekend, just as I have every August for 19 years, I will stay up until the earliest morning hours. I will wait beyond midnight with tears pin-pricking my tired eyes until a year of my life comes to a close and another one begins. Though 19 is not as socially marked or exciting as 18 or 21, I cannot stop thinking about this awkward in-between birthday.
19 is anticlimactic, but it is the end of a pivotal year, the first of legal adulthood. I can live alone, vote, purchase property, join Costco and buy fireworks. I anticipated that in my 19th year, I would have it all figured out — what I want, who I want to be, what my values are and what I care most about. I headed into the year knowing nothing, but with frightening confidence that I soon would. At nearly 19, I still know nothing. My 18-year-old self could never live up to my expectations. Turning 19 forces me to reckon with that reality.
As I searched college newspapers to intellectualize my complex collegiate emotions, I found an article by Michigan in Color writer Udoka Nwansi titled “Growing Pains” — the perfect two-word summary of my emotions. “The transition is much more gradual than I thought it would be. It’s as if I’m indefinitely teetering on the line between childhood and adulthood. Maybe I’ll be balancing on this line for a while,” wrote Nwansi, who was turning 20 when she published this story.
The transitory phase of childhood to adulthood does not end at 18, 19, 20 or 21. With around two-thirds of high school graduate Americans in post-secondary education in 2021, the typical markers of early adulthood have begun to come later and at seemingly unpredictable times. Professor Susan Sawyer, Chair of Adolescent Health at the University of Melbourne, finds that due to delayed “adoption of adult roles” (including marriage, careers and home-buying), many people between the ages of 18 and 21 are in a phase of “semi-dependency.” This semi-dependency may be on our guardians or the University of Michigan itself.
Socially, we consider the 18th birthday the official end of adolescence, or “a period of time in a person’s life when they are developing into an adult.” However, many scientific institutions argue that adolescence lasts through 24, as the pace of biological and personal development and timing of the “pivotal moments” are variable and unique to each person aged 10-24. In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, Daniel Keating, the University Program Chair of Developmental Psychology, offered this insight: “If you, say, take any outcome of maturity that you want, whether it’s social or cognitive or physical, and then you say, ‘How well does chronological age predict maturity in that domain?’ Not very well, right?” Like the spread of age for the onset of physical maturity, the range for life beginnings — first full-time jobs, first relationships and first feelings of adulthood and independence — is wide.
Even though research proves that chronological age is but a number, we cannot help but let that number define us. In social science, the cohort effect is the effect of being born at a specific shared time or place in a group, one that makes us feel as though we have to develop at a similar rate to others in our age group. The cohort effect is not always natural. Students are defined roughly by birth year from the moment we enter school, placed into a grade that keeps our academic (and sometimes social) expectations uniform. “And so one of the things that that cohort effect does is that it makes people feel like they ought to behave like other people in their cohort, right?” Keating asked. “If you’re a somewhat physically late maturer … well, that doesn’t matter, you should still be having the same feelings and behaviors as someone who’s … much further along in physical maturity,” Keating said. The feeling we had when our friends got braces, glasses, training bras and licenses before us never goes away. When we feel like a late bloomer in relationships or academics, we feel inadequate to deal with the challenges of early adulthood.
As we creep into the future, we are impressed by those who have a vision for life after graduation. We envy those who post “I am happy to announce” on LinkedIn, and those with large and established friend groups and healthy relationships. When we directly compare ourselves to others in our cohort, whether at the University (to track phenom Ziyah Holman) or outside (to pop star Olivia Rodrigo), we compare ourselves to “(those who) may be the stars (and) are the most popular” Keating said. This cohort effect does not allow for a sense of solidarity or security but rather undying envy and shame. Throughout post-secondary education, students prepare for life after graduation and focus on careers, learning and general progress toward the future. The focus on the future is not necessarily all negative, as college allows us to explore our interests, learn crucial skills and become well-rounded students and workers. The focus on the future just highlights that the four years of college must still be considered “adolescence:” a constantly transitionary period.
We cannot forget about our birthdays. We see our age on calendars, on birthday cakes and in well-meaning reminders from loved ones. Keating emphasizes that 19 is more personal and reflective than more celebrated birthdays like 16, 18 or 21. Society has no legal marker for a 19-year-old, so a newly 19-year-old looks at themself through their own critical eye, wary of past idealism and current fears. The 19th birthday forces one to reflect on their role in “the real world,” which one expects to understand at 18 and to join after graduation. “It’s kind of reflecting back to what has gone on up to that point,” Keating said. “And … you know … am I going in the direction I want to be going in? Or am I doing the things that I want to be doing and so forth.” I do not yet know what I want from my adult life: in my family, career or home. But if I think only about the next year, I know what I want: friendships, learning experiences and memories that I can only make in this awkward phase of semi-dependence.
The “interim phase” is often defined as a psychological moratorium, a term coined by pioneering developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. A psychological moratorium is a developmental period in which we try on many roles without the pressure of full independent adulthood. In the moratorium, we search for values separate from our childhood and new long-term goals and identities. As university students, we can try on many roles within the security of everyone around us doing the same and trying new things. “For most of the time … (college students are) no longer situated … exclusively, at least in the same set of peers and friends that they’ve spent the last four years or more with. And so there’s kind of less external constraints … on how you should think about what you want from your life,” Keating said. “So there’s more of a variety of input and less constraints on how to think about it.” This lack of parental constraint or limitation to one’s home environment opens one to new possibilities. You may form relationships that change your view of the world and your role within it. You may join groups that forever change the course of your career and introduce you to new possibilities (hi, The Michigan Daily) or tell you that what you once thought you wanted is not for you (hi, business fraternities).
When we are young, being older is impressive. Being older means you do not need anyone to tell you what to do (though I now know, after being an adult for almost a year, that is a fallacy). When a cute stranger, bar bouncer or even an impressive grown-up asks a teenager’s age, we like to round up to the nearest year. We desire to feel “older,” though we may feel younger than our real age. Stand-up comedian George Carlin, in contemplation of age, reminded us that “in your teens, you jump to the next number or even a few ahead. I am gonna be 16! You could be 13, but hey, you’re gonna be 16! And the greatest day of your life … you become 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony.” In his mocking tone, Carlin reminds us that our obsession with aging and “maturing” is ridiculous. Between 18 and 21, we “move in,” “try out,” “rush,” “interview,” “audition,” “hook up,” “date,” “introduce.” We enter small doors into early adulthood and its social, academic, artistic and personal transformation. Though frightening, we must go through the interim to reach the adulthood we have yearned for since turning 13.
Since many believe they are no longer adolescents at 19, the birthday feels like a shock. We are still in turmoil and constant change. We are unsure of who we are, so how are we 19? We desire to feel like the perfect 19-year-old (or older). But the perfect 19-year-old is an adolescent, still developing. As we all develop differently through our twenties, we cannot view young professional athletes or pop stars as further developed (or better) than us; they are the rare few who have already found their (celebrated) role in society. As for the knowledge and self-assurance of adulthood, I have years to figure it out. In adolescence, everyone is in constant motion, and no one is behind.
I reflect on the past year not only for myself but for the world and my role within it. At many moments in my 19th year, I felt hopeless to enter “the real world” when the world around me seemed to crumble as it reached record heats. My homework, job applications and friend drama felt insignificant in the face of older generations’ chipping away rights. With my generation’s amplified social awareness, the set of what Keating called “looming existential crises” do not only come before my regular developmental crises, they become intrinsically attached to them. This helplessness does not fade away as I grow older and experience greater fear. Yet, in the next year, I will gain more “power” in the political system with voting (I could not yet vote during the last election cycle), personal decision-making and chances to form new beliefs amid a more diverse environment.
Even with looming existential crises and internal turmoil, I will celebrate my birthday. Birthdays are a time to celebrate your years of life with the people you have come to know and love. Birthday parties, which came about around the advent of the calendar system, were originally celebrations reserved for the most powerful. With increased focus on age in American institutions (such as grade schools) in the 19th century, birthdays became a celebration of every individual, filled with unique and shared traditions. Some of my favorites include ice cream cake (possibly a variation of Roman rite tradition) and gift-giving. Yet, with my discomfort around this particular date, I have started understanding older people who hide from their birthdays. With the pressure to have the perfect birthday and the inevitable disappointment, many face the “birthday blues.” Older adults, rather than idealize aging, fear it due to cultural beauty standards and the lifelong shame that one has not accomplished enough for their age. As birthdays force us into deep, dark holes of self-reflection and resentment, we do not feel worthy of celebration or acknowledgment. When we are not celebratory, we believe others are not celebratory either. In a New York Times Article titled “It’s My Birthday! Is That Okay?” comedy writer Alison Zeidman satirizes our awkward avoidance of the birthday. “I’m thinking Tuesday, March 22. That’s the actual date of my birthday, but more important, it’s a weekday,” she wrote. “I know I can’t expect my birthday party to compete with anybody’s weekend, right? Or your Wednesdays. Or Thursdays. Or Fridays. Maybe Mondays, I guess.” She went further into the birthday awkwardness until I could no longer read without feeling exposed. Looking back, I realize my birthday is (hopefully) not an inconvenience for my loved ones, who send me heartwarming messages and enjoy an ice cream cake just as much as I do. And even if my day is not perfect, maybe it will distract me from my racing, newly 19-year-old brain.
Between the ages of 18 to 21, we feel younger than our age and wish to feel and be older. But if we wish this awkward stage away, we will miss our college years, and I do not want to do that. I will not refuse to recognize 19’s existence. I will celebrate my birthday as I feel like it — I will cry and eat my ice cream cake. I will acknowledge that no matter what age I feel or want to be, I cannot change it. We should all be grateful for another year to grow, learn, change and be “adolescents.”
The night of my birthday, as I tuck myself in for another sleepless night, my eyes will well up, my hands will fidget and my heart and mind will race with anxiety. But it is not because I feel like I am behind or because everything is different now that I am entering my 20th year. It is because I know that I am entering another year of development, change and adolescent angst, and I am equally frightened and excited.
Statement Correspondent Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.