Examining the singular, privileged pain of being 27 years young
Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison. That Winehouse girl.
These are members of the 27 Club, an unintentionally casted clique of musicians and other well-knowns that all mysteriously died at the tender age of — you guessed it — 27.
Many experts speculate that the 27 Club is sheer coincidence (only 1.3 percent of famous musicians have died at that age), but there's no denying that whether you're a drug-riddled rockstar or a millennial just trying to craft a large enough social following to attain self-validation in lieu of an actual career, 27 can be a suckfest, complete with Suck Port-O-Potties and overpriced bottle of Suck Water.
The proof is out there — read any article about what it's like to be that priceless age (there are infinity of them) and you're guaranteed to find characteristic buzzwords like "turning point," "personal growth," "change," and "questioning everything." These articles read like inspirational embroideries your Nana has in her guest bathroom, but they give the distinct and uniform impression that being 27 years old is a universally difficult age.
So, just what is it about this age that's so singularly painful?
Glad you asked. It's pretty much everything.
Twenty-seven year-olds must deal with catastrophic changes to their relationships, careers, finances, social structures, bodies and behaviors, all of which invariably hit at once in order to create a garbage tornado of life upheaval that makes them question not only themselves, but the very realities they live in. It's no wonder that 9 out of 10 doctors call 27 the "Return to Emo Mountain."
Look it up.
Starting with relationships, we see that 27-year-olds must confront the blistering awkwardness of long-term commitment or marriage in ways they've never had consider as seriously to before. At that age, 28.2 percent of couples decide to tie the knot and force you to spend $1,039 on a Bahamian destination wedding, meaning that for the couple making that decision, the prospect of committing to someone "for life" (although let's be realistic, eight years) can be a daunting and psychologically damaging mind-fuck even amidst a happy and loving relationship. It's a strange age to make a decision with such far-reaching consequences, especially considering that at that age, you are hardly an adult; you're a monstrously large child with a desk job.
And for those not getting married at 27, the social pressure to do may be mildly nauseating. Even if no one's breathing down their necks about it, there seems to be some sort of switch that gets flipped at that age that says, "At least try to date one of your Tinder fucks so you don't die alone." Maybe it's a ticking biological clock thing; maybe it's the byproduct of how our culture falls prey to media's attempt to define how our relationships look and when they should look that way.
Or, as Huffington Post's Pauline Millard points out, it might just be the "nature of the age itself."
"Our society has put a bizarre stigma on single women over 30," she writes. "Even Patty Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker, has told young women on her show 'Okay, you’re 27, you’ve got three good years left.' At 28, you’re still in the acceptable zone of single, but in society’s eyes time is of the essence. General maturity factors in as well. You’re done with college and have most likely had a job or two in the workforce. A Quarter Life Crisis, if applicable, has most likely come and gone. At 28, you’re still young enough to change your life, if need be, and no one would think you were foolishly starting from scratch."
Twenty-seven is also when many couples break up. It's the age where real adult issues start to become a problem in a relationship — no longer are fights and incompatibilities over who commented what on who's Instagram relevant. What's more important and potentially breakup-worthy is whether to get married, whether children are a thing, how to share finances, and how well each person can navigate the changing tides of their career while maintaining a healthy and active presence in the other person's life. Twenty-seven often represents the first time couples have had to seriously address these issues, and, like most people faced with a challenge for the first time, not everyone's up for it.
It's also the age where you realize you're rapidly headed towards 30 at Mach speed, and if you haven't lived as fully as you'd have liked to during your 20s, you may wriggle out of a relationship or cheat in order to feel more actualized and experienced before you transition into what you may consider to be more serious relationships.
“The problem was getting married in our early 20s,” says John, an interview subject for a Guardian article about the failure of young marriages. He was 27 when he divorced. “We were too young, simple as that. I wish both of us had had a life before we settled down.” Eventually, John and his partner both cheated — a common factor in 70 percent of relationships. “That’s when you know a relationship is at its end.”
Another joy: let's not forget that 27 is also when people start to see signs of aging. Wrinkles that started appearing when you were 23 but though would probably just go away sign a lease and move in permanently onto your face. Gray hairs start to ooze forth from your dermis. Weird things start happening with your poops. And suddenly, you realize you actually have knees, because for the first time in your life, they kind of hurt. I won't depress you further with this fact, but in case you're in the market for some emotional punishment, the internet is awash with articles, threads and forums describing the absolute shock of bodily deterioration at 27. (You're speaking to someone who both had a breast lump and a thyroid meltdown at that age. Hi.)
More toil ahead! Today's 27-year-olds are also highly educated, yet drowning in debt. According to a recent report by the Department of Education, more than 84 percent of today's 27-year-olds some college education under their belts (although only a third have a bachelor's degree or higher). At the same time, 60 percent of 27-year-olds are drowning in student loan debt. About 79 percent of us owe big bucks to someone other than our alma mater, whether that's on a credit card, mortgage or exotic drug dealer. About 55 percent owe more than $10,000 ... which is kinda rough when you're only making $40K a year like a quarter of 27-year-olds in 2011 were (that same year, they were more likely to be earning less than $15,000 a year from work than they were to be earning more than $40,000).
Of course, being over educated and fist fighting alleyway raccoons for leftover Top Ramen scraps aren't unique to 27-year olds — pretty much everybody over 23 and under 150 is in that boat. However, what is specific to this age group is the fact that all of their efforts in education and in the job market typically haven't paid off just yet. In fact, 66 percent of 27-year-olds say their current job is just a step towards their career. Only one in ten say their career goals are currently being fulfilled. Let's all have a round of applause and a shot of Everclear for them.
What this means is that many of us feel like we're floating. Where are going? What are we doing? What are we working towards? What have we done that matters? For most of us, the latter question can be summed up with a shrug emoji and a celebratory "600 Instagram Followers!" cake.
These are questions, that, for most 27-year-olds, both haven't been answered yet and are just starting to feel pressing and dire in a way they didn't when we were 25 and 26. It doesn't help that while we're self-reflecting these things as we cry in the tepid water of our 2'x2' stand-up box showers, our moms are currently writing us a "To Do Chore" list so we can "chip in in other ways than money, honey. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that 42.3 percent of 27-year-olds live with their parents, and most of them no more than 10 miles from where they went to high school).
To help make more sense of all this, we turned to celebrity astrologer and psychotherapist Debra Silverman, M.S., in the hopes that she could provide us with some clues about why all the shit hits the fan at once for 27-year-olds. Maybe, we thought, if there aren't answers on this planet, there may be beyond.
"Twenty-seven is the entrance of Saturn return," she explains. "It’s when the winds start to change in your life. It’s the time when you’re preparing to grow up; you start to feel uncomfortable, like something else is calling your name. It’s like the discomfort of growing out of clothes that used to fit you. Career is the strongest change of this influence. Most people who I ask what happened to them when they were 27-29 say ‘That’s the year my career started.’"
However, according to Silverman, 27 is just the beginning.
"Twenty-seven is gentler," she says ominously. "Twenty-eight through 29 is when it hits the hardest. That’s when you’re clearly in it. You’ll have a career option appear, you’ll begin or end a relationship, people have babies … it’s a classical astrological turning point, and it’s one of the most predictable and consistent things that happens to people I’ve seen in all my years of doing this."
Silverman thinks the frustration of 27 is due to that being the point when people are just starting to become actualized, responsible adults. All those shifts in career, relationships and personal behaviors are jarring; much more jarring than they are in your late 20s and early 30s, when you've already started to piece together who adult you is.
"Psychologically, you are leaving behind the era when you were growing into an adult and you are entering adulthood (29-30 in particular). It’s the maturing process where you can no longer play the 'I’m too young to understand this' card, or the 'I’m not responsible, I just want to travel.' By the time you’re 29, you should have finished your travels and you’re ready to become financially independent. So where you probably took a less high paying job in your 20s and didn’t quite feel worthy or your ambition was kind of vague, those feelings change into 'Nope, can’t get away with that anymore.'"
I ask her what would happen if I fail to have a career moment at 27, or if nothing special happens in my relationship. Essentially ... can a person sleep through the explosion that is being twenty-fucking-seven and get through it without experiencing some sort of monumental cataclysm?
"Only a 27-year-old would ask that question," she told me, inadvertently and correctly guessing my age. "It’s impossible to miss it. At 27, you’re scared, at 28 the winds are changing, and at 29 you’ve got a new career. It’s 99 percent universal. There’s a one percentile that falls asleep and misses their own life, but usually, there are forces like drug addiction or severe illness involved."
Yeesh. Career changes, money problems, relationship upheavals, moving across the country, whole-scale self-reflection — clearly, 27 is a disruptive time. But, that disruption can be both awful and amazing, depending on the person and how they look at it.
"It goes one of two ways," explains Silverman. "Half of people say they loved being 27 and their Saturn return — I definitely did — but the other half say it was the worst time of their life. It's about 50/50. It doesn’t have to be difficult and painful, though. It can be, but if you’ve done your work leading up to it, if you've worked hard and poured your life force out working for a long time, then you Saturn return will be far easier than you’d expect. If you’ve been lazy and you haven’t worked and you’ve cut the corners, then that will be called out. Hitting bottom happens a lot for people 28-30. Right before the sun comes up, it gets very dark."
All that darkness and disruption eventually ends, though. And when it does, the lessons you learn from what you went through at that age can be a really good thing.
"Whether 27 is joyful or painful doesn’t matter," says Silverman. "The change is adaptive."
Before we end, let's also take a moment to acknowledge the extreme privilege we have in (humorously) complaining about life at 27.
Not everyone lives in a society or is in a safe social, emotional or physical space that allows them to spend time and energy lamenting the myriad inconveniences of aging, or of the difficulties of growing up. The sheer fact that so many of us feel like we are still children at 27; that we are not fully prepared to be functioning adults, is a symptom of privilege; of wealth and education that allows us to lean on people and social institutions for much longer than others are able to in many places (including our own country).
So while yes, 27 is a bitch, it's also ... not that big of a deal. Major life changes happen to everybody at almost every age — tragedy and struggle are not picky in who they target (although certain people have the privilege to weather them better than others). To put too much blame on age as a factor in why you're not further along in your career or relationships denies that you have a personal responsibility in improving your situation, which is, again, a responsibility not everyone has the luck to have.
Alrighty. Here's to lookin' at you, 28. And 42. And 136 (my cryogenically frozen head will see you at the teleportation function).