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The 26-year-olds are not OK

Illustration of a woman, blindfolded and smoking a cigarette, with snippets of text, including "Relatively young."
“Society is like, ‘You’re not thinking about having kids or getting married? What’s your aspiration, what’s your goal?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know! Just to be alive, just to survive.’”
(Illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times; photo by Dev Asangbam / Unsplash)

Each age brings its own special kind of trauma, but 26?

Intellectually, those of us who are 26 know we are still young. But emotionally, it feels like the cachet of youth is slipping through our fingers. You don’t know what’s going on; you don’t know when you will.

Out of nowhere, people start referring to you as “relatively young” instead of just “young,” and you think: “Relative to what, exactly?” Half your friends are married with kids (or well on their way), while the others are still learning how to drink without blacking out.

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Internally, you still feel like a kid. Externally, people stop cutting you the slack of one. If you were lucky enough to be on your parents’ health insurance in the first place, that’s gone now too. There’s a general uneasiness, an invisibility that you didn’t have at 18, at 21, that you hopefully won’t have at 30.

This is probably why it struck such a nerve on the internet when the popular science creator Hank Green posted a tweet and subsequent TikTok last month saying, “I hope all of the 26 year olds are doing ok,” in a soft, sympathetic coo (that we responded to because we’re actually just babies).

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Over 67,000 presumed 26-year-olds liked the tweet. Thousands commented on the TikTok, and multiple people stitched the video with responses to his inquiry, resulting in relatable, darkly funny depictions of life in the balance.

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The 26-year-olds, it seems, are not OK.

“I’m still in school. I have literal scoliosis. All my friends are either pregnant or married — I am neither. And I show up to all events alone,” said the creator @mua_nikirose.

“I can’t speak for all the 26-year-olds,” said @copacetickyle, “but I use Tylenol all the time and I’m usually sad.”

In a video for @biteable, a creator acts out out the quintessential drama of being 26 in a corporate environment: “Dear boss, I noticed you didn’t use an exclamation mark in your last message. Are you mad at me? Am I fired? Thanks.” It was played 2.5 million times.

Some of the TikToks are infused with a nihilistic sense of humor that runs through the veins of most young millennials.

The creator @sorryidonthaveanychange stitched a video of himself shaving his head, jokingly wrapping the cord around his neck. It was viewed nearly 1 million times.

In real life, 26-year-olds everywhere are dealing with their own existential crises that, to be fair, probably would have come with or without the pandemic. But spending the last year indoors — thinking, analyzing, comparing — didn’t help.

Leanna Bremond, a music supervisor in Los Angeles, remembers her aha moment. “When I hit maybe 24 or 23, it was like ... I am alone,’ and then 26 just put the stamp on it. I’m riding on my own survival. I have to feed myself. Keep this roof over my head. It’s all on me, and I didn’t recognize that pressure until 26.”

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Bremond continues with a laugh: “Like, if I slip up one day? Girl, I could die!”

Others have worried that they’re not meeting this benchmark of independence quickly enough.

When the pandemic hit, Jocelyn Luna, a media coordinator in Las Vegas, started to ask herself, “What am I doing with my life? Am I a loser because I’m at home at 26 with my parents and never left?”

For her, being this age can be compared to downing three shots — turmoil, confusion and frustration — with no chaser: “You feel a lot younger and more confused the older you get,” she says.

For many, 26 is a time of extreme transition with minimal societal support. Needless to say, it come with its lessons.

Kayla Edem, an operations manager in Los Angeles, is turning 27 next month. This period of her life has taught her to reclaim her timeline — despite what her friends are doing, despite what society is telling her she should do, despite what she thought she would be doing when she was 20.

“There’s all different sides of the spectrum, and people are having very different experiences of being 26,” Edem says. “My life definitely doesn’t look like how I thought it was going to, but in so many ways it’s so much better. Not attaching myself to that timeline has been a huge lesson for me. I’m going to live my life as my own.”

Luna has been forced to learn to embrace her place on that spectrum as well.

“Society is like, ‘You’re not thinking about having kids or getting married? What’s your aspiration, what’s your goal?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know! Just to be alive, just to survive.’”

There’s a thread that connects all of the not-OK-26-year-olds. The makeup of each experience is different, but when you hold them up side by side, the energy is the same: It’s limbo. It’s not knowing what you’re doing but doing it anyway. It’s just being glad you didn’t mess anything up beyond repair at the end of the day.

“I go into Trader Joe’s with the intention of making this incredible pasta,” says Bremond. “Then we get to the frozen aisle and I give it this cute, flirty look and leave with five boxes of frozen tempura. That’s how I’m doing.”

This weekend, Edem is looking forward to a young, wild and free night of wine tasting with her single friends only to wake up the next day and go to a bridal fitting for another friend who is engaged.

For Luna, 26 looks like finally moving into her own apartment but still eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast. Or being able to cook an egg four ways and literally nothing else.

“The older you get, you realize everyone is like a big kid,” she says. “A big kid stuck in 20-something-year-old bodies.”


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