During a slow period at work, when there are no customers and everything’s been stocked and cleaned, I sit at the computers by the registers and look up random things on Wikipedia. My coworker, a nice enough guy, looms over my shoulder, talking a mile a minute about every subject I search for. It wouldn’t be so bad except that he’s explaining the meaning of whatever it is I’m typing in, not understanding that I’m just passing the time. I try to be polite and engage him while he speaks, but it becomes tiresome and eventually I just ignore him. He’s in college and eager to show off what he’s learned. He lectures me on subjects I’ve studied more thoroughly than he has. He wonders why I’m not amazed by information I already know. He’s young and he resents it.
While I study for my GRE, I’ve taken a job at a local grocery store. It’s a cute, mostly locally sourced place owned by two friends I admire a lot, who were kind enough to hire me. The pay is low but the work is light, and there are days where it feels as though I’m simply being paid to hang out.
I’m one of the older employees there, and while the age difference between me and most of the other workers isn’t tremendous, it’s enough that I notice it. At 28, there’s no way I can pretend I’m not young, but I feel disgustingly grownup compared to the other workers. It’s silly, really, but when I refer to them, I don’t think the word “people” so much as I think the word “kids.”
The early 20s are often referred to jokingly as extended adolescence, but whenever I mention that to someone in their late 20s, there’s this knowing nod that we both share. It’s awkward when jokes are unintentionally accurate.
Do you remember what you were doing when it hit you? When you realized life after 25 was noticeably different than life before 25?
There are people who have forgotten how dramatic this dichotomy is, and they’ll scoff when you bring it up, but how many of you remember waking up with a staggering hangover at 26, and remembering how you would shake it off with zero effort just four years ago? When did you feel the first tell-tale sign of buckling in your knees after jumping the last stair, a jump that had never registered in your hips at 24? How many of you remember the exact moment when you understood you were only growing older from now on, instead of growing up?
The kids wouldn’t believe me if I told them any of this. Other “kids” haven’t, and I suspect they can’t. It’s almost impossible to understand the dramatic change in their self-perception that waits for them around the very next visible corner.
And it’s not just the body that has changed on me, it’s perception as well. I see these kids groan over workloads I’ve come to see as routine. Easier than routine, really. The café will get four sandwich orders at once, and complaints will fly when customers are out of earshot. At my last job, twenty orders at once just meant the hotel guests had woken up.
You have to understand that they’re not ungrateful or lazy or spoiled, or any other bullshit coded anti-youth phrase you were about to mutter. They’re just kids. They’re getting their feet wet and remarking on the temperature. They’re not rejecting the world, they just have to force themselves to mold into it, the way everyone eventually does.
And I know this, but still they seem so young and even at just 28, I think to myself they have so much growing to do. And then I laugh at myself for being so ridiculously patronizing. Who issued me the license to discount them for their slightly more noticeable youth?
But I do it anyway. Sometimes it’ll take me a moment to register when teenagers I’m around are talking to me. They probably think I’m awkward but the truth is I simply don’t have any interest in what they’re saying. They seem put-off when I brush off invitations to hang out. They stammer when I cut them off mid-sentence so I can get back to work.
Part of the wisdom of adulthood is in remembering the social power you wield. Teenagers will never threaten your place in the world the way you think they will. Every bully thinks they’re the persecuted one.
My coworker notices I’ve stopped responding. I didn’t do it out of spite. I only did it because it was never truly a conversation. He’s a person who talks at you, not to you. But he’s sensitive and worries a lot, and he’s only 20, so he asks if he’s bugging me. I say no and keep reading, but he’s still unsure.
“You can tell me if I am,” he says. “Am I? I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just if I am you can say something.” Like everyone who doesn’t yet know how to be taken seriously, he affects a condescending tone. “You know that, right?”
And he keeps talking, and asking questions, and I can say nothing back. I can only answer the questions he asks by waiting until he lives through the next few years of his life.