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The Peter Pans of the Pandemic

Robbed of their carefree years by a generation-altering catastrophe, young people fight back against Father Time — and ‘opt out’ of aging entirely

Hilary turned 34 in May, and she plans to put her 35th year on layaway. Thus far, her thirties have gone exactly according to plan: She moved back to her native California from New York; she has a new boyfriend, whom she met just before the pandemic hit; and she finally figured out how to groom her eyebrows in a way that satisfies her. Hilary is a proud self-described late bloomer, and because of that, she says she’s been immune from some of the typical aging anxiety that afflicts the women around her.

After contending with a cold and ersatz remote birthday celebration, Hilary and her best friend hatched a plan. This year, 2020, will be scrubbed from both of their personal records. All of the grief and dread they’ve paid into this hellish calendar will be paid back — after the pandemic is over — in the form of a bonus chapter of their thirties. Next year, Hilary hopes to hold an anxiety-free birthday party, where she will turn 34 again.

“Years start to matter less the older you get. By the time you’re in your fifties, literally who gives a shit? But I’m a little Peter Pan-ish, and I’m starting to feel like there’s a finite amount of time that I can be truly irresponsible,” she tells me. “We were like, ‘Hell no! We deserve this year!’”

The strategy, explains Hilary, is to tack on the baggage from this year a few decades later. Maybe when she turns 62, she will finally admit that she’s actually 63; that’d certainly be a much easier pill to swallow. Typically, people in their sixties don’t lament the summer music festivals they’re missing, nor do they obsess over their dwindling number of childless friends or the looming possibility of Tindering into middle age.

As this pandemic drags on, there is a creeping fear among millennials that they’re being robbed of a small fraction of their previously guaranteed youth, that the raucous philistinism you’re afforded in your twenties and thirties has been endangered by this enveloping catastrophe. Will young people emerge from a long COVID hibernation to find themselves all grown up? That’s the concern, at least. So some are taking matters into their own hands — by doing battle with Father Time himself.

Hilary makes an important point: Biology will never let you forget how old you are. The wear-and-tear in your pores, muscle fibers and bone structure will tell the unflattering truth; cut us open and count the rings. But human beings don’t really talk about age that way. We’re supposed to learn something new every year, and we like to think that those experiences pile into one another until they prop up the person we know ourselves to be.

This year has certainly educated us on the outer limits of our self-preservation aptitudes, but Hilary doesn’t feel like she’s grown. “Age signifies a certain emotional or psychological development over the course of life,” she says. “You’re supposed to have progressed. But if you’re stuck in a Groundhog Day situation, we’re not really aging.” She points to all the significant birthdays we earmark on the timeline, the wisdom and perspective accrued at 40, or 30. Does anyone really have the time right now to reflect on what they’ve learned in the middle of a pandemic? Instead, Hilary prefers to think of COVID’s termination date as if she’s stepping out of a cryo chamber immaculately preserved, like rebooting an old save file. After eight months indoors, can anyone say she’s wrong?

“You can have your twenties stolen for non-pandemic reasons. Anyone who’s been in a terrible relationship or has had a bad job feels like they’ve had several years stolen,” she says. “So I think it’s only fair.”

Sarah, a 24-year-old in Houston who is also eschewing her next birthday, believes she can win a fight against corporeal erosion. “I haven’t been outside, so I haven’t physiologically aged,” she says. “I haven’t seen the sun this whole damn year.” The hope is that nature will cooperate with her boycott; it’s been easy to avoid those dastardly ultraviolet rays during a stay-at-home order. (Other aging agents, like stress, binge-eating and sleep deprivation, haven’t been quite as scarce.) “Maybe the year after this, I’ll drink and go out so much that I offset it so much that I get this year back. Just by celebrating living through the plague, I’ll age two years in one year,” she says. “I’d prefer that. Right now, it’s like being kicked when you’re down. You’re in a pandemic, you can’t celebrate your birthday, and you just get old.”

Sarah says that 24 is the last “fun year” of her life, and she speaks about 25 like it’s the beginning of a death sentence. (As most adults can attest, life after your early 20s isn’t as bad as it looks.) But her perspective is endemic; we do seem to be living through a surge of young people who feel old and washed up, with or without the pandemic’s influence. Vox reporter (and my girlfriend) Rebecca Jennings delved into the many hashtags on Instagram and TikTok that are chock-full of kids with their whole lives ahead of them lamenting how ancient they feel compared to the middle-schoolers and teenyboppers occupying the same social space. It’s difficult to pin that sickness on a single root cause, but Jennings cites the swooning rates of marriage and homeownership among the ascendent generation, and perhaps those missing pieces in our lives ache more as the years slide by.

My peers are acutely aware that this pandemic, and its botched public response, has shortened the amount of time we have to not worry about the future. My 30th birthday is next year; I thought I’d have a few more long, ignorant nights in my twenties before I had to face the music. “It goes back to being robbed of having fun,” says Laura, another 34-year-old who’s taking next year off. “At a certain point, I know I can’t do all the things that I can do now, like going to shows, karaoke and traveling. Your early to mid-30s are really precious, particularly if you’re a woman. Because you have to think about when all of those more grown-up things are going to happen for you, especially having children. So I’m just like, goddammit!

COVID isn’t the first generation-altering event. There have been plenty of global traumas in the past, and many more are headed our way in the future. The Lost Generation earned its name from the long shadow of World War I, and I doubt many young people were keen to celebrate their thirties in the muck of the Somme Offensive. Personally, it’s a relief to remember that we aren’t the first to face down something unprecedented. If our ancestors found their way back, we will too — older, of course, but with a story to tell.

That’s also, however, the thing that scares me most. Everyone I spoke to keeps faith that the pandemic will let up by their next birthday, in 2021, mostly because the alternative is unthinkable. We all know, in the darkest parts of our brain, that that’s far from a guarantee, and I’m not sure if we’re prepared to contend with that reality yet. “I’ve seen some headlines lately that talk about how things will never go back to normal, and I’ve been too fragile to click on them,” adds Laura. “I’m just trying to stay positive.”

If we do encounter the worst-case scenario — caught in the middle of a presidential coup, an untamed pandemic, a spiraling ecological emergency — we probably won’t have much bandwidth to worry about enjoying the rest of our youth. Instead, our community will gear up for an interminable Crisis Era, one where everyone has to grow up too quickly. Hilary, for her part, is trying to take that in stride. If 2020 ends with America in a freefall descent to fascism, she knows that an extra year of her 30s isn’t going to make much of a difference to her current state of being. But she will keep trying to reclaim her happiness until the bitter end. That’s the only way to live.

“It’s about giving yourself some sense of hope,” she says. “That you can get your life back on track, and pick up where you left off.”