The Modern Infatuation and Idealization of Youth

By Nicole Mattea

Illustration by Angela Eastman

Spring / Summer 2022 Issue

I hate getting older. I cry every year on my birthday without fail. I spend each year absently watching the calendar, noting the months, mentally tallying how many are left until I’m another year older. Funny how the older you get, the shorter they feel. An odd realization to come to—that I mourn my youth while still living it. 

I’m not unique in this feeling. Missing your youth seems to be a universal experience, a rite of passage. Life seems to begin and end when we’re young. I grew up hearing that high school and college years would be the best years of my life and that I’ll look back at them with fond nostalgia and longing in adulthood. Constant reaffirmation that the excitement and joy of life begins and ends in youth and the rest is just filler and reminiscing on what once was. 

The weight of expectation to enjoy my youth is crushing

Nearly all of our popular media is based on the idealization of youth. From TV shows and movies, to books and social media, even pop songs. And we grow with these forms of media, initially idolizing the sorts of carefree and adventure-filled lifestyles they portray, then later as we age, looking back at our own life and mourning what could have been and reflecting on our own “wasted” youth. Why did our lived experiences often look so different? Were we missing out on experiences we didn’t even know we should be having? Ironic too, that we “waste” time consuming this content that so strongly influences us, leaving even less time for us to live the experiences they portray. 

The weight of expectation to enjoy my youth is crushing. Partly due to societal conditioning, partly due to pop culture portrayals, partly due to my own lofty ambitions and expectations. I just feel like I haven’t done enough. I look at my life and think “Is this it?” And I know the expectations are ridiculous. I know they’re unreachable. And yet I still stubbornly hold on. I still think about things I want to do, goals I have, places I want to go, and place them within a time frame of when I want to achieve them, the age I want to be.

It leaves me feeling disconnected and out of place. Mourning my youth and dreading my future and the loss of it. I don’t live in the moment, I live in the ‘what could have been and what is not yet.’ It’s only gotten worse after graduating from college. I am suddenly stuck in these cycles of dread as I try to evaluate what I want to do next. I feel I have to have some sort of plan, a goal, a purpose.  

When you actually think about youth and the expectations and goals for it, you realize most of it doesn’t really have anything to do with youth at all. It’s about cultivating relationships and creating experiences with those you care about, discovering yourself, deciding what your purpose will or should be. Youth is just the only reasonable time we can fathom doing those things. It’s when life doesn’t revolve around work and responsibilities, when you have the freedom to be a little carefree, a little spontaneous, a little reckless. 

What we’re really mourning is time. 

Nicole Mattea is a writer, reader, and coffee enthusiast based in Chicago. Her previous work can be found on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs website, as well as on the WIIS (Women in International Security) website.