The Peaceful Tragedy of Turning 21 in America

Ben Gambuzza ’20

Contributing Writer

I live on the Long Walk in a first-floor dorm, so I hear most of the conversation that passes by my window. It’s usually yelling like “don’t step on the plaque!”, “I’m gonna do it!”, “What does it mean again? They add an extra semester on?” It’s also fun for me to hear awkward hellos preceded by what-I-know-is an internal psychological struggle over when to make eye contact. But I also hear happy birthdays. It usually goes like, “happy birthday, man!”, or “giiiiirl you’re 21!!!”, or other wishes that you just know are because Facebook notified you that morning. But who cares? Everyone likes knowing someone was thinking about them. My problem isn’t with the technology, anyway.
In fact, I don’t have a problem. What I want to broach here is the topic of birthdays in college, specifically the big Two One. What does it mean to turn 21? What do we lose? What do we gain? And what does this milestone have to do with the way we perceive time going forward?
The first thing that comes to our mind when we turn 21 in America is that we can legally drink. The build-up to this has been huge. Sneaking around your parents’ cabinet in high school, using your older brother’s I.D. to get into bars, counting on the Tap to be lenient, “knowing a guy” who knows a guy whose sister is 23. The excitement that comes from sneaking around like this evoked a weird combination of cherishing the fact that you’re not 21 (almost making a party out of the very fact that you’re underage) and also wanting to completely jump ahead in time to finally “get there.” Sometimes, it even felt like time was running out, that maybe you wouldn’t get there.
That 21 is the legal drinking age exemplifies the cultural breakthrough that comes with turning 21. You can walk into a new city and say, “all this is now available to me. There is literally nothing I cannot participate in.” Other privileges that come with turning 21: gamble at casinos (try it; if you’re morally sound you’ll never want to step foot in one again), own a handgun (ugh, please don’t do that), go to dispensaries (really exciting, buzzing new places; worth the visit). We all know that turning 21 results in more freedom. But this is not just freedom to do anything you want, or to buy, or to act. It is also freedom from a certain version of time that we perceive.
I’ll assert that when we turn 21, because of the legal framework, time stops being characterized by (1) positive anticipation and (2) thinking of time in radically discrete years. Time turns into a continuous flow. As the mother of a close friend of mine says, time turns “into a river.” Think about it: as a child and young adult, our lives were dominated by what would come next. We constantly lived in the moment because we had no responsibilities (I’m over-generalizing, but I think to a degree this applies to most very young children). We knew there were certain ages when we get video games, watch certain TV shows, get a phone, or, if you were lucky enough, a car. All these things were the first in a long strain of things we got. Everything else that we acquire as adults are different in degree, so there’s really nothing new. When we are 21, we’re done being introduced to objects and experiences that the culture deems as important.
And the celebrations! Half birthdays (honestly, what?), sweet sixteens, 18 years old (hell yeah, sex and tobacco [in New Hampshire]), and finally 21. So many markers within such a short amount of time. And not even in regular intervals. I suspect this changes at 21 because less people are taking care of us, we are less dependent, and so no one “makes” these milestones for us. The amount of time between significant events increases (the next big one is 26, when we have to get off of our parents’ insurance, then it’s the big Five-Zero).
So, because of the legal system imposed on us, and society’s insistence that we buy our kids so much stuff, and that we celebrate so often, once we start making our own money as an adult and step away from being an unwilling incessant money-maker for the state, no one takes care of us, and no one makes milestones for us. What a tragedy.
But why is this peaceful? I’m not sure. It feels good to me that there is nothing soon to look forward to. It feels good that everything is open to me. And maybe it’s because I’ve been inculcated by a system that makes me feel this way, but I feel like part of the world. Far from an intense feeling of freedom, being 21 feels peaceful. And it’s good to know that at the next big milestone, 50, let’s say, the people celebrating with me will be people I chose to be in my life. And in effect, it will be a milestone I made myself.