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Why is 27 your life defining number?

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Published in Cosmpolitan, October 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.

The age phenomenon that may have claimed Amy Winehouse can actually prove to be a tough time for many of us…

When Amy Winehouse passed away in her London home on July 23, the world was left in shock. She wasn’t the first star to meet a premature death, but she was our first big music star to do so. Where the 1990s saw the untimely passing of Gen-X icons like Kurt Cobain, Gen-Y celebs like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan spent the 2000s veering dangerously close to disaster without meeting it completely.

Until Winehouse. The pint-sized brunette with the beehive and soulful voice had been a tabloid fixture for years, for her drug use as much as her music. However, as Jezebel.com contributor Lane Moore put it, “For every one of her documented missteps, I never once thought, ‘How is she still alive?’” She was just 27.

Written in the stars

The so-called “27 club” – a group of musicians who passed away at 27, including Cobain, Janis Joplin and now Winehouse – may just be for rock stars, but the late twenties is often a challenging time for non-famous folk, too. Legally, we’re adults at 18, but for many of us, it’s not until we hit 27 or 28 that we really feel like adults.

There are good biological reasons for this, says developmental psychologist Clare Rowe, who points to new research showing the human brain does not finish developing until long after we’re able to drink, drive or vote. “From a neural development point of view, we aren’t adults until after 25,” explains Rowe.

Science may have only recently caught on, but astrologers have been saying the same thing for centuries. They call it Saturn’s return: that transformative and tumultuous period between your 27th and 30th birthdays in which you complete the transition from youth to maturity.

High-profile astrologer Jonathan Cainer describes it as “a wide, sheltered ledge on the steep cliff that we climb through our twenties”. Falling at the cusp of the transition, Cainer believes 27 can be particularly difficult. In a blog post following Winehouse’s death, he wrote, “At 27, the ledge is near but, from below, you can’t necessarily see how close you are to it. The last mile of any journey is often the toughest.”

The wonder years

Whether you believe in astrology or not, 27 is a big deal for many women. When Cosmo surveyed some of our Twitter followers, we were flooded with tales of career transitions, broken relationships, marriages, babies and general late-twenties angst.

Nikky, 32, recalls a “year of flux” that would give even Winehouse a run for her money. She lived through two assaults, lost her job, developed an eating disorder and spent a year homeless. But she believes been heading for “some sort of breakdown” anyway. “It’s that age at which you finally realise that you don’t have the excuse of
being young anymore,” she says.

Seeing her friends settle down, purchase houses and hit the next stage of their careers only heightened Nikky’s sense that her life wasn’t on track. “Twenty-seven can be a challenge because [people believe that] by the time you’re 30 you’re supposed to have it together,” says psychotherapist Shane Warren. “There are really deep subconscious benchmarks that we have been given by society and our families.”

These benchmarks are no longer as relevant as they were, says Warren. “Our grandparents were married with kids and managerial jobs by their late twenties – we’re often only a couple of years out of university.” However, while intellectually we get that things are different now, on an emotional level, Warren says “there’s often a real part of us that feels like a failure”.

Embrace change

Sometimes, this gap between where we are and where we want to be can paralyse us; other times it can be the catalyst we need to make a change. Friends say in the weeks before she died, Winehouse kept talking about how happy she was with her new boyfriend, film director Reg Traviss, and how much she wanted to be sober.

It’s still hard to draw conclusions, says Rowe. “Did she reach this crisis point because she was in her late twenties, or was it that, by 27, her body had taken as much as it could handle? By all accounts, she seemed quite lost.”

If you’re feeling similarly lost, 27 is a good time to deal with it. “Just putting it out there and telling a friend ‘I’m not happy with this area of my life’ can often light the way to what you need to do to change that,” advises Rowe.

Melissa, now 29, felt ready for change at 27. She reignited her high-school passion for acting, met the man who’s now her fiancé and rethought her then “bludgy” work life. “I kept the same job, but I started going in with a more positive attitude and I got something better out of it,” she says.

That new attitude also helped Melissa “recognise that life might not happen in the way I planned – and that’s OK”. Nikky agrees: “One of the things I did is stop comparing myself to other people. Now I’m as broke and as single as I was then, but I don’t really mind anymore.”

When actress Kirsten Dunst, now 29, spoke of her late twenties, she offered encouragement for making it through this tumultuous period. “I’m much happier, more sure, more definite,” she said recently. “Who you are at 25 and who you are at 29 is a very different thing. For me it feels like a 20-year age gap. You live, you learn and you come through the drama to a more easy, relaxed perspective.”

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Written by Rachel Hills

December 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm

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