In the last several months, I’ve noticed a rash of articles about twentysomethings. If I were to try to summarize them all into one tidy sentiment, it would be, “There’s no cause for panic if you don’t have life all figured out in your twenties; there is no schedule.”
There’s only one problem with this rationale: it’s unrealistic.
I like to think that I generally don’t obsess over what people think of me, but for this logic to work, everyone would essentially need to go through life with blinders on.
I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying it’s reality.
Life confusion is more forgivable in one’s early twenties because at that point, society sees the person as just starting the “adult journey” (and even then, anyone who’s spent decent time at a university can attest that the word “adult” here is often a figurative term). However, the later you get into your twenties, the more expectations you start to feel. Eventually, your eyes wander to the lanes on either side of you, and the inevitable comparison begins.
If you’re not married, you start noticing that most of your Facebook newsfeed has to do with engagements and/or weddings. People either try to push you out into the dating scene, or they leave you be–and you wonder what’s wrong with you. If you’re in a relationship, the question becomes, “When will you get married?”
If you’re already married, repeat the first sentence of the previous paragraph, but replace “engagements” and “weddings” with “babies.” Based on my experience and observation, most people will leave you alone for the first year, maybe two. But, definitely by year three, the baby question will start floating your way–sometimes from people you barely know! You want to treasure alone time with your spouse? Nope. You aren’t sure what your respective expectations on having children are yet? Nope. You can’t even financially afford a dog right now, much less a child? Nope. (Often) in the eyes of the questioners, these are not good reasons. You need to get on it right now–you’re not getting any younger, you know. As friends’ profile pictures morph into new infant faces, comparison is there.
Perhaps one of the hardest ones, in my opinion, is the career expectation. I’m not talking about the “Generation Me” twentysomethings fresh out of university that waltz into an interview at a multimillion dollar corporation demanding $100,000 per year salary. I’m talking about people who are willing to pay their dues and let their work speak for itself. Again, there is an unstated expectation that by age 30, you should have your crap together: at least a life plan (far as spouse and kids are concerned), a good stable job, and prospects for the future. You may even feel sure that you have those things, but again–the eyes start wandering. In the left lane, you see someone who’s younger than you and has already traveled the world. In the right lane, you see someone who’s younger than you and already has a “C” in front of their work title. And you really start to question where you are in life.
Now, I’m not saying the younger ones didn’t work hard. They probably worked very hard. What I am saying is that because the expectation exists that from age 20 to age 30 is your timeline to set yourself on a good path in life, it becomes incredibly difficult to remain objective when your perception is that you are being outgunned by a young gun. You start to wonder, “What did I do wrong?” or “What could I have done differently?” Being older, you should theoretically have more in your bag of tricks, but your bag’s running low.
Even social lives are not free from comparison. While you may not be envying the college student who comes to class hungover, it’s harder not to envy the friend who just went on a group vacation in Australia, or a coworker with amazing industry connections.
All this to say: while I am sure that those articles preaching “be your own person” and “follow your own path” are well-intentioned, in my opinion, they’re full of crap. If we all lived in isolation chambers? Absolutely. The rate at which you excel in your own life would not matter one bit. However, right or wrong, because we live in each other’s peripheral vision, eventually, we all succumb to comparison. Spouses, children, career, social life–these are all cultural milestones. In a way it’s almost like cultural gamification. There is always another level to achieve, but many of the hardest levels come fairly early in the game. And, I think, that’s part of why the expectation exists: if you can’t master those first challenges quickly enough, how long will you survive?
As someone stepping out of the “proving ground” of the twenties, I hope that I can keep up with the rest of the world!