Stop Stressing Over Falling Behind in Your 20s — And Remember This
What are you supposed to have achieved by age 25? By 28? By 30?
The answer, of course, is "anything you damn well please." But we know it's not so simple. Whether it's feeling guilty for still living with roommates or fearing that the number of eligible spouses is dwindling, the passing of each year brings the weight of expectations we can't untangle from reality.
Our culture isn't helping. We live in the era of the wunderkind, where media outlets constantly praise our youngest overachievers. In 2014 alone, 18-year-old Saira Blair became the youngest elected state legislator in the nation, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize and 24-year-old Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel's app was valued at $10 billion, according to Time.
It doesn't help that the most enviable industries in today's economy, namely technology, are ones ruled by young people, and the Internet feeds on success stories of dorm room entrepreneurs and "30 Under 30" awardees.
All of which makes us feel lazy and depressed every time we hear about yet another young genius. To understand the extent of our neuroses, Mic asked millennials about their age-related concerns. Turns out, the anxieties we feel about growing up are far more common than we could expect — meaning it's about time we cut ourselves some slack.
"I feel so much farther behind in my career compared to everyone else."
The anxieties: "It may sound stupid, but when I was a teenager, I used to envision myself being the '30 under 30' of something. That's apparently not going to be me," Leslie, 25, told Mic.
"I don't know who my peers are because people my age either seem to have established careers or parental support, whereas I feel like I'm clawing tooth and nail without either and getting nowhere," Cody, 27, said.
The reality: The fact that Mark Zuckerberg was a teenager when he cofounded Facebook or that Lena Dunham has her own show at 28 can give us damaging illusions. But success doesn't need to come in the span of a few years. For one, most CEOs aren't as young as they seem. "High-growth start-ups are almost twice as likely to be launched by people over 55 as by people 20 to 34," Time's Roya Wolverson reported.
Plus, consider comedian Marc Maron, who is finally reaching critical acclaim at 51; writer Charles Bukowski, who was a 49-year-old post office worker before he started writing; or actor Bryan Cranston, who didn't star in Breaking Bad until his 50s. Our careers are no one's but ours, and we can take them at whatever pace suits us.
"If I want the whole house-and-kids deal in my 30s, I'm definitely not making enough money."
The anxieties: "Several of the people at my job are around my age, but seem to be earning much more than me and be farther along in their careers," Brian, 29, told Mic. "I still have a lot of uncertainty that I missed out on some upper-class lessons on investment and money management that I feel like I am stumbling through."
"I wish I was making more money than I can spend. I could say I'm not being realistic, but there are people my age where that is their reality," Alex, 25, said.
The reality: A 2013 survey by Harris Interactive found that adults ages 18 to 33 are far more stressed than the national average. Seventy-six percent said their top stress was work, while 73% said money was a big anxiety. It's no shock why: As of 2013, the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances found that the median income of those under age 35 was $35,300.
Post-recession millennials are burdened by debt and are increasingly skipping the step of becoming homeowners. We may not get the whole house-and-kids deal the way our parents did at the ages they did, because the world and the economy were different. But as long as we can acknowledge that, we can stop putting pressure on ourselves.
"What if I'm single so long, there's no one left?"
The anxieties: "When I was much younger, I assumed I'd be married or have children, but marriage isn't a particularly high priority for me. I am partnered and cohabitating, though," Debra, 31, told Mic.*
"It's strange that when I started college, I thought I'd be living with my boyfriend [by now] with an engagement ring on my finger and two dogs. Obviously, that didn't work out, and it makes me anxious that I'll never see that story unfold," Sarah, 25, told Mic.
The reality: If you're single in America today, you're far from unique. For the first time recorded, there are more single than married adults in the United States in 2014. When we do get married, we're doing it at the highest-ever median ages, 27 for women and 29 for men.
Though millennials are far less likely to be married than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers were at their age, young people have good reason for delaying such partnerships. The marriage delay reflects millennials' more critical approach to the institution of marriage as a whole. Also, as reported by Time, a 2014 study found that "for every year a woman waits to get married, right up until her early 30s, she reduces her chances of divorce." And with all that online dating, finding love later is easier than ever.
"I still haven't written that book or traveled to all the countries I thought I would."
The anxieties: "Sometimes I worry that the door is going to shut on me in the scene I'm in, and I won't be able to do music because it's a young person's world," said Tom, 26. "I used to be self-conscious. Allen Ginsberg wrote 'Howl' at my age, but he's a special case."
"I expected that I would've been more well-traveled by now," Sarah, 25, said.
"I expected to finish and publish a novel by now, but am realizing as I get older how that is much more difficult than I'd thought when I was a teenager," Everett, 27, told Mic.
The reality: The experiences peppering those popular "30 Experiences You Should Have Before You Turn 30" lists include half-marathons, international travel and once-in-a-lifetime culinary adventures. But these kinds of cultural experiences don't have an expiration date. In fact, there are a lot of advantages to traveling later, with much more money in your pocket or with your family by your side.
Plus artists from Martin Scorsese to Meryl Streep remind us that creative achievements may only increase with age. As Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, told Forbes , "There's nothing inevitable about a decline of creativity over time."
"I should have definitely been finished school by now."
The anxieties: "I am still finishing my bachelor's degree. I particularly feel self-conscious in school. Sometimes I feel borderline bitterness toward the young, carefree kids, because there are economic reasons why I wasn't able to succeed in college at their age," Pat, 28, told Mic.
"I'm getting an education to do something I actually like, but I can't just quit with no alternative. I have to pay rent!" said Erin, 27.
The reality: There's no wrong age to pursue a higher degree. As NPR pointed out, a good number of 20-somethings don't even have a college degree yet, much less graduate degrees. The idea that all millennials are overeducated misses the fact that a number are still pursuing their education, and that's just fine. Plus, school isn't only for the young — you can always go back.
"Am I too old to still be living with roommates?"
The anxieties: "[I'm worried] that I'm still living year to year in various slummy student housing and depending on roommates with no end or semblance of stability in sight," Cody, 27, told Mic.
"Why do the people on Friends have gorgeous apartments in New York City with negligible job situations and basically live as they please? Same case with lots of sitcoms. Living like that doesn't come so easily in reality," said Pat, 28.
The reality: Today's skyrocketing rents and scarce housing make the transition to living alone in adulthood that much harder. Millennials who live with roommates (who, by the way, are awesome companions) are more popular than ever. According to a 2014 report from Zillow, the number of people living in doubled-up households has increased to almost one-third of all households, as Business Insider reported. Living with a roommate is not only the growing norm, in crowded cities, it's expected.
"At this rate, will I be able to have kids the way I imagined?"
The anxieties: "As a woman, entering my early 30s means I'm running out of time to make a decision about whether or not to have children. Because I still feel undecided about what I want," Debra, 31, told Mic.
"My family all had children in their late teens or early 20s and want me to have one. They also somewhat discourage furthering my education at this age because they think it would be more responsible to devote all my time to making money," said Pat, 28.
The reality: The common worry over our "biological clocks" might be less severe than we assume. The average age of first birth rose to 25 years in 2000, compared to 21.4 years in 1970. Women are having babies at later ages, thanks to advancements in fertility treatments. The clock might be ticking, but we're getting better at slowing it down.
As for supporting those kids? We may not be able to give our kids the upbringings many of us had, but that doesn't mean those aren't children worth having.
"I feel way too young to actually be this age."
The anxieties: "I always simultaneously feel too young and too old emotionally. I'm responsibly saving into my employer's retirement plan, but I still sleep with a stuffed animal and a nightlight," Erin, 27, said.
"On paper, yeah, it seems like my shit is together. But I don't feel that way. I definitely still feel mentally like a child," said Leslie, 25.
"Sometimes I feel 45, sometimes I feel 14," said Alex, 25.
The reality: One thing is true: You never feel the age you actually are. Different levels of maturity, life experience and opportunities lead us all to different paths that make us feel a lot older or younger than we really are.
Which is all the more reason to avoid uttering "OMG, I'm such a lazy failure!" every time we hear of Tavi Gevinson's new play or Taylor Swift's record-breaking album. No matter what we accomplish — discovering the latest cancer treatment, funding that next billion-dollar start-up, planting that community garden, raising a child — chances are we're going to do it on our own time.
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.