Russell Leng, New Nature Systems 3, 2011
I'm in my early 30s and just now getting to work in my desired field after deciding to switch paths in my late 20s. As a result, I'm starting at the bottom with new graduates a decade younger than I am. Meanwhile all of my friends have been working in their chosen fields for a decade plus now and have houses (or at least are renting much nicer places than mine) and spouses and kids and all of the things that are supposed to make you an "adult". I just feel like I'm not where I should be based on my age and I feel like a failure; I suspect my parents feel this way about me too or at the very least, they don't get it. How do I deal with feeling like I'm "behind in life"?
Oh my anonymous friend, I feel this more than you know. Specifically because I am about to go back to school at almost 35 and worry that my brain won't be as good at absorbing new information. And because I kind of just thought you were supposed to be doing different things than what I've been doing at my current age. My Boomer parents always told me that if I went to college, I'd definitely get a job, and if I went even further in school, I'd be set for life with no worries. I was hearing this while other people were saying my parents' generation would be the last one to work at the same place their whole career. As I'm often telling my therapist: my parents were very wrong. Yet my dad will still occasionally ask me when my husband and I will be looking into buying property and I have to bite my tongue every time to keep from saying: "Maybe when you die and I inherit your house but even then probably not". This is not the world our parents walked into when they were young.
I spent a long time not talking about my feelings of inadequacy and being behind in life because I...felt inadequate and behind in life. It's a vicious cycle. It's weird because I think we were raised with ideas that don't really serve us anymore: not talking about money, not advocating for yourself in the workplace, not worrying about any amount of debt because you'll pay it off of course. While I do think Millennials are becoming more aware of and open about all of these things, as people really need to be for transparency and survival, social media has replaced the annual holiday newsletter as a way to compare ourselves to the people we know. It's that newsletter but in the palm of your hand, every second of every day on a loop. There are so many ways to convince yourself that you're not doing as well as everyone you know that it almost becomes a form of self harm to hyperfocus on what people are presenting to the world. Social media was so painful for me over the past few years as I constantly thought about how I was less successful, less together, less attractive than the people in my feed. Not to mention it really messed with my head because I was contemplating whether or not I wanted to have a kid! It's A Lot.
Now that I've said all that, I want to say that "behind in life" is an old idea (see: "keeping up with the Joneses", etc.) but it's one that seems to have plagued us for generations. In your case, I think you're only "behind in life" based on guidelines none of us even got to determine but that we're expected to adhere to for some reason. I also think "behind in life" is an idea based on the capitalist notion of being productive and successful and constantly reaching for more and more so you'll never be satisfied with what you have and where you are. I think the past 18 months of life during the pandemic has taught us that there's a lot we've been told we have to do that really is optional and only beneficial to a very small percentage of people who make money from what we produce and consume. The world is quick to diagnose and treat anything that keeps us from being more productive while not really considering what it is we're working for, you know? And whether we even want the things we think we should have by a certain point. Those rules are there to be broken—there's no one right way to live your life.
You're young. I know what you're thinking: "but my lower back's been killing me since I turned 30!"; hard same, I feel you. But you really are young and there's a lot more time than you realize. I know there's a lot of pressure from all sides to do certain things by a certain point in your life but the truth is that we can't count on being able to do those things on specific timelines any more. We can't work a part time summer job to pay for all of our college expenses any more than we can just waltz into a secure full-time permanent job with benefits and a pension (we've already gotten into how buying a house isn't even on the radar for a lot of us). None of that is certain and the planet's on fire; in fact, the timelines are on fire too. I know that it's hard to think of the enormity of what's been going on in the world but I promise you that you aren't behind, you are exactly when and where you need to be.
So what do you do to actually deal with feeling "behind in life"? That's different for everyone but the main thing I can recommend from my experience is to focus on each day and be as present as possible. I'm not saying to go touch grass but maybe also go touch grass, you know? Do the things you enjoy, work on caring for yourself in the kindest ways possible, and remember that the markers of success we're all so anxious about achieving were created in a world completely different from the one we live in now.
I want to leave you with my favorite lyric from one of my favorite songwriters, Jenny Lewis, that really sums up what I think we're here for and the best advice I have for every single human:
get loved, make more, try to stay alive