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Negin Nia is a podcast producer at The Globe and Mail.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of the Friends episode titled “The One Where They All Turn 30.” As a teenager, I remember watching Rachel Green celebrate her 30th birthday with her friends by crying because she’s no longer in her 20s. She lists off a detailed plan of what age she wants to get married and have kids by, becoming even more upset as she realizes she’s already behind on the timeline she set for herself. I never understood why she felt so much pressure back then, but rewatching this scene in my mid-20s, I can suddenly relate to her milestone anxiety.
This type of anxiety – a fear of not reaching certain social benchmarks like marriage, career success or having children by a specific age – has become increasingly common among Gen Zers and millennials. In 2022, relationship counselling agency Relate surveyed more than 2,000 people in the U.K. on milestone anxiety and found that 83 per cent of Gen Z respondents felt pressure to achieve certain milestones, compared with 77 per cent of millennials, and 66 per cent of those over 75 (who reported feeling this way when they were younger). These milestone expectations can come from different sources: 39 per cent of respondents said that it was internal, 22 per cent said societal and 21 per cent said the pressure came from their parents.
But the generational approach to traditional social benchmarks is changing. Romantic partners no longer meet as organically as they once did, with younger people more likely to take non-traditional approaches to dating. Millennials and Gen Zers typically express uncertainty about (or a lack of interest in) having kids or getting married more openly. Attending university and choosing the 9-to-5 route are also no longer the assumed career path for everyone.
Economic necessity has spurred on many of these generational changes. In the midst of a recession, most young people in urban centres are faced with renting a shoebox-sized apartment that costs more than half their monthly income. A head of cauliflower has become a treat you splurge on if you have enough money in your bank account. For many, becoming homeowners and financially supporting a family feels increasingly unrealistic.
So why is milestone anxiety still so prevalent? In addition to parental and societal expectations, the Relate survey found that 23 per cent of Gen Zers feel pressure from another source they know all too well – social media (and the media in general).
It’s not hard to feel like you are falling behind when every other post on Instagram is about someone travelling to Bali or an engagement photo. For women especially, there is an immense amount of pressure to do it all – to have a successful career and long-term relationship while also raising kids. Women are constantly reminded by the media that our biological clock is ticking, that we should be freezing our eggs or looking at all our family planning options as soon as possible. Funnily enough, 27 per cent of the Gen Z respondents to Relate’s survey were least likely to say marriage was important to them, but said getting married and having children were the top two milestones they felt pressure to achieve.
After the COVID-19 pandemic derailed so many of our plans, there’s more pressure for young people to do a lot in a short period. And we’re constantly seeing picture-perfect social media posts from people ostensibly accomplishing their own goals. But we often forget what people aren’t always posting: the tough times. If Instagram had been around, Rachel certainly wouldn’t have posted a picture of herself crying on her birthday.
What we all really need is to celebrate the small wins, alongside the other milestones. If you choose to go the traditional route, that’s okay – but it’s also okay if you don’t. Make it a habit to congratulate yourself on non-traditional things – whatever they may be for you. And stop comparing yourself and your milestones with others. All of this is easier said than done, but the reality is, that couple on Instagram could break up, the Bali trip could have been a complete disaster and the person with that fancy job could get laid off at any point. We never know what is going on behind the scenes.
Watching that Friends episode again, I wish I could shake the screen and tell Rachel everything would be fine. Sure, her story arc was about to become a rollercoaster with the Vegas wedding, subsequent divorce and surprise pregnancy. But who would’ve guessed she’d find happiness turning down her dream job in Paris to restart that failed marriage with the love of her life?
Life is unexpected, and doing things authentically will help you flourish more than any constricted plan will. It may come with some short-term judgment or disapproval, but the long-term happiness is worth it. Take it from an anxious Gen Zer who is learning to break with tradition – society’s timeline does not need to be yours.
What else we’re thinking about:
As a podcast fanatic, I often turn to audio to help me make sense of things I’m struggling with. I recently came across The Psychology of Your 20s, which delves into many relatable topics ranging from mental health to imposter syndrome to relationships. It’s helping me to make sense of – to quote millennial bard Taylor Swift in 22 – feeling happy, free, confused and lonely, all at the same time.
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