We 20-somethings are haunted and plagued by our age-contingent goals. It messes us up. This whole idea of telling yourself that you have to do or attain a certain thing by a certain age is more harmful than helpful. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and being proactive about them, but the problem with goal setting around your age is that it often adds undue pressure and issues. Sometimes we take on things or responsibilities that we truly aren’t prepared for. For example, rushing into marriage
or getting an apartment or home that you really can’t afford because “you’re supposed to have that done by 25.” Speaking of financial matters, I’ve seen people change academic majors or join career fields that they only half-heartedly care about because the income or benefits will help them reach an age-based aspiration. In the long run, they ended up resenting themselves AND their work and felt trapped with no way out.
Intense anxiety can develop as one approaches a particular age, causing stagnation, depression around birthdays or attempts to relive a previous period, possibly stunting maturity. Uncertainty or fear of failure to reach an age-based goal can easily cause stagnation; sometimes it seems easier to procrastinate or not pursue something than tackle it and fail. I call it “I’ll think about it tomorrow” Scarlett O’Hara syndrome ("Gone with the Wind"). I fell prey to it myself. While I was in a graduate counseling program, I rapidly fell out of love with the idea of being a therapist. Instead of using my time in school wisely and doing everything I could to explore options with my impending degree, I put it in the back of mind. I avoided it. I waited until the month I was graduating to ask questions. I was so afraid and uncertain about what I was going to do next that I froze.
As for birthday depression and reverting to the “good old days,” I had a friend who suddenly went missing-in-action just before her birthday. When she resurfaced weeks later, she revealed that thinking about her birthday saddened her because she didn’t think she was “where she needed to be for her age.” I’ve seen many a friend revert to acting as if they were once again college freshman or high school students, trying to go back to a time where their lives were uncomplicated by age-contingent goals and expectations. Those that didn’t revert carry an emotionally heavy bag of regret; unsatisfied with how things have turned out, wanting to undo decisions and feeling cornered by the choices they’ve made.
The worst thing about age-contingent ambitions is that if you fail at them, if often breaks confidence, reduces self-esteem and causes insecurity. One friend told me she feels inferior and that others will judge her because of the things she didn’t do at “the right age.” The judgment is a real villain. Another peer of mine constantly hears condescending remarks about being unmarried. I’m harassed not only because of my marital status (I’m currently single), but because I haven’t found “my big girl job” yet. People are forever nagging, questioning or bossing you around about what you haven’t done yet and when you’re going to do it. If one’s self-esteem is shaken, feelings of incompetence and incapability can quickly set in, thus diminishing motivation or belief that other dreams can become a reality.
Age-basing can suck the fun out of life as you spend so much time with pressure, stress, fear, guilt, regret and insecurity. When setting goals, analyze your motives, what pursuing this objective will require and if your ideal timeframe is reasonable. Do you really think achieving this goal will improve your life? At what cost will you seek after your target? Are you making decisions independently or are you making choices to appease someone else? Are you trying to fit into a mold? Are you doing what you think is healthiest for you? Are you emotionally, physically or financially ready? Also, make sure you choose objectives that you can actually influence. For example, it doesn’t make sense to expect to be married by 25. You can’t make love happen and it’s best to not try to make someone marry you (anyone can find a partner or sex-buddy, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be a quality mate). Sure, you can try to date and increase your chances of finding a mate, but that’s it. That’s all you can do. If you fail at achieving something, yes, it will suck. You might feel terrible and useless, but that’s not true. Just re-route and reevaluate. Good luck.
So…I’m looking around and it’s seems like a lot of married people my age are getting divorced. Wondering if it was just people I knew, I started searching for statistics. According to the National Centerfor Health Statistics (The U.S. Census Bureau references the NCHS for marriage and divorce rates),60 percent of marriages for couples between the ages of 20 and 25 end in divorce. They are probably thousands of possible reasons why this is, and I think the quarter-life crisis is one of them. To nutshell the “quarter-life crisis” for those who are new to this term, it’s basically a reflective point in the 20’s where one tries to figure out where they’re going and who they want to be. The core of the crisis is different for every person; some are most concerned about career choices (which is my core), while others are concerned about romantic relationships (segue into the point of this article).
If my girlfriends aren’t getting a divorce, they’re actively trying to find someone to marry and are frustrated with their lack of luck in that department. Some of them are so fixated on getting down the aisle, they talk about single-hood as if it’s a disease. When asked what the source of their urgency is, the most common answer is a culmination of “I need to be married and have a kid by 30. I have a biological clock. 30 is the ideal age. Marriage is the next life step. When you’re 30, you’re supposed to have everything together and moving on to that stage of your life.” Instead of considering their emotional, mental and financial preparedness for marriage, young adults are focused on being the ‘ideal age.’ I can’t tell you why 20-somethings put so much value on 30; hell, I put a lot of value on 30. I put a lot of value on 25. For some reason, when you’re in your 20’s, goal timelines are shaped around a specific age. This age-contingent goal setting may be one of the things that make the quarter-life crisis a crisis. 20-somethings are very hard on themselves when it comes to goals. Everything is about success and failure. These feelings in application to marriage are only exacerbated by external/societal pressures and expectations, such as a nagging parent wondering “when are you going to settle down?” or others asking “why are you single?” Societal expectations are particularly impacting on women; a woman’s value is so measured by her marital status, “that’s why you don’t have a man” is used as and deemed an insult.
Too young to get married? Maybe.
I want to focus on one particular part of the urgency reasons list: “when you’re 30, you’re supposed to have everything together.” Not only is marriage on the list of goals and concerns, but it’s viewed as remedy for other stressors. “Getting married and being a wife would make me feel more stable. It will give me a sense of purpose. I’ll feel like I have some sort of direction. Right now, I just feel kind of lost and shifty in general. I need something that is consistent…predictable…reliable…solid and in place,” says one of my friends. Like a lot my peers around the same age, this person wants to redirect their career path (but isn’t sure how), has a long, unsuccessful dating history and is feeling kind of bored with life as most friends have moved away or are preoccupied with children they’ve had (which leads me to another reason why 20-somethings are relationship or marriage obsessed, but I’ll come back to that).
For 20-somethings lost at sea, a marriage or a committed relationship is subconsciously a great distraction as it gives the confused and stressed something seemingly fun and sexy to pour all of their energy into. In the midst, some hope that their potential mate may complete, rescue or motivate them, or be someone to relate to. At minimum, a mate can keep them entertained. “I’m bored when I’m not in a relationship,” says another friend, which brings me to the aforementioned about friends moving away or having time-consuming lives. Graduating from college means a reduction in a social life for many 20-somethings as employment pursuits can absorb free-time and take friends across the country; meanwhile, making like-minded new friends in the workplace is sometimes not as easy or feasible. The sudden crash in what was once a vivacious social life leaves some 20-somethings feeling lonely and bored, and who better to cure all that than a partner designed to be a constant companion? So, now we’ve got discombobulated, bored and lonely people, jaded from all the failed attempts at romance and broken from all of their other personal obstacles, entering a situation with emotional complexities that requires stability for all the wrong reasons. Perfect.
All of these wrong reasons can fester, boil and rise up to be the demise of the relationship or marriage, especially if the romance was subconsciously a way to feel stable or keep distracted
. When 20-somethings find themselves in this quandary, they either divorce or breakup, have a kid to try and fix it (which also doesn’t work), or remain unhappily married because they have children or to try to save face. Some walk to the altar on a hope and a prayer to begin with, ignoring their instincts. If you’re 20-something and your goal is marriage, realllllllllllly marinate on why you want to get married, why you love your mate and if you truly are ready for a lifetime commitment. You can’t prepare yourself
for everything that’s in store with married life beforehand, but looking long and hard in the mirror will give you a leg up.