Like many young people, I have no idea what I want to do with my life.
After working as an unfulfilled paralegal for four years, I decided to break into media at the age of 23. I picked up a few jobs, notched up a couple bylines, and happily entered this new era of being a media girly.
And yet, despite some fantastic jobs — including reporting on the referendum this year — I still have this lingering sense that I’m “playing catch up”. I’m 23, and don’t have a journalism degree to my name. Instead, I have an economic and legal background and a social media presence, which got me into media in the first place. So why do I still feel so behind?
Being so fresh in this industry, I constantly feel like I’m starting behind the finish line and that I need to work turbo-charged to be competitive in the industry race. Some people around me have been in the social and mainstream media game straight from high school and were gaining publishing credits while I was learning wtf a “tort” was at law school.
I thought I was alone in this feeling, but when I started sharing these thoughts with friends, who come from a whole diversity of careers and circumstances, I was shocked at how everyone felt the exact same way. While the insecurities differed between us, we all felt like we were falling behind where we “should be”.
And it wasn’t just career-related. Turns out, feeling like you’re behind is a painfully common feeling amongst my Gen Z brethren. After talking to my besties, I could break down our pooled experiences into a few key areas.
Relationships (angst central)
Relationships are difficult, but you also know what’s also difficult? Not having one when you feel like you should. I know for me personally it’s one of the only things I feel really insecure about. Sometimes I question whether focusing on my career or being firm on deal breakers has jeopardised my potential for happiness and connection (I know, let me be dramatic please). It doesn’t help when the Aunties at the community function say out of pocket things like, “When are you going to settle down?” or, as soon as you tell them you’re loving work, start bragging about how their kids have given them another grandchild.
Getting grief for our relationship status is something my friend Nico (29) relates hard to, particularly when coupled with her trans identify and the “poorly disguised pity” she receives upon mentioning it.
“I do worry about being single, about whether I ‘pass’ enough to ‘make it’,” she tells me, lamenting the “consolation [you] receive upon telling someone that yes, I am still single, I am still renting”.
Career (thanks capitalism or whatever)
A huge recurring theme in my under-30s friendship group is concerns about their job, with everyone feeling the pressure from not just other people, but themselves to be at the ‘right’ level. “Every day I’m reminded that I’m not meeting other people’s expectations, the eyebrow raise when I inform someone that yes, I’m 29 and working in retail,” Nico told me. Something I’m learning quickly from these yarns is the audacity people have when hearing about someone else’s life.
Another one of my friends, Taylor (28) who works in media, instead talks about how our own standards can lead to us questioning how the people around us perceive our work.
“I look around and can’t help to feel I’m failing in comparison to others. I’ve hit some major milestones, like presenting a TED Talk, but it think I’ve fallen short to my own standards so I can’t help wonder how I’m being perceived by others like my loved ones, friends and colleagues,” she says.
While having our own goals and aspirations is healthy, it is also healthy to interrogate where we might have absorbed these objectives from: “I try to remind myself I need to hold myself to my own standards. It’s not any easier though because I still haven’t met them and whether I want to or not, people’s perception, expectations and influence has played a part in the standards I’ve set for myself,” Taylor said. “So that’s how I see myself falling behind — I’m in competition with myself and the standards that I’ve set for myself I don’t even feel in control of them, either.”
Home ownership (yes, I still rent)
Through the rise of social media, lifestyle content and perception of lifestyle goals continues to shift goalposts constantly but one standard persists — owning your own home. There is almost a shame to still renting, especially during one of the worst rental availability crises ever, but for many of us, the goal of home ownership feels (and is) out of reach.
Nika (26), one of my best friends from law school, says that as a junior solicitor she feels that at this stage, she “should be nearly there” in saving for a home deposit.
“I have not been able to save anything, which is kind of disappointing,” she says. “I try to save but it ends up being eaten away by little emergencies.”
Personally, the dream of owning my own home hasn’t even made its way on to my vision board, it feels that far off a fantasy, but it still remains a “milestone” in adult life despite the economic hellscape we currently occupy. Nika, talking about our peers, notices that “other people are generally pretty quiet about their savings, but do feel a bit disillusioned about being able to purchase their own home.”
What the experts say about “feeling behind” your peers
Linda Williams is a Senior Psychologist with more than 10 years experience and the Clinical Governance Lead at leading online youth mental health service ReachOut, and she said that my friend group is not alone in this feeling.
“In recent research by ReachOut, three in four young people reported that they were stressed about the future and only one in six reported that they felt optimistic about the future often,” she says. “We also hear from some young people who use ReachOut’s PeerChat service that they compare themselves to their friends or family and that they are not where they want to be in life yet. So, the idea that many young people may feel that they are ‘falling behind’ seems to be common for young people right now.”
Linda also believes that this issue is compounded by multiple factors. “When we think about generational pressure, it is important to note that there are many factors outside young peoples’ control that might be causing them to reach milestones at different stages of their lives compared to the generations before them, such as the current cost of living crisis and climate anxiety,” she says.
“When you combine the pressure most of us put on ourselves with external pressures it can become harder to cope with.”
With Linda’s thoughts in mind, my besties and I narrowed in on a couple of external factors.
Cost of living is a term repeated so often that Gen Z have had to shorten it for ease of use, the infamous “cozzie livs”. I remember the first time feeling the impact of cozzie livs in having to pay $8 for an iced latte — wtf — and then it just cascaded into my groceries, my bills, public transport, and rapid rent increases. This increase, paired with stagnating wages, can hinder a lot of the “milestones” we set for ourselves.
“I know a lot of people are, like me, trying to be responsible spenders but cost of living makes it incredibly difficult,” Nika says.
Not to sound like a boomer but social media is quite honestly evil sometimes, and I say that as someone who is chronically online. The platforms meant to spotlight general things in our life have become conflated with the “standards” we’re meant to be meeting and reflecting.
Taylor says, “I try really hard to not compare myself to others because it’s easy to feel like you’ve fallen behind, especially with everything we consume online.”
Despite knowing that comparison is one of the worst things we could ever do to ourselves, the devil still hits us where it’s vulnerable and it can exacerbate existing insecurities. “A lot of social media posts show where people are going on holidays, posing next to their brand new home and it hurts,” Nika says. “It really does, I so want my own home and to be relaxing amongst crystal blue waters, but that just is not possible a lot of the time.”
Even Linda spoke to how what we see online can impact us despite our common sense. “Objectively, I think most of us know that there is no set timeline for life and that we are all on our own journey. However when we see others who we perceive to have that job, relationship, lifestyle or something else that we want, feelings like jealousy or feeling inadequate can kick in.”
Talking deeply about this to my friends made me realise something. In our teens, we are sold this idea that our 20s are about experimenting, travelling, finding your passion before we settle down and buy a house near our 30s. Well, Covid took away part of our 20s and now things like cozzie livs is stealing the dreams of our 30s — no wonder we feel like shit.
With all these external standards placed on and around us, I reflect on Nico’s observation of the “falling behind” feeling. “I have to remind myself that these are not my own thoughts but it’s really difficult not to feel the pressure,” she says.
This pressure can manifest not just in how we feel about ourselves but can also impact how we feel about the things we do and create.
My friend Tyberius, 20, tells me that he feels “squeezed dry and flat” by the creative industry. “Thrust from one end towards uniformity and reproducibility, and from the other towards competitive evolution, having to keep learning in order to keep up, I feel doomed by my disposability,” he says. “The question is always, ‘How can I do this quicker, cleaner, cheaper?’, never, ‘How can I do this properly and carefully?’ or ‘How can I do this beautifully?’”
And some advice
While there are things that we can not solve (see: the cost of living), there are steps we can take to seek support and help each other through these feelings
“In terms of coping, it can be useful to approach this from a wellbeing perspective, but also from a practical perspective,” Linda says.
“Talking to a GP or a mental health professional or seeking support from a service such as ReachOut can help you to learn more about how you are feeling and what steps you can take to feel better.
“From a practical perspective you might want to take some time to map out the areas where you feel like you are ‘falling behind’. There will be some areas that you will see that are out of your control, however there may also be ones where you can put some goals in place to help you on your journey to getting to where you want to go. Sometimes the ‘expected’ milestones might not match what you actually want from life, so it’s important that any goals you make are based on where you want to be, not comparing yourself with other people.”
Importantly, Linda reminds us that conversations about how we feel matter. ‘When having conversations with our friends and our families I think that sense of being non-judgemental can be really pivotal. Importantly, that should include compassion towards yourself and recognising all of the things you have already achieved so far.”
If there’s one thing I took away from the conversations with friends, it’s that I’m not alone in feeling constantly behind. Despite the obsession with being the “main character” in my life, there’s a huge comfort in knowing that what I’m going through is completely ordinary and a point of shared experience with some of my closest friends that we can support each other through.
But I would like to do it without the cost of living thing, though. Just in case you’re reading, Reserve Bank of Australia. Sort it out, pls.
If you’re wanting some wellbeing support, here’s some spots you can turn to
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