Many of us live life by numbers: choose a career by 25, find love by 30, own a home by 40. The exact goals and ages may differ for you, but the chances are, you’ve got a rough timeline for all the major milestones you hope to hit in life – and a linear idea of how they’ll pan out.
The pandemic has thrown a curveball, though, sending even the most meticulous of planners off track. It’s left some worried about ageing, and that they’ll now “run out of time” to do the things they hoped they’d do.
“The pandemic, and its erosion of many of the building blocks of my life, has caused me to think about ageing for the first time, and to be honest it’s terrifying,” says Charlotte*, 25, from Birmingham.
“Having lost my job due to the pandemic, I’m in the same boat as first-time graduates, applying for positions beneath my level and which I might be considered ‘too old’ for – yet the longer I’m out of work, the older I’m getting.
“I’m also single, and was happily so, but with my job loss forcing a return home, I’m living in my childhood bedroom, which has amplified my ageing-anxiety.”
Millions of people will be able to relate this year, with the pandemic disrupting our plans for work, dating, travel, moving home and more. Isn’t it time we took the pressure off and removed age-based targets altogether?
“Milestones put us, as women, under too much pressure,” says Carol Russell on the latest episode of our Am I Making You Uncomfortable? podcast, which is about embracing ageing.
Russell is co-writing a book, Invisible to Invaluable: Unleashing the Power of Midlife Women, and didn’t embark on her own career as a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter until her 40s. She’s passionate about telling younger women you don’t need to reach a certain point by a certain age.
“Those ‘30 under 30 lists’, they make us feel bad about not having arrived at those life milestones,” she says. “For me, the thing I’ve really learned over the years is not to judge my own life by whether I’ve reached milestones or not.”
Author and journalist Poorna Bell agrees – she wrote about the topic in her second book, In Search Of Silence. “To me, the current timelines we have around age are still based on a time when our lives were shorter – so actually, certain societal institutions, and ideas of when you should have achieved success, are based on a timeline that doesn’t reflect how long we live now,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“We also don’t grow up in exactly the same circumstances or access to privilege and yet the goals of ‘do X by 30, achieve Y by 40’ are almost universally the same.”
We can look back to our school years to understand why we compare ourselves to people the same age as us.
“School is relentlessly competitive, educationally but also socially,” Lucy Beresford, a psychotherapist, previously told HuffPost UK. “House points, sports day, being chosen for the school play, or who snogged who – they’re all set-up scenarios where we are forced to measure ourselves against people we know pretty well. We forget to shake off this comparison, and instead stay in the comfort zone of this benchmark in our adult years.”
We also impose arbitrary age timelines on ourselves because we crave order and control, adds Bell – but in reality, life is more unpredictable than that.
“Yes we make choices that impact our lives, but none of us can predict when we’ll fall in love, have a baby and get married,” she says. “Even when it comes to your career, you can graft and work hard, but being given certain opportunities still depends on so much that may not be in your control.”
Bell admits she was plugged into ‘The Timeline’ throughout her 20s, but she let go of the expected, linear model following the death of her husband, Rob, in 2015. “When he died, I realised life isn’t linear, that you can’t insulate yourself from bad things even if, as I did, you make what society considers to be the ‘right’ choices,” she says.
“The only timeline I operate to is my own, and no one but biology or myself gets any say in what I achieve or choose to do with my time, as long as I’m kind and trying to be a good person.”
So, how can we stop using age as a stick to beat ourselves with? Letting go of socially-mandated milestones isn’t easy, says Bell, but it starts with sitting down and asking yourself what you really want.
Questions she advises considering include: Why am I doing this job when it makes me so unhappy? Is this promotion really what I want? Do I actually want kids? Do I need marriage?
“That can take place over a period of weeks or months, but it’s creating the space for you to properly think about it,” she says. “It won’t feel comfortable, and you may not want to do it, but hand on my heart, if most people asked themselves certain questions, they will actually get to a more truthful place.”
Thinking about the questions may help you realise if your ‘goal’ is something you truly want – or if it’s something you’ve just been conditioned to want.
“We don’t get a second chance at all of this,” says Bell. “It is not worth wasting your life feeling bad because of what you haven’t achieved according to some arbitrary standards set by someone who doesn’t even know what you want.”