All of my life, I’ve heard the steps we’re “supposed” to take in our 20s:
1. Graduate from college
2. Get that job and make/save money
3. Get married
4. Buy a house
5. Start a family
This is what many people call the modern American Dream and it’s something that I’ve heard since at least high school. Society as a whole tells us these steps are obtainable and should happen at a certain age for every “normal” or “average” person, but especially by the time you’ve hit 30 years old. You’ll have your life all sorted out, we’re told.
Obviously (and we all know it), this instructional guide of the American Dream isn’t reality in most cases — at least not anymore. I’m guessing it was a bit more realistic for our parent’s generation, when they didn’t have to have at least a bachelor’s degree to be hired into an entry-level position, weren’t attending school for an average of 5 to 6 years, and when women’s place was to stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I’m not saying it was easier; I’m saying it didn’t take so much time to complete each step toward independent “adult life.”
I can’t believe I’m going to link to an MTV page, but this article actually explains this topic quite well and makes some points I agree with.
But these steps are still very much in our face today and you might even call it expected. I can’t speak for men, but as a woman, often people wonder why you’re not married or have kids by a certain age. ‘Cause, you know, it’s really what we should have done by now or you must have a problem. Sigh.
My Facebook feed shows me the 5-step standard I mentioned fits about 90% of my friends who are of similar age. But what about that left over 10% — a group in which I’m included? I’m only 2 and a half steps in and I’m 29. I should at least be nearing step 4 by now, right?!
Start thinking like that for too long and you might panic. I have.
I see that 90% of friends going through life, getting engaged and then married, having children and buying their first home (maybe not in exactly that order, but you get my drift). Some others even fit in a master’s or doctorate degree in there. Hell, half of that 90% had all of or most of these steps complete by their 25th birthday.
And then here I am. Seven years after graduating college and have gone from stepping stone job to stepping stone job, not being compensated for what I know I’m worth, and not given chances for better positions with other companies. I’ve gone through a couple of long-term relationships which were close to engagement, though didn’t work out in the end. I’m nowhere even the slightest bit close to owning a home, even if I did want to put roots down in the area in which I live now (I don’t). And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know how I feel about step #5. That one doesn’t really apply to me.
Back to thinking too long and panicking. You start freaking out that you’re way behind where you “should” be in life, and irrationality takes over. You turn on yourself, begin doubting and feel the immediate urge to keep up with the Joneses. “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have all of this? I’m so far behind. When will I get there? Maybe I’m not good enough for a better job and I’ll be stuck doing this and making these wages for the rest of my life. I’ll never find ‘the one.’ If I/he/she hadn’t screwed up that relationship I’d be married/engaged right now.”
And sometimes you get angry or jealous that your friends are where you believe you should be by now, especially if they’re younger than you and making double the pay in a similar career.
Apart from anger and freaking out, thinking about the accomplishments you “should” have can be a black pit of despair and suck all motivation of seeking a better job, a significant other, etc. You begin to believe since it hasn’t happened by now, it won’t happen, so trying to get there is futile. Complacency Is Dangerous.
Or worse, you start rushing. Settling into something you know isn’t exactly right, because you feel you need to get at that next step.
I confess, not being where I thought I’d be at age 29 is often extremely hard to swallow. Not because I’m jealous, think I’m better than anyone or believe I deserve it, but because I really want to have a job where I can actually save money, get married, and own a house.
I know those steps will happen when the time is right. I’ve just never been a patient girl.
Let’s open this up for more conversation. What do you think of “The American Dream” steps I mentioned and why do you think it’s still somewhat a big expectation for people to have earlier in life? Are you past your 20s and stuck somewhere in this list? If so, does it bother you?
Even general comments are welcome! Thanks for reading.
Other posts in this series:
*Time clock graphic designed by Justin McKee