According to new statistics from the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s average anxiety ratings are at an all-time high – but is our dissatisfaction a self-perpetuating one? Perhaps it’s time we stopped measuring ourselves against the societal norms, says Elizabeth Sulls Kim.
This year, the new year came around sooner than I expected. Growing older, you start to say these things a lot.
I remember how, in childhood, that stretch between birthdays seemed to last an eternity. To celebrate those rare days, there were the parties, the cake with its growing number of candles to blow out, the presents, and the overwhelming attention from friends and family. Then along came adolescence and your early 20s, and the main party date shifted to 31 December.
Whether you danced and drank the night away or made resolutions for the coming year, New Year’s Eve likely felt momentous at that time. Hopeful, even. The chance for a clean canvas onto which you could paint something better.
But there comes a time, often at some point in your mid-20s, when the passage into the new year may no longer feel like something to be celebrated. It is not just the sign of a new beginning – it’s a reminder of our own dwindling time here. As 2019 came rolling through this year, I felt a sense of dread pooling in my gut. The new year had come too soon. The words I’d pronounced to close friends came seeping back into my mind: “Life is like an hourglass – and it’s slipping away”.
Maybe you, like me, approach year markers with cynicism. Who said one year starts here, not there? Other cultures have their own year markers, so what significance is there in these arbitrary dates? Isn’t age a meaningless cultural construct, when some among us notice the inevitable fine lines and grey hairs sooner rather than later? Even so, observing the cyclical changing of the seasons, one cannot help but notice that time is passing.
Longevity runs in my family. My 99-year-old grandma takes selfies and chats on Messenger. My great-great-aunt, a suffragette, decided at the age of 105 that it was time to die. She made up her face and lay down that night for the longest sleep. But it’s not death that concerns me, personally. It’s that misguided belief that my prime is something finite, that I only have a limited amount of time to find out who I am — and do what I am here to do (if anything).
Naturally, this thought brings to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Without spoiling too much of a beautiful novel, its characters’ lives are, for whatever reason, cut short. As a consequence, they feel a growing sense of urgency to discover who they are and what their purpose is with what precious time they have left.
Sometimes it feels that our lives are arbitrarily cut shorter than they should be. Personally, I feel like my hourglass counts down to 30, and at 27, that deadline is fast approaching. “I’m running out of time,” I keep telling close friends and myself. Yet, am I really? In the UK, the average life expectancy is currently 81, but I feel like my life will be over by 30. How did I come up with this absurd milestone – and what on earth do I hope to achieve by then?
Society’s obsession with child prodigies is perhaps unconstructive. Pablo Picasso demonstrated extraordinary artistic talent in early life. Mozart, too. Leo Tolstoy was in his early 20s when he published his first novel, while Margaret Atwood resolved to write professionally at the age of just 16. Often such authors go on to produce their most notable work in their early 30s. Focusing only on the precocious encourages the notion that genius is the preserve of the young, reflected socially in creative competitions and initiatives with titles like ‘30 under 30’.
“Milestone ages are significant as we have collectively and culturally endowed them with certain ‘shoulds’ to have been ticked off by those points,” says psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, Hilda Burke. “Anxiety can arise when we measure ourselves and our achievements next to these cultural ‘norms’.”
By 30 there’s the expectation that we should have found our calling, stopped travelling, planted roots; by 30 we should feel confident in our craft, our sense of identity, our social circles, our relationships. This notion that our first real mark upon the world should be made before the age of 30 can be self-perpetuating. So often I hear people tell me they’re too old to pursue their dreams. “It’s too late for me to do something else,” my friend Hazel tells me. “I just have this awful feeling I’m running out of time – constantly. I’m 36 this year.” I remind her that she has many decades of life to go, but I understand. I too have my self-inflicted countdown.
It’s comforting to remind ourselves – whether we are late bloomers or not – that there have always been artists who peaked later than their 30s: Paul Cézanne, George Eliot and Toni Morrison are among this group. A modern fairy story is Peter Capaldi, who never fulfilled the aim of becoming president of the Doctor Who fan club in early life, but was cast as the Doctor himself at the age of 55. We too can take our time. It’s there if we need it.
While it can be helpful to set expectations for ourselves, these don’t need to reflect societal norms, and more importantly, we can always push them back and reassess them. Milestone ages aside, today’s aspirations might morph into something else tomorrow. Yesterday, success might have looked like money and recognition. Tomorrow, it might be a cabin in the woods full of books, with a cat curled up beside an open fire. We pass through different iterations of ourselves in life – our aspirations change with time and experience – as might our sense of self.
“The recipe for happiness will differ for each person. Whatever it is, it needs to be your own formula. Copy and pasting other peoples’ life templates will never sate,” Burke emphasises. “If we are ever to be truly happy we first need to get to know ourselves and what makes us tick rather than trying to tick off a checklist of societal norms.”
Closer to home, I know an IT consultant who, at 56, trained to be a yoga teacher. A nurse who returned to music aged 68, performing again after a career break of 35 years. I know people who outwardly look like they’ve got their shit together, but they’re all just winging it like the rest of us. I know others who simply lead lives rich in experiences, joy, comfort and love, with no end goal in sight.
Each year we get older, and I remind myself that’s OK. Each season is different and in its own way beautiful.
This piece was originally published in March 2019