The Obsession with “Getting Ahead” in Your Twenties Is Failing Young People
Why do we need measuring sticks like college and marriage and leaving home to track our worth?
“You’ll catch up eventually,”an old friend I was trying to turn into a renewed friend offered. We were down the street from the apartment where I was living with two roommates as I was hodgepodging together hourly work and sitting through bad first dates with strangers who thought the fact that they had never done their own grocery shopping was a point to brag about. This old friend wasn’t just together, she was ahead, and she made sure I knew it: the apartment with furniture that matched, the relationship that would turn into an engagement, the plans for a master’s degree, the job with the neat nine-to-five hours and after-work gym pass.
“Aren’t you worried about being behind?”came the chorus when I lost my job and was lucky enough to be able to move home.
“Behind who?” it never occurred to me to ask.
One of my worst traits was that, for a time, I got good at counting all the ways people were in front of me—the things they had seemingly figured out that I hadn’t, the ways they were running ahead. All around us are reminders of behindness: lists of people who have achieved great things by thirty, lists of things we all apparently should’ve done by twenty-five, lists of how much money one should have saved by a certain age that seem to exist in a world where rent and student debt don’t. So many lists.
And as I grew up, it felt that the list of ways I was behind grew with me: I was behind on when I graduated from college; I was behind on finding a significant other and “settling down”—while simultaneously being behind in playing the field, in how many people I dated. I was behind in moving away from home, which felt like a countdown clock for when I’d finally catch up on everything else. I was behind on finding a “real job,” which made me wonder about the realness of labor—does everything that doesn’t happen around a traditional workplace watercooler suddenly not count?
Then, there was the ceaseless downpour of behindness that pooled and made it impossible to spring forward without soaking my feet in everything that would’ve left me better positioned to move forward: the emails and texts I was behind on sending, the produce slowly wilting away on the counter that I was behind on cooking into the recipe I was behind on looking up, the ring around the bathtub that I was behind on scrubbing off. As if completion of each of these tasks—be it a chore or a life plan or an age-normative milestone—would scrub the behindness off me.
Our society—our systems of work and education, our fixation on what can be classified as an achievement or a failure, our brisk, catch-up conversations where soundbite answers make you seem like you have it together—loves it when we’re on track. But more than that, we love being not behind; who can blame us? When everything is a measurement and a milestone that you’re moving onward and upward, having pedals to move ourselves forward and handlebars to steer makes us feel as though we’re in charge of where we end up. Sure, self-agency is important. But what about everything else that goes into who we become? The distinction between “getting ahead” and being “on track” seem intentionally blurred. Who are we when we’re not moving forward in some way? That’s settling; that’s giving in, the mentality goes. Staying on track means perpetually trying to get ahead of some invisible force that’s nipping at your heels. “Being ahead” and being “on track” are shape-shifters: We think we’re going to get there, wherever the “there” is, but as soon as we do, there’s another tier to climb to.
Who am I even trying to get ahead of? What am I trying to stay on track for? I wondered, thinking about the constellation of tips on getting ahead at work, ahead on meal prepping, ahead on studying, ahead of the week, ahead of the traffic, ahead of whatever was going to show up on Instagram, that orbited around every area of life.
It took talking to other young adults about the mounting expectations they were facing for my book, An Ordinary Age, for my perception of “behindness” to shift from anxious frustration with myself for being unable to stay on the so-called right track to skepticism about who this track served. What bubbled up was frustration about what it meant for all of us who, because of circumstances or choices, ventured away from it.
In every conversation, behindness swirled. “I’m behind in school,” a young mother told me, as she raised her toddler alone, working in a fast-food restaurant with wages too low and childcare entirely missing to support them, while doing academic work that still wanted to give her As and Bs and Cs during a pandemic. “I thought I’d be more ahead in my life,” someone shared, after losing an abusive job and moving back to their childhood bedroom. “I’m worried I’ll never get back on track,” a friend, in their late twenties and going through a divorce, shared, their voice wavering. Like me, no one, it seemed, could articulate exactly who they were behind—they just knew they were.
We’re supposed to think we are; we’re supposed to orient ourselves around the idea that someone must be ahead and someone must be behind and we should do whatever we can to stay on track to ensure it isn’t us. We know young adulthood, and the experiences one has within it, don’t exist separately from racism, and from class, and from economics, and from oppression, and from opportunity. But what gets less airtime is how much the sensation of being “ahead” or “behind” or “on track” during years of life considered deeply formative is tethered to capitalism. Who else decides what it means to be ahead or behind in life besides the structures that benefit from you feeling behind, and hustling to catch up, or you being on track, and doing everything in your power, from overworking to cutting costs to optimizing every second you exist, to stay that way?
Young adulthood is quantifiable. Likes on pictures tick up our self-esteem; GPAs are a measuring stick that claims to define too much of the first decade and a half of our lives; résumés are constant trackers—not just of the jobs you’ve done but whether they are “good jobs,” whether you’ve done more volunteering and grabbed more awards and more definers than the person in the stack after you; the number of texts on your phone, the number of dreams in your head.
But why do we need these measuring sticks, these timekeepers on our worth and how we grow and who we become? We don’t. Capitalism does. Capitalism does the measuring, and how capitalism defines behindness—there’s always someone ahead of you, and opting out of this race means you’ve quit—defines how we think about young adulthood, and timelines, and how we exist within them.
The little epiphanies functioned like a set of exhales when I’d internalized the belief that holding my breath with all my might was the only thing that would keep life from falling down: Hearing others describe this sensation felt more illuminating than any formal “lesson” I’d ever experienced; it stirred a relief I hadn’t known I was seeking. And with it, rage—rage at how many people on the other ends of phone lines and email chains and Instagram DMs were yearning, were hurting, were wondering how they’d “catch up.”
Who am I when it is just me, standing still?
The first time I heard about behindness, I was comforted. It wasn’t just me after all, I thought. By the time I hit the twentieth conversation with someone panicking about being behind, I wanted to grab the metaphorical map outlining what it means to be on track, and how you’ve failed as a human being if you aren’t, and tear at it until my palms bled.
It felt so clear, listening to them: These were not people who were behind; these were people who were living—they were navigating the ways their lives unfolded, they were doing what they could and how they could, they were living lives that were impacted by their circumstances. As all of ours are, whether we want to admit it or not, another reason it feels so backward to measure how well a young person does by how and whether they stay on what path we align with successful young adulthood.
We know the markers of adulthood, and timelines when those markers unfold—moving out, getting married, finishing school, financial security, having children—are changing. But we don’t allow people to change along with them. We’re running on an invisible track, the cobblestones crumbling from underneath us, and rather than wondering what will catch us, we rely on our sprinting, our yearning, our chasing to try to grab the shoulder of whoever is ahead of us, to keep us from falling behind.
We aren’t meant to get ahead. The goal is to keep us running.
I am twenty-seven, and I’m the kind of behind I hear young people get warned about: I’m at home in the same bedroom where I dropped my high school backpack by the door to pick up a book, where I imagined what growing up would feel like. I haven’t bought a house and I have more than one job and I’m not married. And I’m behind in the less obvious ways too—behind on finding a therapist, behind in having a single neat diagnosis for chronic illnesses, behind in all the ways I am supposed to be getting ahead.
Recently, I had the opportunity to publish my first book—something I never thought I’d get to do; a career milestone I did not anticipate happening in my twenties, even as I worked toward it. It’s the kind of thing that should, theoretically, signal you’re “on track” in some way, even if writing it during breaks from my day job and as my health spiraled didn’t feel like it. It was puzzling, trying to hold what felt like two realities: A dream had happened, and I still felt behind in countless other ways—including not having an answer to the question “What are you doing next?”
It made me ponder the arrival fallacy, the false illusion that once you attain a goal or reach a certain place, your happiness, your sense of stability, will be everlasting. That’s how so much of this works, isn’t it? Whatever we’ve done must not be as significant as what is coming up ahead. Who we are is nothing compared to who we will be. It’s where this sensation of behindness stems from, at least partly: The idea that external achievements are markers of internal identity and value means that, a lot of the time, we have zero sense of who we are when we’re not actively in pursuit of something. The question got louder and louder: Who am I when it is just me, standing still?
But now, it seems obvious: Behindness is an invention, a figment of all our aspirations and accomplishments and earnest attempts to achieve in a world that simply gives us fewer and fewer resources to do so. Our perceptions of what we should’ve done by a certain time simply don’t match with what actually happens. As one report on transitions in young adulthood states, “believing that young people should be done with school, gainfully employed, and capable of supporting a family by the age of twenty-five says little about who actually meets these milestones.” And amid all this, there’s the nudging pressure that we should be “catching up,” and that if we do enough, we will.
If we know the timelines have changed, then why can’t our relationship to being behind or being ahead change along with it? Where is there space to acknowledge that perhaps we’re neither; perhaps the mentality shift isn’t just “run your own race” but to ask “Why are we running a race at all?”
I have worked to rethink my milestones; I have wondered if they can help shape me but not define me, if they can exist within me instead of beyond me and only in relation to someone else. And when I get stopped now in the grocery store and asked what I’m doing these days, what’s next for me, I think of the five year plans I scrapped and milestones I’ve missed and everything that’s supposed to tell me I’m on track for what my life should be. I think of how lucky I am that, for once, nothing I truly want can be measured or logged as behind or ahead. And I wonder if that means I’ve finally “caught up” to me.
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer and Kentuckian. She is the author ofAn Ordinary Age (Harper Perennial, 2021) and All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (forthcoming from Hachette Books, May 2023).