Why do birthdays in our 20s make us panic?

Brown cake with candle

I’m 24 today (April 12th) and frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to my birthday at all. The spectre of reaching my mid-20s was hanging over my head, and I wasn’t anticipating making it official. Gone are the days when I could happily, and arrogantly say 22…because to me that’s the sweet spot. You’re so young you have all the time in the world to chase your dreams, at least that’s what I thought.

So why does our age make us panic?

Our expectations are too f*cking high

So here’s the thing, there are so many reasons why some of us panic every time we realize we’re getting older, but I think our own expectations are the enemy. We tell ourselves that by a certain age we should have bought this, have that, and this long list of achievements.

I remember in the year that I graduated setting deadlines for myself; buying myself a car and moving out into an entire apartment by the time I turn 23. When I realized I can’t do both simultaneously, I picked buying a car. Nevertheless, I was convinced that by 24 I’ll be killing it, living on my own, travelling everywhere, and basically just winning at life. I wanted to pursue a Masters a little after living a little! Now I’m 24, no car, no apartment, no masters. So when I realized my birthday was coming, I cried.

I didn’t understand, at 22, why my older friends weren’t crazy about talking about their ages, but now I do. The much older adults don’t even really have the same expectations of us that we have of ourselves, mostly because they know how tough the survival game is here in Zimbabwe. It’s bound to take a little or a lot longer to reach certain milestones simply because conditions are extremely unfavourable.

So what now? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m learning to cut myself a little slack and focus on things directly within my reach. I’m learning to give myself credit for the things that I’ve done, and that I’m doing right now. That mindset keeps me aware of where I’m still to go, but always happy with myself.

READ: Why I quit my job, and why you shouldn’t.

We compare ourselves to our parents

I saw a thread on Twitter about this, and I hear it a lot from the older generation. They talk about Zimbabwe’s glory days and lament how different things are now compared to then. My mum graduated at 22, worked as a temporary teacher until she got a job at a bank at 23; got promoted to manager at 24 (youngest manager in the company); and bought her first house (with my dad) at 25. And they each had a car by then.

I’m not a fan of blaming the economy for all my woes, but I will admit that the job market was a lot better then. Over the past years, hundreds of companies in Zimbabwe closed down. Registered, viable businesses. The companies that survived downsized and cut wages. The health sector all but collapsed. Positive thinking BS aside, this makes for a nightmarish environment. It shrinks the consumer market for business owners and destroys the job market for prospective employees. Everybody loses.

Fast forward to 2019 and Zim is not much better. We can’t compare ourselves to our parents, we’re not living in the same economy that they did. It’s not to discount their handwork or diligence, it’s to highlight how incomparable the situations are. We are not our parents’ generation, and lamenting about it won’t do us any favours. Figuring out a way forward is the only thing that makes sense.

We compare ourselves to the rich kids

I have friends (to use the word loosely) who seem like they’re living the life. I say seem like because sometimes social media creates a false narrative that just stresses the rest of us out. Anyways, we’re peers, but our lifestyles are incredibly different. When you take a look at their backgrounds or who they’re dating you realize why. Background matters a lot more than people want to admit.

When we can acknowledge the privileges that we have or lack of, it makes it easier to view your progress objectively. Some people have parents who can afford to give them a lump sum as starting capital; others will land higher paying jobs with the help of their parents’ connections; others stand to inherit considerable assets, and some are simply given assets as gifts. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a privilege to be appreciated, but also taken note of.

I have my own set of privileges that I enjoy, and I’m forever grateful to my mother for them, and by default, to all my grandparents for educating my parents. I am privileged, but I’m certainly not a rich kid and that’s okay. We forget that these inequalities exist when we’re piling pressure on ourselves. How can you not panic when you see pictures of your peer vacationing in Italy when you yourself have never been on a plane? It’s okay to have your own timeline of events, and I’m reminding myself of this often.

We watch too many Americans films

I think perhaps my expectations were also impacted by the literature I read and the films I watch. How can I not expect to make fast progress when I’m reading books about young people moving out of their parents’ houses straight out of high school? Why would I not have the same expectations of myself if all you needed to live comfortably was a steady job?

Please note that my narratives mostly involve people who intend to join the workforce and not entrepreneurs or business owners because the majority of individuals seem to prefer employment versus other alternatives. I’m currently exploring other alternatives or unconventional employment, but that’s a story for another day.

I love American movies and series as much as the next person, but I’m always cognizant of the differences in context. Whilst I really don’t believe in the American dream, I do think there’s a significant difference when it comes to opportunities and access to resources. It’s also why you really can’t compare yourself to peers living in the diaspora.

Happily, 24

Surprisingly, despite dreading the day another calendar year is added to my age, I woke up really happy on the day. Of course, I don’t doubt Bae’s contribution to all those joyous emotions, but the dread was gone. The pain of my failures, real or imagined, decided to let me have my day. Instead of feeling panicky, I found myself with renewed energy and determination to keep moving forward with my life, to keep fighting.

READ: What’s really holding you back, honestly?

Life doesn’t end at 30, we hear this said so often, and on a personal level, I’m conscious effort to remember that. Life ends when you die, and until then I’ll keep striving, fighting, being grateful and living in the moment. Getting older is not a testament of your failures, but rather of possibilities still to come.