By: Bianca Bucholtz
January 23rd, 2023
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Within society, there are many roles people are expected to fill. And for young adults, the questions as to how they will achieve these start to roll in quickly. This period may come with much excitement; with more freedom to explore who they are and what they want to do, many are fueled by the endless possibilities and desire to find their place. But for others, this period of self-exploration and instability can seem overwhelming.
With so many unknowns and expectations—going to college, getting a good job, starting a family, etc.—many young adults are left plagued by the pressure to succeed.
“I constantly feel like there is a lot of pressure to be in a certain place in life,” said Delayne Richie, a student at Michigan State University. “I feel like society has created a step-by-step plan for what your life should look like. Your senior year of highschool is when you start feeling this pressure because the first step is going to college, and if you don’t automatically do this, you will feel constant judgment from anyone around you. I went to college after my senior year like I was expected to do, and my world crumbled because it was such a big culture shock. I felt immense pressure every day to do what I was supposed to do.”
These expectations placed on young adults can cause a significant toll on their mental health. According to an online survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 60% of young adults aged 18-24 felt stressed and overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed—and as a result, 39% reported having suicidal thoughts.
“Our survey highlights just how vulnerable young people are to mental health problems; it shows how much pressure young people are feeling to be a success,” the foundation’s director, Mark Rowland said.
For those struggling, seeing peers achieve their goals or meet these expectations can leave them feeling lesser than or further behind than others.
“There are many people my age who are so successful it’s scary—some of them are even influencers for my generation,” Richie said. “I look at people like Emma Chamberlain, Greta Thunberg or Olivia Rodrigo who are rich and successful at a young age, and I think what I’m doing is ordinary. These people may have talents that I don’t, but we are both still growing up. I think of how my life is compared to them and think how crazy it is where they are and where I am. It makes me feel like my life is lousy or lame because I’m not traveling the world or getting a partnership with a major brand. I don’t have my life put together perfectly like others.”
This pressure to succeed has driven more college students than ever to not only feel the need to achieve, but the need to achieve more than their peers.
In 2016, the American Psychological Association conducted a study titled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016.” According to journalist Taylor Bennett for Thrive Works, the study analyzed how “students today are more driven than ever before to achieve perfection.”
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” said the lead author of the study, Thomas Curran, a professor of psychological & behavioral science at the The London School of Economics and Political Science. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”
With the intended desire for perfection glooming over young adults, the inevitable feeling of failure often takes its place.
“We could run the risk of suffering from depression and anxiety as a result of the continued pressure to succeed,” said Tony de Gouveia, a local clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic, Alberton, in an interview with Huffington Post reporter Zongile Nhlapo. “When we fail in a particular project or event, this invariably affects our self-esteem. As a result, we tend to perceive ourselves – our person – as failures, rather than limiting the feeling of failure to a specific disappointment in our lives. Over time this can develop into depression and anxiety.”
Whether in their academics, extracurricular activities, professional work or relationships, not achieving all one’s goals can lead to higher rates of depression. When comparing themselves to others, young adults may feel stuck.
“I feel that this year, especially my perfectionism has caused burnout and low motivation because I have worked so hard to be perfect that my high expectations have been exhausting to accomplish,” Richie said. “I feel stuck in my life. My mental health has suffered because I feel like I am not doing enough for myself, school or my friends and family. It is my fourth year and as I see the finish line, I feel like I haven’t had enough time to do some of the things I wanted to do because I have been so incredibly focused on the path society paved for me.”
Many young adults feel as though they are running out of time to achieve their goals and fill societal expectations.
In an article for Inc., writer and activist Melanie Curtin said, “When I made it out of my 20s without making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, I wasn’t crushed, but I was far more disappointed than was healthy. It wasn’t about the recognition – it was the shame of feeling like I haven’t done enough with my life … and that time is running out.”
While many may feel there is a time limit on achieving what they want, in reality, waiting until later in life to focus on finding the perfect career or accomplishing goals can be very beneficial. For some, taking this extra time can allow people to hone in on their creative pursuits and perfect their skills. Dr. Kate Birdall, Associate Professor at Michigan State University and author of “The Heights” and “The Flats,” said although she had enjoyed writing at a young age, it wasn’t until she was 35 when she decided to write and publish her first book.
“I wrote [my first book] in the summer of 2014; I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation but I still had a year left of grad school, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just write some books,’” Birdsall said. “I’ve always written—whether it’s song lyrics or literary criticism or that damn dissertation. For a long time, research writing was kind of what I was doing. And then out of nowhere came this creative inspiration.”
Like many others, Birdsall felt the pressure to meet societal expectations and succeed earlier on in life.
“When I was a teenager, there were a lot of really young, successful people in the arts,” Birdsall said. “In a lot of ways [it’s] because there’s so much pressure on folks when they’re young. When do they start asking you what you want to be when you grow up? In second grade, kindergarten? What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to be? It’s all this career, career, career. So much of that time is spent trying to A, figure out what you want to be when you grow up and then B, how to get there. I guess I felt [rushed] in that way prior to 30.”
But when the stress of meeting the expected timeline began to wear off, Birdsall said she felt more free to do what she wanted to in life.
“At some point you wake up one day in your mid 30s and you no longer give a shit, and you can do what you actually want to do,” Birdsall said. “I think creativity does come later for a lot of folks or it’s always been there. But we’re so busy trying to get established and make enough money to pay the bills and do all these things. I would tell you, as a writer, you better protect your writing time because you will find any reason not to do it. There are legitimate reasons for that. But I legit woke up one day in my 30s and decided to write a book and then just did it.”
Taking more time in life can allow people to hone in on previous creative pursuits, but it can also allow people the space to develop and discover new skills and passions. There is a growing trend of older adults switching career paths in hopes of fulfilling more personal desires. In many cases, it has led to benefits in their mental health.
According to Payscale, a study conducted by the American Institute for Economic Research found that 82% of people who made a career change after 45 were successful and reported being happier in their new positions.
“Our research shows that older workers are finding rewarding new careers, not just new jobs, later in life,” Stephen Adams, President of the AIER, told columnist Glenn Ruffenach of The Wall Street Journal.
For many, this change isn’t until later in life when they feel they have the time to focus on their creative pursuits. Their earlier years were spent focusing on doing what was expected of them.
“I don’t think that I did anything I wanted to do,” said Nadia Bucholtz, CEO of Nadi Plates, an Italian mobile catering service in Milwaukee, WI. “When you have a job, three children and a husband, you lose sight of those things. I wanted to paint, I wanted to go out with friends, go on dates with my husband. But, in my generation, it was all ‘work, work, work, make money, make money, make money’—we weren’t taught to enjoy ourselves. We were taught to work.”
Bucholtz was never completely set on a career path, even going back to school in her 50s to receive a Masters in social work from Michigan State University. Throughout her life, she constantly looked for new paths that would provide for her and her family but keep her engaged.
“After working for my parents’ restaurant for 25 years, I didn’t have many options when I left. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it’s where my experience was. But that’s why I decided to go back to school and finish my college degree,” Bucholtz said. “I only felt stuck when I was working for my family’s business. After that, any time I started to feel stuck, I would look for a new opportunity. Once I was on my own—and having had that experience for so long—I knew what I wanted out of a job and had the confidence to go seek better opportunities.”
Because of the pressure placed on her when she was young, Bucholtz never felt like she had the time to discover her creative desires.
“It felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t know what I wanted to do at 18 years old, 21 years old,” Bucholtz said. “I felt a tremendous amount of pressure—internally from myself. Why didn’t I know what I wanted to do? What was my calling? And then, yes, seeing people in society who seemed, at least, to know what they wanted to do added pressure.”
For many young people, doing what they want both inside and outside the norm, can seem daunting and unachievable. And like so many others, Bucholtz never felt she was able to break off the traditional path and do what she wanted, both because of the pressure she felt to adhere to societal norms and the privilege of time and money that it takes to do it. Doing what one wants and veering from the traditional route is not always an option, and it isn’t until later in life when one may be financially or mentally able to commit to making this change.
“I think it needs to be said that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing now when I was younger because I was raising children,” Bucholtz said. “But my kids are all grown now, and I have the time and energy to devote 100% of my energy to it for the first time in my life. I felt like I’d been working my butt off to make money for other people—a lot of money—and wanted to do it for myself. I wanted it to be mine—my concept, my food, my ideas. I never had that chance before.”
Because of the responsibilities and expectations placed on her at a young age, it wasn’t until she was 56 when Bucholtz was able to take time for herself and discover what it was that she wanted to do for the rest of her life. For her, it meant honoring her Italian heritage and turning her passion of cooking into a full-time business, which she said was one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.
“Being in my late 50s has been a total advantage because it gives me total control and the freedom to do what is best for the business; I don’t have other responsibilities pulling at me the way I did ten, twenty years ago,” Bucholtz said. “I think when you’re doing something that you’re super passionate about and you love, you’re happier. It’s very uplifting to be able to have the opportunity to do exactly what you want to do, how you want to do it, and when you want to do it. And being my own boss, I now have the ability to travel, go out and enjoy life on my own terms.”
At a young age, doing what one wants to do in life can seem impossible. With societal expectations, pressures to succeed and the privilege it takes to veer towards the road less taken, it isn’t hard for many to believe most young adults feel overwhelmed and stressed when looking to the future. However, it is important to remember there is no set timeline, regardless of the way others may make it seem. No matter how old they are or how unconventional their path may be, it is never too late to do what one wants.
“You’re going to feel that pressure, and it’s hard not to. But if my 20-year-old self knew what I know now, she definitely would have relaxed more and not put so much pressure on myself,” Bucholtz said. “As a parent, I’ve been very mindful of that. I’ve instilled in my kids the importance of an education, a job and good work ethic, but I’ve also encouraged them to find careers they are passionate about and enjoy.
“All three of my kids have chosen ‘unconventional’ career paths, but they’re happy with what they do. I think it’s necessary to change the cycle of growing up in an old-fashioned world. You don’t need to know at 19 or 20 what you’re doing with the rest of your life. And you don’t need to stay in one job or one career field for your whole life. Take care of yourself and your family the way you need to, but do what you want. You know the episode of Golden Girls where Dick Van Dyke gives up his career as a lawyer to become a clown? If you can afford to be a clown and it makes you happy, be a clown.”
Bianca Bucholtz is a senior studying professional and public writing with a minor in gender and women’s studies. She is currently working as the co-editing director at VIM Magazine. In her freetime, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, watching movies/tv shows and baking