‘Are you seeing anyone?’ they ask. ‘When are you moving out?’ ‘No ring on your finger yet?’ ‘Do I hear the pitter-patter of little feet in the near future?’ No matter how personal or private these matters may be, it doesn’t stop curious friends, family, coworkers – and sometimes even strangers – from having an opinion on the optimal time for these life changing events to occur.
At certain times in our life, we are subjected to different pressures to conform to those around us. Our age is often questioned as we choose schools, find a partner and establish our careers. While the steps may seem logical when put on paper, life doesn’t always work out the way we plan. Meeting the right girl doesn’t just happen because you’ve turned 25. Buying a house doesn’t mean that you’re ready to fill all its rooms. Yet the pressure to be married with children seems to come with age whether or not our life story lends itself to such monumental moments.
Constant questioning and unavoidable comparisons can cloud our judgement as we navigate the ins and outs of growing up. “This pressure to conform can influence people, in noticeable or subtle ways, to move towards goals that may not actually be the best fit for them, or that they may not be ready for yet,” says Kendra Antony, owner of Hope Stones Counselling. Antony’s practice and her Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology has her working with many individuals navigating such ‘quarter-life’ crisis events. “They can feel as though they should want things that they see as the cultural or familial ideal or things that they see their friends doing while it’s not a genuine reflection of their desires or personally preferred timeline.” What works for you might not work for your neighbour yet society has led us to believe that by the time we reach certain ages we should have certain boxes checked off on our life list.
The desire to conform to such societal pressures results from several external factors that can differ greatly depending on social circles, family values and financial situations.“Our ideas of what we will become, how our lives will unfold and when are largely informed by family of origin, culture, peer groups and even the media we surround ourselves by,” says Antony. Unwritten rules are often based upon what is valued within a community. Whether it’s matrimony, parenthood or monetary success that is valued, the pressure to start a family can begin at different ages. What is valued in society – which differs around the country and around the world – provides the invisible bar to which we are measured. “Parents consciously and unconsciously have a great deal of influence on these expectations,” notes Antony. “Even without verbal suggestion and guidance, growing up within a specific family system that modeled what life was about, an individual can’t help but be impacted when envisioning themselves as an adult.”
Peer pressure, whether spoken or implied, is enough to make you feel as though you are inadequate for your age group. In some circles, getting married and becoming a parent is natural for those in their early twenties. In others, a career is considered a measurement of success and so it is more appropriate to climb the corporate ladder. “If we are surrounded by people, who are all pursuing higher education, getting good jobs, buying houses or finding love and having babies, that very much becomes our norm,” says Antony.
Having a baby at 20, 30 or 40 can seem like the perfect age if it’s when our peers are entering parenthood as well. “If one’s own life is not unfolding in a similar trajectory, it can begin to feel as though there is a problem, as though you were ‘doing it wrong.’” What has worked for past generations doesn’t necessarily mean it is ideal for the generations to follow and the changing statistics show exactly that.
According to data compiled by Statistics Canada, the average age of a marrying woman has steadily increased to 31.5 years old with men slightly older at 34. Across the world, the average marrying age has steadily risen since the 1970’s up from 21.8 to 24.7. The average age of a first-time mother in 1983 was 26.9 years of age. Data complied for 2012 shows that this average has now risen to well over 29 years old. Antony notes that the pressure of ‘we can do it all’ has slowly become ‘we should do it all.’
“Many young people, but especially young women are living under this ‘should:’ I should have a job, but more than that, I should have a career that I’m passionate about but that is also financially gratifying, I should have a large and diverse group of friends, I should find perfect love...” With a long list of ‘shoulds,’ priorities have changed as young people have grown up with a different ideal of what creates the perfect life that they strive to live.
On average, women with an undergraduate degree have children five years later than those without. School is one of the primary reasons that marriage and children are occurring later in life for women and their partners as more women are working, completing college and focusing on careers. “The need for increasingly higher (and more costly) education has increased, which means young people are now carrying significantly more debt than in the past, yet often earning less,” says Antony. “Housing prices have also increased and for many, owning a home feels out of reach. These factors, for some, may also mean delaying other major life moments such as marriage and having children, even when the pressure to do so remains.”
Realtors and housing experts are noting that the average age for first-time home buyers is increasing into the early thirties. However, this also varies dependant on location as Antony points out. “By what age should you buy a home? Ask that question to a 22-year-old man living in Lethbridge, where the average cost of a home was $239,097 in 2013 and he might tell you by age the age of 25. Ask a 22-year-old man living in Vancouver, where the average cost of a home was $772,569 in the same year, and he may just laugh.”
Potential first-time homeowners live at home longer and purchase homes that would no longer be considered ‘starter’ homes in the traditional market as they are doing so once their careers are established and the uncertainty of their finances diminishes.Proper planning, so that young couples can enter parenthood and their later years in good financial standing, has changed the way in which the younger generations are conquering their quarter-life crisis’. Finances are playing a bigger role in family planning and career choices than ever before.
Antony explains how arbitrary ages to reach certain milestones often materialize as we grow up and evaluate our individual needs. These numbers are specific to our circumstances and, therefore, will be different for each individual. “There truly is no right age, as there are far too many factors in each individual’s life to actually be able to boil it down enough to say, for example, twenty-five. To do so robs people of their individuality and discredits all the circumstances, events, preferences and traits that have led someone to the present.”
While we may not be able to escape the social pressures associated with growing up, we can be confident whenever our marital status or financial commitments are questioned, knowing that being ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ is all a matter of opinion.