Why Do Our Careers Still Feel Like An Age Race?

Photographed by Victoria Adamson.
"Sloane Crosley is 38!!!" I texted my boyfriend the other day. "It's all ok!"
I'd been reading her essay collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake (which you should definitely read if you haven’t already) and, believing she was younger than me, I’d fallen into the compare-and-despair pit. Deep, deep in. I was reading every page through a haze of jealous resentment so bitter it made me want to gnaw through my own fist. I'd never be as good a writer as her. I'd never get a book deal. Everyone else was a fresh-faced overachiever with talent oozing out of their pores, while I was a wizened old crone with only a handful of ripe years left, my brain shrivelling up like an old fig.
But then I googled her and discovered she wasn't younger than me at all. She had eight and a half years on me! I was flooded with relief, like discovering your homework is due a week later than you thought, or that you’ve woken up 20 minutes before the alarm goes off. It was the same pure comfort I felt when I discovered that Debbie Harry didn’t start Blondie until she was 29. It was all fine. Fiiiiiine.
“Amazing” replied my boyfriend, because he is very supportive of my nonsense. And it is nonsense, I know that. But I also know it’s not just me.
“Even when they're my dearest friends I get incredibly jealous of people who are doing really well, especially if they're my age or younger – even if I don’t actually want their jobs,” admits my friend Amy. “Every single fricking time I see a 16-year-old who has released an amazing app, I am CONSUMED with jealous outrage. Then I remember I don't even code.”
Although I think we all feel these things to lesser or greater extents, I suspect it’s worse for certain anxious, overachiever personality types; that dawning realisation that your chance to be described as a ‘wunderkind’ has expired along with your young person’s railcard. At best you might just be a regular successful person, and even that’s only if you get a proper move on. If not you might just be (gasp) average.
It’s embarrassing to say these things out loud, especially in our enlightened times when we should really know better. We know that experience is beautiful, that age is just a number, that there's no big rush and that life isn't a competition – but still we gnash our teeth over the implausible talents of a 24-year-old, hungrily click through those ‘millionaires who were broke until their 40s!’ listicles, and repeat “J.K. Rowling… J.K. Rowling…” to each other on big birthdays like a soothing mantra. We know deep down that it’s daft to use age as a barometer for anything – least of all career success. So why do we still do it?
Partly out of habit, I guess. We’re organised by age from the day we’re born; grouped together and measured against our peers as the easiest way to chart our development. But what makes sense for a class of 6-year-olds is so much less logical two decades later, when you have infinite variables of personality and circumstance to set you apart from each other.
Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings tells me that our fixation with age has much more to do with culture than nature. “In our society, age is airbrushed out by media,” she says. “We don’t have many older role models (and even fewer female ones). Additionally, people are becoming higher achievers at an earlier age than ever, thanks to social media and technology.”
In many ways the rigid timeline of our lives is more relaxed than it was in our parents’ day – both in good ways and bad, liberated through diversity of choice but also stunted by the brutal jobs and housing markets. Average weekly earnings in real terms have barely changed since 2005, yet the pressure to dream big and achieve fast has inflated. In a world where a teenager with a YouTube account can become a media mogul, it’s easy to look at our own modest achievements and find ourselves lacking. It isn’t enough anymore to build a solid, rewarding career that pays the bills. We need to be dazzling.
And like my Sloane Crosley obsession, it’s often the people we don’t know who inspire the most bitterness. Because while it’s easy enough to envy friends who have all their shit together, we can also see the stresses and strains that are going on behind the scenes. We know when their accomplishments are down to huge sacrifice, or maybe sheer dumb luck. But with the semi-famous unknowns, the distant internet friends, the people on Facebook who we went to school with and all the disembodied floating heads on LinkedIn, there’s no truth to shatter the illusion. They’re free to loom up, these spectres of success, every time we unlock our phones.
Maybe instead of racing to keep up, we should be striving to redefine success altogether. A survey by recruitment site Reed in 2015 found that the average age workers experience 'career contentment' is 32, and it usually comes after three job changes – but that work/life balance, a fun work environment and even an easy commute are bigger influencing factors on our happiness than salary or a promotion. Meanwhile the best decade to start a business is reportedly your 40s, because it turns out there’s more to entrepreneurship than Instagram followers.
It might also help to remember that those fantastically successful young people rarely feel as prodigious as they look; not to mention the added pressure of living up to that early success. “I've been lucky enough to move through my career quite quickly, and most of the people I've line-managed have been older than me,” says Maria, an account director at a digital agency. “But I always feel I have to prove myself a bit more because I'm younger. And I've definitely received a few snide comments about my age."
Jo also points out that those dazzling, high-profile careers are a tiny niche. “I think it’s important to remember that that ‘Top 30 Under 30' list is by no means representative of the vast majority of twentysomethings. They are just the resourceful and entrepreneurial few,” she says. “They are also likely to be in a segment of a highly competitive market which is very topical and of the moment, so the longevity of their success might not be guaranteed.”
In an ideal world, we would take pleasure in the accomplishments of others without feeling as though they’re nicking our piece of the success pie. But back in real life, the good news is that the age game can sometimes be helpful. “Many of us find it a challenge to rise to the top of whatever we want to do,” says Jo. “That alone can be highly motivating.”
So it’s ok as long as we pour that jealous energy into our work, and try to avoid the pit of despair? Easier said than done. But hey, maybe it’s a skill that comes with age.