Britons stuck in 'toxic age timeline' with unrealistic expectations before 30

A young Black woman frowns as she looks down at her phone while sitting at a table in front of her laptop on age timeline
Many young Britons think they should be reaching key milestones on an age timeline before they reach 30. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The average young Briton is trapped in a "toxic age timeline" as they expect to hit specific milestones in life a lot sooner than is realistically possible, a new study has found.

The research, conducted by Arden University, revealed that the average person wants to achieve important life milestones in their 20s or by their early 30s. However, this pressure is resulting in an unhappy and stressed-out nation.

More than a third (34%) of those who took part in the study admitted to being too critical of themselves, while a larger percentage (38%) wished they were more successful. The study also revealed that more than a fifth (28%) of people feel pressure to keep up in life, while 25% worry about not having enough time to achieve everything they want to.

Researchers also found that majority of people think they should start university at the age of 19. However, the average age for UK students to start university is 24-years-old and students over the age of 21 make up 39% of the overall student population.

A young white man wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, with a black backpack beside him, sits on a bench with a worried expression on his face
The average age for Britons going to university if 24, but majority of people think they should start at age 19. (Getty Images) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In addition, majority of people involved in the study said they want to move out of their childhood home at age 22, have their first child and buy their first house by the time they are 28.

However, in reality, the average age that Britons get on the property ladder for the first time is 34 as rising house prices force potential first-time buyers to save for longer before they can afford a home.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Sophie Ward, deputy head of School of Psychology at Arden University, said: "This toxic mindset of feeling that we need to have achieved our biggest life milestones by the time we hit our thirties is crippling our self-worth and happiness.

"It's likely to be fuelled by the increasing use of social media where people post their life highlights, creating extra pressure for those who are yet to hit these milestones.

"This is resulting in an overly self-critical nation. We need to move away from the idea that we need to be a certain age in order for our achievements to be valid and therefore, celebrated."

Read more: Are you at risk of burnout? Signs, symptoms and how to deal with it (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)

How does having 'unrealistic expectations' affect us?

Dr Ward said: "This idea that we need to hit key life milestones as soon as possible has the potential to cripple our true potential and poses false limitations on our actual, true ability. The above is a fundamental example: you don’t need to be a young adult to join university and change your career path and nearly two fifths of the population can advocate for that.

"As a society, we fixate on timelines and when we 'should' do major life events, from completing education, to buying a house, to being financially stable. If we don't complete these events by those set deadlines, we fear we're falling behind or failing in life. As a result, we end up putting extra, unnecessary pressure on ourselves."

Mhairi Todd, life coach and founder of Revolve Coaching, tells Yahoo UK that it can be "incredibly liberating" once you realise the arbitrary nature of "toxic societal timelines".

"As children we absorb social norms and learn what’s considered to be good and bad," she explains. "But those norms are based on a vast array of societal, economical and technological variables. A huge collective zeitgeist forms and it’s an ever-moving feast.

"Your parents or major caregivers will impart the norms that were enforced upon them, but as the generation you occupy will have no doubt vastly changed from the one they grew up in, it's likely there are already flaws and conflict within those expectations. When you break it down like this, you can truly examine how insane it would be to conform to the combined and often stoic opinions of the masses based on variables that change almost daily."

Read more: Vicky Pattison shares tearful selfie about her anxiety: 'I struggle to push toxic thoughts away' (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)

How can we break away from this mindset?

Todd says that, in order to begin shifting away from the idea we need to stick to a toxic timeline, we should "focus [our] learning inward".

"Learn about you. Learn who you are, what you love, what you don't, what your values are, what sets you free, what brings you down. Be fierce in that pursuit, question your beliefs and examine anything that doesn't sit right," she says.

"From my experience, we are equipped with a powerful intuition, if something isn't resting well with you, investigate why. Why does it trigger you when Aunt Lucy asks when you are going to settle down? What is it about Uncle John's comment about biological clocks that irks you? Make yourself the source knowledge, that's where your freedom can be found."

Self Space's Jodie Cariss MA, Badth, HPC, adds: "No matter how real the pressure can feel, or what those around you are doing, it is important to remember that you don’t need to rush to pull together a life that resembles some other person’s idea of how a ­30-­year-­old should live.

"It is OK to challenge the narratives that are assigned to us at such early ages. It doesn’t matter what age you marry or have children (or if you choose not to do these things at all). Marriages aren’t necessarily a sign of maturity and, likewise, having a baby doesn’t make you a mature ­grown-­up.

She continued: "If you can, remove the pressure. Most of us are still trying to work it out, even at 40 and beyond. Life at 30 should look however you want it to look. We need to challenge the idea that we need to be a ­home-­owning, ­child rearing, ­dog-­walking, married person to be happy, successful and fulfilled (unless you want those things of course).