It doesn’t matter how many mediation apps I download, or how often I attempt to act mindfully – I have never been very good at being present. I think my forward-thinking, future-focused behaviour started during my childhood. Every sentence that came out of my mouth began with “when”. When I grow up, when it’s my next birthday, when I get my A-levels, when I go to university…I was always skipping six months or six years ahead, dreaming and planning for all the exciting things that stretched out ahead of me.
When I was around 25, my “whens” became “ifs”. If my life changed, I might be able to plan my career better, or buy a house, or meet someone I loved and make a life with them. But it hit me horribly hard when I realised there were no guarantees, and only a combination of hard work and luck would keep me out of the gutter. That was when my anxiety disorder became overwhelming. My future was too uncertain to think about, it felt as though there were no positive milestones ahead of me, just “when I get fired”, “when I go over my overdraft limit” and “when the world ends”.
In some ways, I shudder at my youthful sense of entitlement. Yet, I wish my twenties had been more positive and optimistic, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with my original set of expectations. Every single person in the world should be able to look forward to job satisfaction and security, safe housing and starting a family, if that’s what they want.
So we should all be worried about research from the Young Women’s Trust, whose recent study reveals that people aged 30 and under are living in a state of “suspended adulthood”, and young women report that they are especially badly affected. Over half of all people surveyed are worried about the future: 46 per cent of women said they felt worn down, and 54 per cent (compared with 39 per cent of men) that they lacked self confidence.
Where can we start? Our late teens and twenties is a defining time. It’s where we should be laying the foundations for adulthood, and a happy future. Admittedly there are many mistakes to be made and learned from when you’re a brand-new adult; still, it breaks my heart that so many of us feel unconfident, broken and defeated when we should be relatively carefree, enjoying our first adult freedoms while celebrating our youth.
Even though overall unemployment is dropping, in 2015 youth unemployment reached its highest level for 20 years
There are practical reasons for these problems. Even though overall unemployment is dropping, in 2015 youth unemployment reached its highest level for 20 years. Since tuition fees were increased, student debt in the UK averages £44,000. We know that locally and globally, if financial issues and poverty affect anyone, they tend to affect women first, and most. Of course, women still earn significantly less than men for a well documented and depressing range of reasons.
I’m 31, I graduated at the beginning of a recession, I still have student debts to pay off and I often worry that I will never own a home, or support a family – and I’m one of the lucky ones. I have five sisters, aged between 30 and 23, and I can see that objectively, life is getting harder for them. There’s never been more pressure to get a “dream” job, or do something impressive with your life – yet, it’s never been harder to simply earn a living wage from working 9-5. The number of women and girls being diagnosed with depression and anxiety is constantly increasing. We know that life is especially tough for millennials, but this study isn’t just about young women. It concerns everyone. If women in their twenties feel as though their life is without possibility, we have failed them. If we’re in a position to mentor these women, support them, create opportunities for them and inspire them to look forward to the future, we must do so – otherwise, we’re just pulling the ladder up behind us. We can all start with self-confidence. If there is a young woman in your life and you can help her believe that she is smart and capable, able to attract the good and handle the bad, she will feel much more positive about her life and her future.
I don’t think that women in their twenties expect their lives to be perfect. But they deserve to hope and plan, to have the financial security and headspace that allows them to believe that the future will be better than the present, and that there will come a time when their lives aren’t dominated by worry. The rest of us need to prove to them that one day they will be able to look forward, and say “when…”.