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The struggle with comparison

This text is for anyone sometimes questioning their experience as a twenty-something year old

by Sarah Sophie Richter

So many of us struggle, particularly in our twenties, with finding our identity and voice. It’s often tainted by others’ expectations and the nagging feeling of comparison to our friends and peers at university. Our twenties are particularly peculiar because people move in very different directions at a vastly different pace, making it difficult to even relate to your closest friends.

I have noticed within my own group of friends, who all left their home countries to study in the Netherlands, that they struggle particularly with this, something I can deeply relate to. It seems that people who never left their home and, therefore did not have to start over, develop much quicker. I am now 24 years old and most of my friends back home are done with their studies and going into the work field. Many are in committed relationships, some thinking about or already moving in with their partners. They have well-established social circles that they rarely break out of.

When I speak to them on the phone, conversations about getting a puppy or where they want to go on vacation arise. Meanwhile, I am still living the student life, often struggling to pay my rent and occasionally relying on a parent, awkwardly asking if I can borrow some money.

Sometimes, it is difficult in these moments not to feel left behind. At other times I feel a sense of superiority in having a more vast or interesting experience, whilst they are already settling into adult life. There can be a feeling of distance or misunderstanding toward the people we grew up with, our closest friends, whilst “new” friends from university are easier to relate to.

Personally, I have sometimes felt a sense of shame about this, especially since these are people who have been in my life for over ten years, who have had my back and supported me through all the ups and downs of my adolescence.

Contrary to these friends, there is also a growing number of twenty-something year olds who have extended their gap year or work and travel experience indefinitely. It seems that parental and societal pressures to immediately go into higher education with a focus on achieving a high paying job afterwards are being challenged.

Within certain cultures, it has become acceptable to take some time to “find yourself” and figure out what you are passionate about before enrolling into a study programme or starting your career. Many young people seem to stray from the traditional path, making the experience of twenty-something-year-olds even more diverse and complex. Perhaps, we are one of the first generations in which people of the same age often cannot relate to one another. After all, the term “fear of missing out” (FOMO) arose and is now frequently used to describe the experience of Gen Z.

We are the first generation that has grown up with social media, constantly subjected to comparison and endless possibilities of how we could or should be spending our time. On the positive side, we enjoy many privileges and freedoms that prior generations did not have. However, this also means that there have never been more possibilities, opportunities and experiences to miss out on. It could be said that young people are spoiled by the abundance of options, and whilst this is a nice problem to have, it can be overwhelming.

A comforting thought I like to remember, when questioning how I am spending my twenties, is that even with the heightened comparison through social media, the concept of “the grass is greener on the other side” is certainly not new. I wonder if perhaps it is simply a part of the human condition and that freeing oneself from comparison and expectations is simply an illusion, unachievable and certainly unattainable…


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