The tyranny of life milestones

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Singh is on track. At 30, he’s finishing up his residency in ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear specialty hospital in Boston, looking forward to starting his fellowship year and thinking about marrying his girlfriend in the next couple of years.

This is just how he had envisioned things would go. “My personal goal was to be married or engaged by the time I was finishing my residency,” he says. These goals didn’t match up to any intrinsic logic or biological necessity. “I don’t know why. It just seemed like the right sort of timeframe,” he says. When he looked around at what everyone else was doing, it seemed like they were getting married in their late 20s or early 30s, so he matched up his expectations and plans to follow suit. Plus, his grandparents kept teasing him to get married before they died.

But Singh wasn’t always so sure that life would go according to plan. While his friends started to get serious with their significant others right after college, he was single, wondering when he was going to find his person. He stressed over getting into the right medical school, then winning a good residency. Life felt uncertain and, as he waited and waited to meet the right partner, he worried that he was falling behind.

Every society has a few important life milestones, and those achievements are often tied to a specific timeline. For instance, Western societies prioritise moments like graduating from college at 22, getting married by 30, having kids and buying a house before 35. We mark success by ticking off the boxes, and worry that missing a deadline means we’re failing in our lives or careers. But where do those metrics come from?

As it turns out, these all-important deadlines are often arbitrary, and the pressure to achieve them sometimes comes from amorphous, unidentifiable places. They also aren’t as set in stone as they may seem. From generation to generation, changes in technology and the economy, advances in science and even the political climate can turn what once seemed like a social necessity into an antiquated expectation. Understanding where these expectations come from, and how they differ from the reality we live in now, is important for making personal milestones that are meaningful, instead of clinging to outdated expectations.

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