I am in my late twenties, and I often find myself having the same conservations with people of a similar age – we all question whether we are at the right stage in our lives. Or, more accurately, we worry that we aren’t. And in 21st Century life, social media serves as a constant reminder of this worry. A comparison to the lives of others literally in the palm of our hands, as we are exposed to the successes of others with every swipe and scroll.
Societal pressures tell us what we should be doing and when. It’s like a constant battle against the clock. And I can’t help but think about Alice in Wonderland. Not just because navigating life in your twenties feels a bit like free falling down a big rabbit hole and trying to land feet first at the bottom, but because of the White Rabbit and that obsession with his pocket watch.
Are we the White Rabbit, and is social media our pocket watch?
Anxiety and ticking time
Let me start with an actual citation from Alice in Wonderland. You really need to read it all to fully grasp what I mean.
“… suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to feel her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.”
Despite Alice being the central protagonist, and while the story reportedly represents her transition from childhood to adulthood, it is not her I want to focus on. Instead, it is the White Rabbit, and his trusty pocket watch of course.
The whole story is full of rich symbolism and deeper meaning. While the author, Lewis Carroll, has famously left the book open to interpretation, years of analysis have led to many arguing that this curious bunny with a penchant for time keeping is a deep-rooted symbol of anxiety about societal time pressure bestowed on him. This opening chapter is merely the start of his hurried rush for fear of falling behind. Aside from the constant checking of the time, the White Rabbit is frequently described to be running around exclaiming things such as “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” Thinking about what Carroll may have been trying to imply, we can definitely sense the stress and urgency from this character when it comes to time passing.
In fact, this might not just be a fear of getting from place to place on time. The character is always seen adhering to, and being somewhat obsessed by, the rules. Combining the two is how we reach the idea that it is a representation of people feeling trapped by societal pressures and rules bestowed on them and keeping up with the timelines expected. The White Rabbit is seemingly embodying the anxiety that many of us face about meeting societies expectations on time, especially as we age.
Pocket watches and iPhones
The original work of Alice in Wonderland was penned in 1865, so, granted, the societal pressures felt by the White Rabbit may have been a little different to what we experience today, but he felt them then and we feel them now.
In 21st Century life, your twenties are a hugely transformative decade. One where we are essentially expected to figure it all out. We must try and figure out what we want to do in our lives, and then do it. Careers, finances, partners, properly, family. It is subliminally ingrained in us to work towards the future. But quickly. The big 3-0 is dangled overhead like a constant threat – the pinnacle of maturity and the marker of when we should have it all together.
It's a lot, and it’s stressful.
Rather than being imprisoned by a pocket watch like the White Rabbit, we now typically check the time on our phones. We have a similar reminder of the passage of time. And what else do we have on our phones? You guessed it – social media. Fuel to the fire when it comes to societal pressures. At our fingertips is a constant reminder of what the people around us are doing or have already done. An easy way to compare ourselves to our peers and add to the pressure we experience to be doing it all.
On any given day I can scroll through my social media feed and in only a few minutes see others my age who seem to be doing the things which I am supposed to. On a day where you see the engagements, babies, promotions, and people climbing the property ladder, it’s hard not to feel beaten down by the pressure. Should I have bought a house by now? Should I be thinking about starting a family? Am I doing enough?
Surely it is not good for our wellbeing.
The impact of time pressures
Just like our friend the White Rabbit, it is perfectly understandable that these societal time pressures can cause anxious feelings. It’s its own phenomenon: ‘milestone anxiety,’ the pressure to meet traditional milestones in life by certain ages.
Milestones, like the age you think you will or should have children, or the age at which you expect or are expected to buy a house, are all around us. UK based charity, Relate, conducted a survey and found that 83% of 16-24 year olds and 77% of 25-39 year olds are experiencing such pressures. Trying to meet, or ‘failing’ to meet these constructed deadlines, can inevitably impact our wellbeing, leading to feelings of nervousness, stress, and disappointment.
Whether Gen-Z and Millennials are facing milestone anxiety so much is due to their age or other factors is unknown, but one thing these groups do have in common is social media use. When experiencing anxiety to meet or disappointment at missing life milestones, comparing yourself to the milestones being met by others has undeniably got to add to the pressure with a constant stream of comparison at our fingertips. It is like social media is telling us “We’re Late! For a very important date!”
Let’s end on a positive note
One thing I would like to make clear is that while societal pressures are unfortunately going nowhere, and likely nor is social media, the content I seem to see also tells me that everyone is doing wildly different things. Yes, some people are married, and others are single, some are climbing the corporate ladder, and others are in education, some have multiple children, and some have none.
Our twenties are the first time we really see ourselves going in different directions. Previously, we were all following the same path, climbing the years and grades at school, then you either stayed in education or went out into the world to get your first full time job. Now, we are all on our own unique paths. There is no set timeline to life.
As long as you are happy, there should be no time pressure to do anything at all – and remember, you don’t see what isn’t being posted. Even the people living out your future goals might too be feeling pressure to be on the path you are, and experiencing the same milestone anxieties.
So, rejecting the inner White Rabbit, let’s try and stop worrying about what the pocket watch tells us and trust that you are doing just fine.
“'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat. ‘—so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation. ‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’”
Chapter VI, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll