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Autonomy 2021  •  20 October 2021

Is Comparison Culture Creating a Cautious Generation?

By Lucy Ballenden
Content Warning: Body dysmorphia, fatphobia, mental ill-health
Is Comparison Culture Creating a Cautious Generation?

We’ve all heard the cliché stories of youth: drunken nights spent lost in a foreign country, finding ‘the one’ every few months, making new friends only to later forget their names. But, in the age of lockdowns and social distancing, time feels so fleeting. How often have you heard someone say, “I’m losing the best years of my life to the pandemic”? But are our youthful years really obsolete? Are we expected to move into adulthood without these rites-of-passage? Many of us in our late teens and early twenties seem to be asking the question: how are we supposed to be young and carefree when there is so much to care about? 

As if the world wasn’t already intimidating enough for someone in their early-twenties, a worldwide pandemic sure adds a whole lot of pressure. Pre-pandemic, our minds were used to tossing up how to use our precious time — studying, entering the workforce or travelling the world. But right now it feels like all these decisions are being made for us, and our youth is continuing to slip away. 

It feels like pop-culture has conned us into thinking that we should be having the time of our lives while we are young — spending our money with reckless abandon, jetting off overseas for months on end, and going on a million first dates. Without these experiences, you won’t have those formative stories to share with your future children.
But for many of us, this is far from reality. Instead, we’re staying home and saving our money, while constantly reading about the decaying world around us. We end relationships because we don’t see a future and tiptoe around risk in order to land ourselves onto a safe and reliable path. 

For millions of us right now (us being the Gen Z/Millennial-hybrid generation) being ‘young and free’ feels impossible — and apparently it’s not all thanks to the pandemic. 

A US survey shows that teenagers these days are less likely to drink, smoke, and have sex than previous generations.1 Instead, we are picking up these activities later in life, after cautiously riding out the tumultuous years of teenagehood.

So, why is this? Are we, as young people, really more responsible than our parents because our eyes are more open to the world around us? Ultimately, I think the answer comes down to what we’d all expect... social media, in all its overwhelming glory. 

As young people, we are constantly switched on to others’ opinions. Not only do we spend hours scrolling through our feeds, we stop to check what other people are saying, avoiding forming our own opinions until we are confident others agree. 

“We need to make a decision our future selves will thank us for.”

Sometimes, the Youtube comments section is more interesting than the video itself. Whether it’s conscious or not, opening Instagram or TikTok can lead us to question every aspect of our identities.  

Am I pretty enough? Are my clothes nice enough? Should I be studying a different degree? How will I make as much money as [insert rich person here]? Do I have a weird chin? Weird lips? Do I work hard enough? Am I spending too much time on my phone? 

Upon opening TikTok, my ‘For You’ page is saturated with fully choreographed daily vlogs, house tours, workout routines, and ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos. I’ll watch hours of clothing hauls, full of products that I know have been gifted to the influencer in question. 

And although I know these videos aren’t necessarily realistic, I still find myself wondering why my own life doesn’t reflect those that I view online. My list of role models is always growing, mostly with people aged 30+, with careers I aspire to have, houses I aspire to own, and with the kind of happiness, I aspire to achieve. If I can curate my life to look exactly like theirs, I will become just as successful, right? But why do I feel that I need to achieve this lifestyle as quickly as possible? 

Here lies the problem. We have constant access to those we admire. While it’s not inherently problematic that a 19-year-old is looking up to a successful person with far more life experience, the rush that I find myself in to be just like them is.

Our generation is one that’s used to instant gratification. So, when I see 35-year-olds with the ‘perfect life,’ I want that life too — now — disregarding all the mistakes I would have to inevitably make on the way. And no wonder this phenomenon of comparison means our generation always strives for perfection. On social media, it isn’t hard to find someone seemingly better-looking, smarter, richer, and with better connections than yourself. And it’s also where we often see people getting publicly picked apart for their mistakes. 

Spending so much of our time online can mean we are not only guilty of comparing ourselves to others but critiquing them. We watch as influencers and online personalities are over-analysed for their every move and face unwarranted backlash for the most human of mistakes, which can sometimes leave us fearing making the wrong move in our own lives. Social media is rarely a place where we see flaws in people; anything less than perfect is edited out in hopes of avoiding judgement. Therefore, this unattainable idea of perfection can tend to transcend into our lives offline. We ultimately begin to hold these expectations against, not only those with public platforms, but ourselves as well. 

However, social media is not completely to blame for our generation’s rush to grow up. It’s important to acknowledge that the generations before us may have had more freedom to live wildly, without the pressure and implications of a pandemic-stricken economy looming over their heads. While this doesn’t negate the fact that social media has undoubtedly changed the way we live, it’s clear our fixation with being young and successful has been encouraged by more than just this one factor.  

But back to the ultimate question: is comparison culture scaring us into living cautiously? As young people in 2021, should we be living for ourselves now, or live for the future? When we’re older, will we look back and say, “I wish I had taken more risks,” or “I’m glad I played it safe”? 

For most of us, the decision is entirely subjective, and one that our generation isn’t the first to face. But, it is one that needs to be made away from the commotion of social media. Ultimately, we need to make a decision our future selves will thank us for. And although social media may seem like a scary place, it’s important to acknowledge that during a pandemic it truly can bring a sense of community for our generation. It creates a space for us to discuss all of our big, bad worries, and share a feeling of hope that when it comes to our wild youth, all is not lost.



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