Feel like your friends are leaving you behind? You're not the only one
The pandemic has been hitting young Australians hard, but for some people it's felt like a beating.
ABC Everyday Meg Watson
Olive*, a 33-year-old social worker, has lost two casual jobs and a relationship in the past year. She's also had a flare-up of endometriosis, resulting in pain that is so bad some days she can't walk — let alone work.
She lost all her shifts in March 2020 but, as she'd only just started in the job, she was never eligible for JobKeeper.
The JobSeeker payment — now greatly reduced — covers her rent, medication and doctor's visits while she (and everyone else who is underemployed in Melbourne's fifth lockdown) looks for part-time work that can be done from home.
"Last year it felt like this was temporary and now, 16 months later, it feels pretty permanent," she says.
"It's this real moment where it's like, 'Wow, my life has really derailed.'"
This is especially isolating, she says, when she compares herself to her friends: "They're starting businesses, having their second child and buying houses (funded by family). It's really hard."
"I have a friend who's had stability this whole time, and he said to me, 'I'm making all this money and I'm just sitting at home. I've got nothing to do with it. I'm so bored!'
"And I'm like, 'I'm on $743 a fortnight.'"
The growing divide
There are always weird divides between friends in their late 20s and early 30s: couples vs singles, renters vs buyers, people who can afford the nice restaurant vs those who can't.
But, with the pandemic tangibly increasing economic inequality, many people feel these divides are wider than ever.
When ABC Everyday put a callout on social media, we were flooded with messages from people who feel similarly to Olive.
"All these [young professional] milestones (house, career, pet, nice plants, dinner parties, partner, kids) are just flying over my head out of my reach," one person said.
"I've been forced into an arrested development while I beg my manager for more shifts and watch my friends buy houses."
"I 100 per cent feel like I'm surrounded by people racing ahead in life and I fell out of the car a long time ago and ever since people younger than me are zipping along past me, often running me over," said another.
Zoe*, a 28-year-old from inner Sydney, has been on both sides of it. In 2020, she was the only person in her sharehouse who had ongoing work — a full-time office job that she loved. She was able to support her partner and help friends when needed too. But now, that job is gone and she's the one needing help.
"In a matter of months I went from lending friends $500 to help them get by … to having to wait to buy any food and eating the muesli bars and baked beans in the cupboard," she says.
Zoe had about $5,000 in savings, which felt like a solid buffer before she really needed it. Her partner, who is still out of work, has withdrawn $20,000 from his superannuation.
"We play Zoom trivia every Saturday night with friends — many of whom have babies under one … I've never been all that ambitious when it comes to things like owning a home or generating wealth, but at our age it's pretty disheartening to have ended up in a position where we no longer know if or when a wedding or a child would be possible for us," she says.
Chasing the dream
Steven Roberts, an associate professor of sociology at Monash University, says that it's normal to compare ourselves to our friends, but it's important to keep a broad perspective.
"People feel like they're 'left behind', when actually what they're seeing is other people accelerating," he says.
These young people buying houses and starting families aren't in the majority, he says, but we tend to focus on them because of our normative — and most often heteronormative — ideas of "what it is to be an adult".
"This imagined life course [a successful career, a partner, a home, kids] is reflective of what our parents or grandparents might have done," Mr Roberts says.
"But there's a convergence of economic and social change that means the prospect of [doing these things] as a young adult now is hugely reduced — and it's compromised further during the pandemic."
Financial therapist Jane Monica-Jones says there's rarely anything to be gained by comparing yourself to people in a better situation (or at least a situation that looks better from the outside).
"We create this perpetual idea that we are in a race against others," she says.
"It's terrible for our mental health, and your mental health shouldn't be sacrificed regardless of what the goals are."
"If you stay in your own lane, you can work on what's important to you."
Olive has been thinking about this a lot recently.
"I wanted to have a career where I can travel," she says. "And now that that's not an option, there are new wishes."
She's shooting for good health, a permanent job, and an apartment close to family and friends where the rain doesn't leak into the carpets.
"I recently rejoined the community library and I get such a thrill when the book that I want comes in," she says.
How to talk about it
Zoe says that, on the whole, her group of friends are really supportive, but things have changed since last year — when JobKeeper and JobSeeker (at a greatly increased rate) were front of mind.
"I think [struggling] is a less universal experience now," she says.
"It doesn't feel like there is quite as much of a wave of 'we're all in the same boat'."
That's not due to a lack of compassion, she says. It usually comes down to friends simply not noticing each other's struggles or not knowing how to help.
If you're struggling right now, Ms Monica-Jones suggests going "somewhere you feel safe and seen, where your situation is validated". That could be speaking to someone in a similar situation, a psychologist, or using a free resource like Lifeline.
Olive talks to a therapist about these issues, as well as a few younger friends who can relate.
"[My friends in their 30s] haven't had a breakup for ages and they haven't not had a lot of money in a long time," she says.
"Their understanding of it is so far removed from their experience. There's only so much support they can provide."
If you know or suspect your friend is struggling, Ms Monica-Jones says the most important thing you can do is "be perceptive".
She suggests checking in on the people around you and being OK with a delayed response or rejection: "If you offer support and it's not received, it may not be you — it might be that they just can't do it right now. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't come back to it later on."
Zoe says it's absolutely enough to "just be in touch and be engaged".
"There are friends that have lent us money and are helping with job searches, but there are also people who have offered to go for walks or have a five-minute video chat. They are helping too."
Ultimately, Ms Monica-Jones says that sustaining relationships like this is a better indication of maturity than external markers or milestones.
"[Adulthood] is about personal sovereignty and personal agency: it's about asking for help when you need it and giving support when you can."
*Names changed for privacy.