THE SOCIAL & ECONOMIC LADDER
A few months ago I felt stuck, and I started to have a pretty pessimistic view on the trajectory of my life. It seemed like everyone around me was adhering to the societal standards of what success looked like, regardless if it actually made them happy or not — my husband and I included. For months, I obsessively scanned the internet to find inspiration on how people were living their lives outside of the 9-5 in hopes that it would inspire me to live a life without so much financial and social pressure. I would often turn my laptop towards my husband to show him images and videos of people living in tiny homes, or in vans with their toddler, or of people who moved to the desert. “Maybe we can do that,” I’d say to him, in hopes that these ideas might inspire him to quit the tech job he had hated for over 5 years. I wanted us to live a happier, less stressful kind of life. A life outside of the rat race.
The rat race is a pressure cooker, and I for one, as well as my husband, have been feeling the pot boil over for quite some time.
When I looked up the definition of “rat race,” it felt as though it perfectly described the internal feelings I was having about my external life. The definition helped make sense of the collective pressures many of us face, the frustrating struggle. The rat race is “a way of life in modern society, in which people compete with each other for power and money.” It’s a social and economic ladder, one which sees no end. The rat race is a pressure cooker, and I for one, as well as my husband, have been feeling the pot boil over for quite some time. Though our household income has increased yearly, it started to feel increasingly clear that when stuck in the rat race, more was always required. More money, more success, more status. All of this would somehow equate to more happiness.
But, it didn’t.
About 6 months ago, I was sitting across from my husband in our living room, having a lengthy conversation about his well-paying, but unfulfilling, job. He looked defeated, tired, and overwhelmed, but most of all, angry. We were living in San Francisco, a city where making 6 figures is considered “low-income,” where we had moved from Los Angeles for a promotion and promised lucrative territory. Our goal was to save his commissions and quit at the end of the year. He had been wanting to get out of sales for years and this promotion, and the potential commissions as a result, would be his ticket out. But unfortunately, just like life, sales are unpredictable. Midway through the year, he realized the sales opportunities he expected just weren’t there.
His voice became louder as he expressed his frustration about the overwhelming pressure to financially support our family, relating to the 65% of millennial men that feel that same pressure. I, on the other hand, defensively described my desire to live outside the rat race, which only angered him more. “That’s just a cop out”, he replied.
“Why are we paying $4,000 a month to rent a one bedroom apartment in a city we don’t even like? Why are you busting your ass to make money when you’re not even able to enjoy your life?” I asked him. “Why are we struggling to live a life we don’t even want?!”
When you’ve been living your life stuck in an endless maze, continuously trying to make the “right” decisions to find a way out — hoping to eventually be relieved from all the pressure to succeed — it’s hard to imagine what your life could be like.
It seemed the more money we made, the more we moved away from what we really wanted. In the 6 years we’ve been married, we’ve had lengthy conversations about our future, envisioning a small, quiet piece of land to raise our kids and animals. “Maybe we can get chickens too,” I’d fantasize. Even though my husband was able to more than double his income, the increase in our cost of living year after year ensured that we had little to show for it. As the housing prices increase in San Francisco, owning a house, with a yard, might never even be a possibility for us.
As the dust of our heated words settled, my husband surrendered to my questions and was willing to hear me out. “So, what do you suggest we do?” he asked while letting out a deep sigh.
When you’ve been living your life stuck in an endless maze, continuously trying to make the “right” decisions to find a way out — hoping to eventually be relieved from all the pressure to succeed — it’s hard to imagine what your life could be like. Every time we talked about “getting out,” it felt so far away. We would need lottery-type-of-money to make those kinds of decisions.
As my husband looked at me, completely open to any idea outside of our rat race, I forced myself to find an answer. “The problem starts with our cost of living,” I told him assuredly. I looked up rent in places like Joshua Tree, Ojai, and Tucson. I showed him a super cute 3 bedroom home with a big backyard that cost $1,300 a month. His eyes widened. The freeing feeling his potential commissions were supposed to make him feel was now being replaced by endless open Zillow tabs. “Let do this babe,” he confidently said while scrolling through rental listings. “I want out.”
Millennials, like my husband and myself, face far more pressure than ever to succeed. We need to have an education, career, money, and home ownership by the time we’re 30, while also succeeding in our relationships, mental health, and potentially parenthood. Many blame social media for the alarming rise in anxiety and depression within our generation, with a study finding that ⅓ of millennials suffer compared to 20% of older generations.*** Thomas Cunnan, a social psychologist and expert in perfectionism, blames the impossible standards set on young adults. He critiques the ever-growing number of criteria that forces millennials to be focused more on perfectionism than happiness. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth,” he explains.
It feels as though we are all anxiously climbing the ladder of social approval and seeking the validation of worth by society’s measures of what being successful looks like.
As we’ve been trying to navigate our way out of the rat race and figure out how we could afford a drastic lifestyle change that would include my husband leaving his job, I’ve realized that the race goes far beyond how much we pay for the roof over our heads, or whether or not we’re fulfilled by how we pay for it. The social rat race, the one amongst your friends and peers, is the one I am particularly tired of. Author Arthur Dobrin says, “Group pressure is enormously effective in producing social conformity, and nowhere is the pressure to conform stronger than in small, close-knit groups.” I couldn’t agree more.
Interacting with our friend group is where I have felt the competition of the rat race more than anywhere else, like we are all stuck on a continuous, singular loop rushing past each other only to end up at the same place. Who purchased their home first, who got pregnant first, who had a great financial year. It feels as though we are all anxiously climbing the ladder of social approval and seeking the validation of worth by society’s measures of what being successful looks like. At 30, we’re somehow supposed to have it all, and the older I get, the less free I feel to make decisions for myself. I’m so busy living a life that’s trying to keep up with everyone around me rather than keeping up with my own desires and aspirations.
Telling our friends about our desire to move outside of the Bay Area, quit our jobs, and live a completely different kind of life opened our eyes to how much the rat race is indoctrinated into our belief system as the only valid way of living. Our exciting news was met with much resistance and concern:
Everything you’re complaining about is a part of being an adult. If you want to get ahead in life, this is the sacrifice. So, you’re holding off on trying to get pregnant, right? Your cost of living might be lower if you live somewhere else, but you won’t make any money. When you decide to come back, you’ll have to start at the bottom of the pole again.
Our friends’ statements insisted that anything outside of the norm would be more of a struggle. What once would have discouraged us previously, now only strengthened our desire to get out. “Sounds like you’re going through a quarter-life crisis,” our friend said to my husband, to which my husband responded, “No, I’ve spent a quarter of my life in crisis.”
I am happy to report that my husband quit his job, and I’m currently writing this from Mexico. “Why Mexico!?” every one of our worried friends asked. I repeatedly shared that we needed a break before we made any drastic decisions about what our next permanent move might be. We needed to get out to enjoy and experience what life has to offer us on our own terms. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to pack up your life, something my husband and I are deeply aware of. We feel incredibly fortunate to have the luxury of making the decision we just made.
I don’t know what life outside of the rat race will look like, but I know we will figure it out. Whether it’s moving to a different state, getting a part-time job to afford our creative pursuits, or just traveling for the next little while. In the meantime, I will continue to be inspired by people who have decided to live a completely different kind of life. When I felt stuck in the rat race previously, I often felt like I didn’t have a choice, but there is always a choice to redefine what success looks like. My husband and I had been so deeply buried in the social monetary pressures over the last 5 years that we don’t fully know what makes us happy yet. So that is our only goal right now: figuring out what works for us. We are currently racing towards nothing in particular, and we’re feeling incredibly inspired by the endless possibilities out there, regardless of what society or our friends would have us think.