Feel Like a Failure? Maybe It's Just That You’re “Off-Time”

When expected transitions don't occur, we feel "off-time"--like failures.

Posted Jul 21, 2011

College graduates are moving home, the place they would least like to be. The reason-it's the economy, stupid! Dylan Suher, a recent college graduate defines his moving home as a failure. "The feeling that the natural order of life-that you become an adult and then you leave home-has been disrupted." (New York Times, July 17, 2011, SR, p. 7). But college students are not alone. We live with internal clocks of what is appropriate to do at each age. The late psychologist Bernice Neugarten labeled this your "social clock." We have all heard people say, "I'm too old to still live at home; I am too old to go back to school; I am too old to get divorced; my biological clock is ticking."

Each culture has different sets of timetables for events. Formerly, we predicted when certain transitions would occur: when leave home, marry, have babies, retire, etc. Life no longer follows this linear plan. We live with conflicting realities. It is wonderful that our lives do not follow a rigid plan; however, it is confusing that our lives and futures are not predictable. For example, our expectations about the appropriate time to start a family have clearly changed.The PEW report claimed, "The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. Compared with mothers of newborns in 1990, today's mothers of newborns are older and better educated."

When our expected timetables do not take place, we feel "off-time." This can result in feeling uncomfortable, sometimes depressed and often like the failure Dylan and other college graduates report. When we are "on-time"-that is when we feel our life is following the script-we are ok. We feel "off-time" when we are either very early-a teenage pregnancy-or very late-getting our first apartment at age 40. It is feeling "off-time" that results in feeling unsettled, often unhappy.

So, what can Dylan and other "off-timers" do?

First, realize that you are not alone. Second, realize that feelings of failure can stem from being "off-time." You are not a failure-you are merely "off-time." Third, understand that there is no longer a "right time" to do things. Our "social clocks" can be changed. Returning to school at age 60 can be the right time for someone; divorcing at 70 can be the right time for some; returning home after college can be the right tine to wait out the economic downturn. There are no rights and wrongs. According to Neugarten, "the psychology of the life cycle is not a psychology of crisis behavior or age so much as it is a psychology of timing."

Nancy K. Schlossberg
Author, Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping your Identity, Relationships, Purpose
Copyright 2011