Just like you, I suffer from chronic status anxiety. Over the past few years, for me this has come to mean the paralyzing feeling of panic and self-doubt I get whenever I attempt to update my “status” on any given social media platform. The main problem I’m confronting is that my life, like most lives, is mundane, humdrum and enormously boring to others, and I’m running out of fresh and exciting ways to pretend it’s not.
These days I can’t even type to the end of “You guys!” before a wave of self-conscious reflux hits me, and I abandon the attempt to pass off, say, a button coming loose on my cardigan, or my child doing something every other child in the history of humans has done at that age, as something unique, truly amazing and hyperbole-worthy, all the while thinking: This must be exactly what it’s like to work in real estate.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t the usual meaning applied to “status anxiety.” When the term was more in vogue, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was an of-its-time piece of pre-2008-crisis pop psychology used to describe the nagging envy and sense of failure that sinks us a little whenever we’re confronted by people who are doing slightly better than us — whether in their careers, their social standing, their sex lives or their overall happiness.
As the British philosopher Alain de Botton defined it in his 2004 book of the same name, status anxiety is an “inner drama” that nearly all of us go through regularly, but are socially conditioned never to reveal to others: “A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society … a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung, or that we are about to fall to a lower one.”
Unhealthy social comparisons, though, as we’ve all since discovered, are the fuel the internet runs on (well, that and porn). We wade through the successes of others on a more-than-daily basis, flash-carded by airbrushed close-ups of perfect homes, vacations, meals, gym routines, charitable acts, emotional outpourings, boobs, babies and buttocks — the kind of aspirational catnip people used to receive in much more restricted doses, when flipping through magazines or making small talk with their dentist. So, 1990s-style status anxiety and that bitter, acidic feeling you get from staying inside your news feed too long? Clearly they’re one and the same — an idea that’s supported by a growing number of studies examining the potentially grim psychological effects of regularly mainlining social comparisons when scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and all the other major resentment engines.
Status anxiety 2.0 feels inescapable then, but there is one potential cure for compulsive self-comparisons: status certainty. A clear-eyed, statistically informed read on how well we’re actually doing in life would take away the element of the unknown and place us in a grander, more concrete social hierarchy than the hedging and guesswork of social media. And even if it confirms our worst fears, at least we’ll know where we stand enough to properly feel bad about it.
For this, though, we need to compare ourselves to society as a whole, rather than bridling at some smug-looking dude your sister knows’ work anniversary. Time, then, to turn to some more old-fashioned yardsticks. With census figures, well-being surveys, plus a few international stats thrown in for good (or perhaps utterly demoralizing) measure, we can reliably ascertain how the most middle-ranking, averagest-American-male mediocrity is faring at each of the major milestones of his life — at age 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60.
From there, we can work out whether our feelings of smug self-satisfaction or hopeless inadequacy are justified, whether our accomplishments in life so far measure up and where we might be headed in the long run. Exactly like these children are instinctively doing in this commercial from the 1980s, which proves hands down that the urge to outdo each other at every turn was hard-wired into us long before social media unleashed our inner Gollums.
So, #WinningAtLife? Let’s find out, once and for all. Before we compare anyone to anything, though, we need to identify our Mr. Average benchmark. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not your “Average Joe”; he is, in fact, called Michael, which has been the most popular boys’ name in the U.S. over the last few generations, at least going back to the early 1950s (unless he’s 20 or younger, in which case he’s called Jacob, the choice that’s topped the male baby-name charts every year since 1999). Hi Mike! Hi Jacob! (Remember, though, these are the guys we all want to beat. So internally, it’s fuck you, Mike! And especially fuck you, Jacob!)
How Many People Should I Have Had Sex With by the Time I Settle Down?
So you’re under 30 and haven’t yet found a life partner? Don’t panic — neither have the majority of Michaels. According to figures for 2018 published by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for marriage among American men is 29.8 years (it’s 27.8 for women), the highest it’s been since 1890. And it’s not until men are hitting their mid- to late 30s that a majority of them (66 percent in the age group 35 to 39, to be exact) are reporting in as currently married. Up to the age of 30, by contrast, a whopping 70 percent of American men have never been married. Be warned, though, marriage rates hasten rapidly among men in their 30s — and among the 40 to 44 age group only one in five men have never said “I do.”
If your relationship benchmark is more to do with quantity than quality, you might be encouraged to know that, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, in 2015 the median number of sexual partners reported over a lifetime by heterosexual men aged 25 to 44 was 6.1 (for women it was lower, at 4.2). While you can assume the guys at the upper end of that age group are shooting a bit higher than that on average, this would seem, for many lifespan Lotharios, a fairly achievable target.
A wide-ranging survey on sexual partners published by Superdrug in 2018 puts this in an international context. If you’re hitting the average number of lifetime partners for people (of both genders) in the U.S. — which they peg a little higher, at 7.2 — you’re already way ahead of the curve compared to people in Germany, where the average is 6.2, and surprisingly, Italy, where it’s a poco 5.4.
If you’re keeping track against age ranges, meanwhile, a fairly reliable guide to what might count as typical hit rates for straight people as they get older is this 2018 survey of 2,000 British men and women (for whom the lifetime average scorecard is similar to the U.S. at 7, according to the Superdrug survey). These findings indicate that around the age of 20, by far the largest group of shaggers (at 33 percent) are those who have had sex with between two and four partners; aged 25 to 34, around a quarter of Brits have upped this to between five and nine partners, and that remains the most popular range of conquests right up to people in their mid-50s (over the age of 60, it drops back to two to four partners for a quarter of that demographic).
And if you’re gay or bi? Well, according to a 2012 study, the magic numbers reported by gay men in the U.S. tend to be higher on average: Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the median number of sexual partners they’d said they’d had was 15, while 30- to 34-year-olds had tallied 55, and for those in their late 30s it was a bedpost-filling 67 notches. But from a social comparison point-of-view, it’s less clear that there’s a typical age at which gay men are settling down with someone special. While officials at the Census Bureau are still grappling with the issue of how to even ask about sexual orientation and gender identity in its surveys, recent findings from a health equity organization’s survey of gay men between the ages of 18 and 40, suggest that committing to a life partner is a much more popular idea among younger generations than with older gay men. The researchers note that “50 percent of our respondents were in monogamous relationships,” and that “a whopping 92 percent of single [gay] men expect to marry,” while “62 percent said most of their friends are married or likely to marry.”
And When Should I Get My First Divorce?
Meanwhile, back in the center of the heteronormative bell curve: At 30, Mediocre Mike is married to Jessica (most popular female baby name from 1985 through the early 1990s), while at 40 his wife is Jennifer and at 50 it’s Lisa. At 60, Michael and his darling Mary might just still be going strong, though this is by far the most likely Mikey to have gone through at least one divorce or separation at some point in his life — this group in the U.S. male population peaks at 41.5 percent of 63-year-olds.
While the detail is a little complicated, the big picture here is that this isn’t just down to the average 60-year-old’s having a longer time on Earth in which to forge and fritz his big relationships. While those born in the 1950s and 1960s are divorcing like flies at the moment, among the millennial and younger generations, the divorce rate has dropped massively (perhaps because so many are staying unmarried till much later in life). Since the 1990s, the divorce rate among 25- to 39-year-olds has dropped by a fifth, while for those over 50, the rate has more than doubled. Like everything else that’s gone wrong in society, much of America’s overall divorce rate can squarely be blamed on Boomers, who, it turns out, have been compulsive de-couplers ever since they came of age in the 1960s. Hippies, eh? So much for a society built on free love.
How About Kids: When Should I Sire Offspring?
Anyway, we digress. What else is going on with Average Mikes at their various milestones? When it comes to kids, a 2017 Stanford University study suggested that the average age at which an American man becomes a father for the first time — which has been steadily rising since the mid-1970s — breached the 30 mark around 2003; it’s now just shy of 31 years old. Paternity figures are much harder to pin down than maternity rates, for fairly obvious reasons to do with ejaculations versus gestations as auditable units of record for data gathering. But numbers from the Pew Research Foundation in 2015 suggest that the average number of kids that mothers have given birth to by the age of 40 to 44 has remained stable for decades at 2.4 — which was the classic number of children per family for much of the Western world (so much so that in the 1990s, it was the name of a particularly awful British sitcom). So we can probably assume that, for family men at least, your typical 40-year-old dad is a father of two.
One thing that does seem fairly certain is that if having children is on your bucket list, and you haven’t had them by 40, the cause is by no means lost. Among the 4 million or so births every year in the U.S., almost one in 10 of the dads are over the age of 40 — and the lead author of the Stanford study told NPR, “about 40,000 newborns have a father over the age of 50.” Late fatherhood is a big international trend running throughout societies in the West: In Germany, the median age for fathers is 33, and in the U.K., 15 percent of fathers in 2017 were over the age of 40. The upshot is that kids are a can you can safely kick down the road (though don’t do that literally) at no cost to your self-worth.
Of course, whether fatherhood and/or being coupled up for life are true measures of #WinningAtLife is entirely debatable and depends on your point-of-view — and, presumably, on the ferocity of your children. And as to whether there’s a scientifically approved ideal number of children that’s been shown to optimize happiness as a parent, the jury is very much out on that. But all nuclear-family, monogamy-pushing caveats aside, we’re in the business of judging against statistical norms here. So we have to be judge-y, and being judge-y involves a certain acceptance of prevailing cultural conventions — and the biggest of those is surely the idea that victory in life means the accumulation of more money than the other guy.
How Much Should I Be Earning?
In raw accounting terms, identifying the winner/loser bar in this area is a little more straightforward. Going on Census Bureau data from its 2017 American Community Survey, the median annual income for an American guy at the age of 20 is $22,000 — this is the midpoint salary; half the national population of 20-year-olds are earning above this mark, and if you’re among them, then count yourself a winner. If you’re 30 and earning below $45K a year, though, feel free to imagine 50 percent of men your age in business suits doing a Fortnite jig with “L” signs in your direction right now.
For 40-year-olds, the velvet rope is unhooked at 55 grand; and at 50 and 60, the cutoff is the same at 60K. So the old conceit that you should be earning more than your age to stay financially copacetic isn’t quite true — that only works in the U.K., where your age, salary in pounds sterling and beer-gut circumference are all handily index-linked to make sure everyone knows their exact place in society.
If you’re a guy and you’re falling short of your age-mandated take-home, though, consider comparing yourself with women who share your birth year, rather than other men. In bad news for humanity as a whole, but good news for male-ego fragility, America’s gender pay gap is one of the most gaping in the developed world. At the age of 30, women earn 11 percent less, in terms of median income, than their male counterparts, and the gap tends to widen each year from there on out, more than doubling to 23 percent (a difference of $13,800) by the time a Michael and his equivalent Mary have reached 60.
But what if the discovery that you’re doing better financially than your female counterpart doesn’t make you feel good at all? (And, for the sake of all humanity, let’s hope it really doesn’t.) Not to worry if you’re some kind of egalitarian 21st-century anti-misogyny bro-flake — there’s always raw xenophobic chauvinism to fall back on, with a healthy selection of other countries’ average incomes you can lord it over.
Making a fair comparison of earnings across both currencies and cultures is a horrendously complicated exercise, since an awful lot more goes into assessing a nation’s standard of living than the average wage, but for a rough set of international income comparisons, there’s always CNN’s Global Wage Calculator, which crunches data from the U.N.’s International Labor Organization for 2017 (though even this comes with a number of caveats). From its readout, if you’re 30 and hitting the U.S. median of $45k, you’re near the top of average earnings among economies throughout the world, and are taking home seven times the wage of a cleaner in Thailand, and 14 times that of a teacher in Ethiopia.
If you’re at the median salary for a male American 20-year-old, meanwhile ($22K), you’re on twice that of a driver in South Africa and still earning $1,618 a year more than the average wage for everybody in the entire world. And if that’s not #WinningAtLife (and crushingly guilt-inducing) then it’s hard to know what would be.
Is Everyone Else Happier Than Me?
In global terms, Mundane Michael is earning more than enough at every stage of his life to get by on and be happy (if the fact that the U.S. currently ranks 19th out of 156 nations in the U.N.’s World Happiness Report is anything to go by). With Jessica by his side, at the age of 32 he’s bought his first home — a 1,640-square-foot fixer-upper for the princely sum of $190,000, according to the National Association of Realtors — which they can afford thanks to their combined median household income of $75,000. He’ll retire at 63, and soon afterward, he’ll die at 74.7 years old (24 years older than his average counterpart in Sierra Leone and 10 years older than in Russia, but six years younger than Iceland, Switzerland and his other half, Middling Mary) — with the U.S. coming 42nd on the Word Health Organization’s list of 183 nations when ranked by male life expectancy (placing it directly above China), and is a little better than the three score and ten of biblical and literary wisdom.
In all that time, amid the predictable peaks and troughs of a life averagely lived, when is he at his happiest? According to research led by the London School of Economics, Mike is unhappiest in his mid-50s, while his life-satisfaction peaks at two separate points — when he’s a young, relatively poor buck, at around 23, and again, much later than you might expect, when he’s a very nice 69 years old. Which, if you’ve been falling below par in all the dimensions above, might give you something to look forward to.
Ultimately, of course, drawing a dividing line between victors and losers, whether in finances, families or feeling good, is all pretty arbitrary. In reality, individuals are all over the map when it comes to where they find meaning and value in life, and in the end, that’s what makes contrasting your own shortcomings with the edited highlights of people around you such a hollow and misleading habit.
Never mind Instagram-addiction studies in 2019: As far back as the 18th century, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized the psychological damage social comparisons inflict upon us. In his 1755 Discourse on Inequality, he contended that many of society’s ills could be traced back to the fact that in modern, urbane societies, our route to self-esteem will always rely heavily on gaining the approval of others. In contrast to our uncivilized, natural state as a species — when we existed as something like self-sustaining hunter-gatherers — he wrote, “social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others” — a pale imitation of a rich, fulfilled life, and one that means “we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom and pleasure without happiness.”
It’s almost as if he’d been spending way too long on Facebook.