As millennials begin to turn 40 in 2021, CNBC Make It has launched Middle-Aged Millennials, a series exploring how the oldest members of this generation have grown into adulthood amid the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnant wages and rising costs of living.
So you’re approaching 40. The realization that we’re getting older isn’t an easy pill to swallow. I’ve been a millennial therapist for nearly a decade, and the biggest theme I’ve seen emerge in the past few years among middle-aged millennials is the struggle to move forward from their biggest regrets in life.
“I married the wrong person.”
“I wish I tried to have kids earlier.”
“Wait, why did I have kids again?”
“I shouldn’t have attended such an expensive college.”
“I should have saved more money.”
“I wish I said ‘I love you’ when I had the chance.”
“I chose the wrong career.”
“I should have advocated for myself.”
“If I networked more in my 20s, I’d have a higher-paying job by now.”
“Why did we spend so much money on a wedding?”
“I wish I traveled more.”
So. Many. Regrets.
Of course, this isn’t all millennials. According to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It, 78% of older millennials believe they’ve lived up to their potential and are satisfied with how their lives are going. But the rest, especially those who earn less, are not. The survey polled 1,000 U.S. adults ages 33 to 40 during March about a variety of topics — including their health, finances, families and future ambitions.
If you’re a millennial who has learned to embrace aging, congratulations! Keep doing what you’re doing. But to the ones who, on most days, wake up filled with regret and dissatisfaction, who mourn over the paths they wish they had taken, here’s an open letter from a millennial therapist. I hope it will help you find ways to cope, change your mindset and stop being so hard on yourself:
Dear middle-aged millennial:
When you were 22, the idea of turning 40 seemed like such a foreign concept. You thought you’d have life figured out by the time you turn 30. Now you’re past that, and there’s still so much uncertainty and anxiety.
“Things get easier when you get older. You stop caring,” your elders told you. But watching your face get a droopier each year? The constant backaches and crackles in your joints? The burden of student debt, bills and cost of having kids? It’s hard not to worry about these things.
But there is a lot to be grateful for, as well as important lessons to take into account.
There are no “right” or “wrong” decisions.
I tell my patients this all the time, especially when I hear them say things like “I made a mistake.” But what really matters are the decisions you already made. You can’t backtrack if you’re unhappy about your choices, but you can pivot to get closer to where you want to be.
Learn to forgive yourself, and don’t think of the decisions you regret as mistakes. Think of them as events that taught you something about yourself and what you really want in life. Also, take some time at the end of each day to reflect on moments, both personal and professional, where you made yourself proud.
Your biggest questions have (probably) been answered.
Remember how uncertain and confused you were about picking a major, about your relationships, about where you’d end up living, about whether you’d land your dream job?
You don’t have to wonder anymore — you have the answers (to most your questions, at least)! What a relief. Even if there are facets of your life that you don’t love, keep in mind that nothing is permanent, and that you’re more equipped than you think to handle the challenges that come with making positive changes.
Never stop valuing experience.
Gen Z may have TikTok and less debt (for now), but what you have that they don’t is so much better: Years and years of life experience.
Harness and cherish it, because you can do hundreds of Google searches and go down so many “subreddit” rabbit holes, but true wisdom is gained only through time and experience. This is what makes you so valuable as a colleague, employee, partner, parent, friend, sibling, or any of the other hats you wear in life.
People listen to you.
You’ve had the opportunity to make mistakes. Many of them. Those mistakes have made you mentally stronger, smarter and more able to see the important things in life. Your resilience draws others to you for mentorship and advice.
Suddenly, you’re no longer “the youngest person in the room.” You’re the person who silences the room. People actually listen when you have something to say. Keep sharing your stories, and don’t forget to listen to other people’s stories as well. A lot of inspiration and problem-solving can take place when you open your eyes and your ears.
Overthinking is overrated. You know what to do … you just have to do it.
You don’t have to question or analyze every little choice. There comes a point in our lives when we’re able to combine logic and instinct.
Are your finances on track? If so, stop losing sleep over it. Need to pay off debt? Want to buy a home? Save more for retirement? Get a financial advisor to help you figure it out. Want to get paid more? Ask for a raise.
If you need to make a decision, think about the ones that will have the biggest positive impact on your top priorities. If you tap into your instincts and acknowledge the information you have, you’ll know what the next best step is.
Forget expectations. Focus on long-term happiness.
Obsessing over expectations leads to the type of happiness that is fleeting. Long-term happiness involves two things: Finding purpose in your actions and investing in meaningful relationships.
So be present with your family and friends. Raise your kids to be kind, caring and well-mannered. Appreciate the time you have with people. Do work that you believe is important. Express your gratitude to yourself and to others.
Aging can be a beautiful thing, but you have to put in the work.
Many of the problems you’ll continue to face as you get older aren’t uncommon, nor will they be easy. But you have control over how pleasant or unpleasant the journey will be. Choices about lifestyles and behaviors influence how happy and satisfied you are in the next few years.
Take care of your body and mental health. Prioritize sleep. Adopt a healthy diet. Commit to constant learning and self-improvement. Cut out toxic relationships.
Welcome to the middle-aged club. Yes, music today isn’t as good as it was back then. But when you dance to a different beat — and with a new, superior mindset — you’ll find that aging can actually be a rewarding experience.
A Gen Xer, Therapist and Mother
Tess Brigham is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist. She has nearly 10 years of experience in the field and primarily works with millennials and millennial parents.