Arden research reveals UK's ‘toxic timeline’ mentality

Silence Your Critic

New research conducted by Arden University has suggested The UK is experiencing a ‘toxic age timeline’. This means the average person is left expecting to hit life milestones a lot sooner than realistically possible, resulting in an unhappy, stressed nation, with nearly two-fifths (38%) of us wishing we were more successful, and over a third (34%) of us being too critical of ourselves.

This toxic mindset of feeling that we need to have achieved our biggest life milestones by the time we hit our thirties is crippling our self-worth and happiness. It’s likely to be fuelled by the increasing use of social media where people post their life highlights, creating extra pressure for those who are yet to hit these milestones.

This is resulting in an overly self-critical nation, wanting to achieve important life milestones in their 20s or by their early 30s.

‘We need to move away from the idea that we need to be a certain age in order for our achievements to be valid and therefore, celebrated,' says Dr Sophie Ward, Deputy Head of School of Psychology at Arden University.


Unrealistic expectations

The research (conducted between in July 2023 with a sample comprised of 2,025 UK adults) found that the majority of people think they should start university when they are 18 years old, however, the median age to start university is between ages 20-24, with students older than 21 years old making up almost two-fifths (39%) of the overall student population according to the office for students.

'This idea that we need to hit key life milestones as soon as possible has the potential to cripple our true potential and poses false limitations on our actual, true ability.  The above is a fundamental example: you don’t need to be a young adult to join university and change your career path and nearly two fifths of the population can advocate for that', adds Sophie.

The research also found that the majority of people wish to move out of their childhood home at age 21, buy their first house and have their first child by the time they are 28 and get married when they are 29.

In reality, the average age in the UK for people to leave their childhood home is two years later, at 23 years old, and getting on the property ladder for the first time is now six years later than our expectations, at 34 years old.

‘As a society, we fixate on timelines and when we ‘should’ do major life events, from completing education, to buying a house, to being financially stable. If we don’t complete these events by those set deadlines, we fear we’re falling behind or failing in life. As a result, we end up putting extra, unnecessary pressure on ourselves’, continues Sophie.

'Most of us have a voice inside our head, which can be caring and supportive, but at other times can be negative and critical. The negative voice, is often referred to as our ‘inner critic’,' explains Sophie. 

‘Scientific evidence reveals that our inner critic can make us feel incompetent and lacking – which can lead to depression and anxiety, and this often means that people end up feeling uncomfortable and scared taking different routes forward.’


Dispelling toxic age timelines

To dispel the myth that we are ‘too old’ to hit certain life milestones, several of our students have volunteered to be part of our new campaign to show others how age is just a number, and that we can achieve our life goals no matter how old we are.

Ayaan, Sociology and Criminology student, says: ‘When I initially decided to go back to university, I was a bit worried about what people would think. I have a busy life with five kids, and people do think ‘you’re too old now’ and ask what you’re planning to do once you graduate with your degree.'

‘What kept me going was thinking I am doing this for me, I do have faith in myself and I’m going to do this.’

Dorka, one of our Graphic Design students, says: ‘You do have an inner voice that asks you questions all the time. Am I good enough? Am I creative enough? Am I going to be too old when I graduate?’

‘I realised quickly that a lot of these doubts were unfounded, as there were students older than me, and others who have had exactly the same thoughts about starting, but have managed to overcome them. At the end of the day, no matter what stage of life you’re at, you need to do something you’re passionate about – something you love and something that you enjoy.’

The research also revealed that aside from wishing we were more successful and being too critical of ourselves, many of us feel pressure to keep up in life (28%) and worry about not having enough time to achieve what we want to (25%). 

‘As we feel pressure to keep up in life, we often feel we are too old to chase our dreams. As an example, we refer to someone as going ‘back to school’ or ‘back to university’ when they’re older, as if it is a step backwards, when in fact lifelong learning and wanting to unlock more achievements has no age restriction at all’, explains Sophie.

‘But at Arden University, we’re urging people to fight their inner critic to change the course of their life. Research has actually found that the majority of career changers report feeling happier, less stressed and more successful overall – which supports our ethos: you are never too old to learn and accomplish your dreams.’

To find out how you can silence your inner critic with a degree from Arden University, visit our course pages today