Have you heard of FOMO? It stands for ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ and it’s an epidemic in our culture. Many parents fall into the FOMO trap wanting their child to experience every possible opportunity that might give them a competitive advantage over their peers. Not only does it make childhood hectic and stressful, young people raised in this environment tend to end up valuing experiences and opportunities over people and relationships, and themselves caught in FOMO.
Psychologist Dr Meg Jay, author of ‘The Defining Decade’, reflects on how young adults are spending their twenties. Among her thirty-something year old clients she observes that many, looking back on their twenties, realise that they squandered it pursuing ‘experiences’ which at the time seemed more important than, building a career, getting married, starting a family or saving to buy a home. Instead, they spent their post-school decade avoiding commitment and financial stability in favour of travelling, random study and living large.
Reality hits home when they get to their thirties and realise that they have no savings, no foot in the door of the property market, a massive student debt (or no tertiary qualifications), no relationship security and a limited time to start a family. What should have been their most productive decade is now nothing more than a bunch of memories and fading tattoos obtained while under the influence. And, as they’ve just about done it all, in terms of extreme experiences, the future stretches out before them with not much to excite them. For those who found a special someone during this period, often this relationship didn’t survive their pursuit of the FOMO lifestyle.
Recently, we were in conversation on two separate occasions with two different women in their mid to late twenties. One is engaged to be married and had just made the decision not to pursue her newly begun course in physiotherapy as she anticipated that their plans to begin family would interrupt her studies. They valued investing in a home and family over student debt for a qualification that wasn’t immediately necessary. The other, a year or two older and in a long term relationship, was adamant that getting married was off the table – she wanted to spend a year in India studying yoga and she expected her boyfriend to wait for her.
The contrast between the two is stark. One is trapped in FOMO land while the other has recognised that there are higher values and has traded short term gratification for longer term goals. She knows that ‘having it all’ is a fantasy. In fact, some things are simply mutually exclusive. You can’t have financial security and live excessively. You can’t build a career and a professional reputation if you chop and change between jobs too frequently and disappear for long trips overseas. Cohabitating relationships rarely survive prolonged separation or the pursuit of experiences that exclude the other person. And the fertility-clock waits for no woman or man. (A man might be able to physically conceive in his fifties or even sixties, but it’s unlikely he’ll be rumbling with his teenage sons and he almost certainly won’t be doing so with his grandchildren).
The FOMO culture is driven by the modern marketing imperative to seduce us into consuming more. It tells us that we’re missing out, that we deserve to have this thing or that experience. It plays on our human fears that we’re not getting our fair share and fosters an unhealthy jealousy towards peers who appear to have a better deal. In the long run however, those who live by the FOMO credo ultimately loose out especially in their relationships.
But what’s a person to do in a culture where consumption is so rampant and the maintenance of friendships requires a willingness to participate in the FOMO driving activities? We’ll explore this in more detail in the next column.