Why It’s So Hard to Watch People Your Age Do Better Than You

Forbes’ 30 Under 30 is giving me an anxiety spike, so I asked an envy expert to explain.

30 Over 30 logo with happy face emojis placed over it and one sad emoji with out the 30 Over 30.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

I hate this time of year. Not because of the impending holiday season blues or the days getting shorter and colder. It’s something much stupider: It’s Forbes’ fricking 30 Under 30 list, an out-of-control annual tradition—this year’s list honors 600 people across a range of categories—that drove me crazy when I was under 30 and, I was less than pleased to discover, makes me no less insane now that I’ve blown past that milestone. I want to be happy for my generational kin, and I know that only a monster could have anything but positive feelings about all the great things members of my cohort are accomplishing. And yet I’m totally that monster.

This year, in addition to my 30 Under 30 aversion—and this is an even more awful thing to admit—I’ve found myself feeling anxious about the squad of millennials who’ve just been elected to political office. As much as I believe on principle that these rising political stars will bring an essential new perspective and that it’s good for the country to have representatives that more closely resemble the electorate … do they have to be younger than me while they do it?

I’m not proud of this. But I take comfort in my conviction that any millennial who didn’t just get elected to political office or named to a special magazine list and claims not to feel even a twinge of resentment about it is lying to themselves. Sure, it’s not like we’re the first people in history to confront getting older; eventually everyone has to face that reality. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with it the first time it hits you, really hits you, that people your age are leading million-dollar startups, going to Washington, and generally taking over the world.

What is it about the combination of youth and success that can trigger such intensely bad feelings? Why do 30 under 30 lists, year after year, earn the kind of scorn usually reserved for reality TV villains and Ted Cruz? My own bitterness—and regret over said bitterness, but bitterness nonetheless—wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I decided to seek out an expert.

Psychology professor Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University has spent years researching what she would term envy. Psychologists distinguish between envy and jealousy: When it’s about coveting what someone else has that one lacks, it’s envy, whereas jealousy more precisely denotes the emotion that comes from a perceived threat in a romantic relationship or friendship.

“Envy is one of these curious emotions because it’s really negative and it’s unpleasant,” Hill said. As an evolutionary psychologist, she approaches human behavior and emotions by trying to understand the ultimate adaptive functions that they might serve. “There’s a lot of things that are unpleasant that are that way for a reason. It’s usually because we’re trying to tell our brain to pay attention to something. In the case of envy, our research suggests that envy might play an important role in alerting ourselves to the fact that somebody is doing better than we are in a domain that’s important to us,” she said. When envy is working as it should, in other words, it may be a signal that we need to step it up.

The moment we live in may only exacerbate these feelings. “As income inequality increases, as resource competition increases, as social media becomes more prevalent and people are advertising their advantages all over the place, any of these things will just increase the prevalence of enviousness across the board because you’re constantly being reminded of how you’re not measuring up,” Hill said.

Age is a complicating factor here. Some of the successful young people in the public eye right now, like Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, famously rose to their positions without deep pockets, but our natural compulsion to be annoyed by success is compounded by the one-two punch of success and youth, and sometimes by success and youth and beauty. Gender comes into play as well. “Our research has found that both men and women experience envy, but it tends to be much more pronounced in women,” Hill said. “I think that having a young woman elected to political office, for women, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, that person is like me! And I’m not doing this!’ It makes what you’re doing less impressive.” This confirms my self-centered line of thinking: I do see myself in the women on the Forbes list, and in the women like Ocasio-Cortez who are headed to Congress, more so than in the men. That’s part of what makes their ascendance so powerful for many young women, but also what triggers darker thoughts.

Envy that motivates people toward self-improvement is known among psychologists as benign, or white, envy. But for Hill, part of what’s playing out in the reactions to 30 under 30 lists specifically is that they stir up a type of envy that isn’t productive. “When you put a firm line on something—people who are under 30 who have done this, if you’re over 30 you can’t attain that,” she said, “that’s the type of social comparison that tends to engender this really malicious type of envy, which is sometimes called black envy.” Essentially, when people get hostile in situations where it isn’t possible to measure up—you’re already over 30!—they become less likely to take envy and turn it into lemonade.

It is always comforting to learn that your worst instincts are at least partly in the design of your species. And the distinction Hill draws seems useful. Arbitrary lists, like 30 Under 30, that define success only if achieved by an imaginary age deadline make us anxious and angry because they’re designed to. They’re fake competitions that celebrate youth as much or more than anyone’s accomplishments. They exist mostly for the people who are on them to say they were. The wave of millennials in Congress is perhaps another matter, and I may have to commit to a personal detox of cute congressional Instagrams and, eventually, nonhorrifying federal policy, to move past it. That much, at least, feels within my grasp.