Molly*, by almost every measure, is not a failure. At the age of 25, she has achieved more than most people will in their lifetimes, earning a degree from one of the best universities in the country and a place at drama school after graduating. Not to mention getting a job on a long-running West End show, which gave her financial stability for the most part of a year. But now, currently out of work, she can't help but feel down about the success of her friends.
"Coming from Oxford, you constantly feel like you're surrounded by people that are doing better than you through no reason of merit," she tells me. "You look at people on social media, and I feel like they don't have to do shit jobs. I've got a first-class degree from one of the best universities in the world and I have to work in a fucking shop."
Success is a hard term to quantify. While some would define it through the salary you earn, others might measure it in terms of job progression, love life, accolades, social popularity or creative success. For millennials, achieving those first two definitions of success is no easy feat. Research from 2019 found that 70 percent of millennials felt dissatisfied with their jobs, which makes sense, considering our generation is more likely to be stuck in a job for longer, denying us the mobility that can statistically lead to a raise.
Between the gig economy and zero-hour contracts, job security can seem harder and harder to find. Unless your parents have bought you a house, you're probably stuck working in a job you hate to pay rent you can't really afford. Even if you are happy with your achievements, social media has made it easier than ever to compare yourself to friends, providing a guaranteed path to dissatisfaction, whether it's to do with job success or literally anything else.
With fewer able to excel in their desired field, and more of an ability to rate your achievements relative to your peers', the disparity between those who succeed and those who don't can feel stark. Sometimes so stark that it can start to affect friendships.
For Molly, being surrounded by successful friends stoked feelings of bitterness. "I'm scared when my friends get really big auditions because I don't know how I'm going to be able to cope with them getting those jobs," she explains. "In a lot of creative industries, another person's success feels like your failure."
"I have a friend who is signed with a really big agent," she continues, "and I get very envious of the audition opportunities she had. I just don't feel comfortable talking about the industry with her, having a bitch and moan in the way you should do with your friends."
Dr Carole Pemberton, a careers coach and visiting professor at the University of Ulster, tells me our generation is more likely to feel pressure when it comes to succeeding: "One of the issues is that, for millennials, you've made such a big investment in the cost of going to university that the pressures coming out of it are far greater now. In the sense that those who have managed to get the graduate job, against those who haven't, is really heightened because of what the university system's created."
"Social media, of course, exacerbates it all," she continues. "It encourages comparison – and negative comparison."
It's worth remembering that success, Pemberton says, doesn’t come cheap: "Anybody who is visibly successful has sacrificed a lot. You cannot be successful without taking risks, without working phenomenally hard, without living a life which is unbalanced, so you miss out whole areas of yourself. That's one thing for people to ask themselves: 'Would I actually like to live a life that leads to those measures of success?'"
While Molly's successful friends fall into a more conventional definition of the term, working at big London theatres or getting auditions for Netflix shows, success can come in many forms. Jim*, a 24-year-old who works at a law firm in London, is most affected by the success of his friends' love lives.
"A lot of people my age would call me 'successful' by the traditional metrics, because of the X many thousands I have sitting in my bank – not a crazy amount, but more than most people my age," he tells me. "But I think the people who have found 'the one' and are getting engaged or married, despite only being a bit younger or older than me, are the ones who have actually succeeded."
While this doesn't necessarily create arguments with his friends – Jim tells me he hasn't shared his insecurities with them – it does affect him personally. "I feel... I don't want to use the word inadequate, but I feel that's probably the best way to describe it," he says. "Unaccomplished. I don't feel successful, ultimately."
For some, having friends who are more successful than you can damage your self-esteem, or make you feel jealous. Sometimes, it can even end the friendship altogether.
Akash, a civil servant in London, found himself cut out of a social group for not being successful enough. "I had a group of friends – we knew each other from school," he tells me over the phone. "They all managed to get jobs in high paying industries, where they were able to travel loads."
As Akash got further into his twenties, it became clear that his friends were on quite different career paths to him. At first, this didn't seem like a problem – after all, Akash was working in the civil service, which wasn't a bad job. "In some way it was kind of uplifting being around them at times – I kind of felt a little bit inspired by what they were doing," he tells me, "and I felt like it was a good reason to want to hang out with this people."
Before long, though, the conversations about work, or life advice directed Akash's way – presented as harmless banter – started to get to him: "I found they started to become quite nasty towards me. Because they were such type A go-getters in their field, and that's what they prioritised, they'd often make comments to me about me not taking my career seriously enough, or that I wasn't making enough money, or trying to imply I was being lazy or not taking my life seriously enough."
These kinds of discussion would end up in conflicts. "In the moment I would laugh it off, or laugh along," says Akash. "But at one point I would just snap a bit where it was one comment too many or one joke too many that would just get on my nerves. That's when the arguments would erupt."
In the end, Akash's friends stopped talking to him. "It felt like sometimes they would see me as someone who's not going anywhere in life, who doesn't have a set of aspirations, so it was quite upsetting the way that we stopped being friends," he says. "We sort of faded out of contact. They just completely shut me out."
Ultimately, a total focus on a nebulous concept like success can have bad consequences, especially for a generation so inclined to burn out. Either it can stoke bitterness and dissatisfaction, or worse, can drive you away from the people you once were close to.
It's been just over a year since Akash last spoke to his childhood friends, who now live abroad. But in the end, it may have been for the best. "I didn't want to feel like I had to change who I am to stay on someone's good side," he concludes. "To me, that doesn't feel like a supportive friendship."
*Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.