How Peer Pressure Changes With Age

Hi MR. Just wondering…

Do you ever still feel peer pressured to do things you don’t want to or know you shouldn’t? (I’m in college and the partying is getting to be a lot.) Or does it go away or get better when you get older? And what do you do about it?

– Anonymous

Hi Anonymous.

I often announce my age in pieces where I offer advice or discuss learnings-related personal experience to provide responsible context. For every year of life, it’s assumed but not guaranteed that one grows an inch in wisdom, so I like to let people know where I measure up. The reader can then decide to trust me, ignore me entirely or heed cautiously.

In this case, I am 29. I am not so sure how relevant that information is. What I do know is that peer pressure, as it relates to age and “getting older,” is similar to acne: it vanishes entirely in areas where it had consistent prominence during adolescence. It appears in new, unexpected territories at the start of 20. In some “adult” cases, it is just as infuriating if not paralyzing as it was during teenage years. Other times, it is present but manageable — easy to ignore, even — because, finally, we have the tools, strength and emotional capacity to deal with it.

The difference between peer pressure and acne is that there are people who will be blessed with perfect skin for all of eternity, but everyone experiences peer pressure, again and again, over the course of a hundred ages, across a million degrees of variation. Where drugs and alcohol are concerned, some will have a harder time than others. Some will find themselves struggling in social situations where it feels their personal codes of ethics are compromised. Some will feel peer pressure in areas of appearance, or social media performance, or love or career or success. Remember that peer pressure is not always some slick guy in a leather jacket offering virgin lungs a cigarette. We all have our own demons and achilles’ tendons. It’s part of the human condition.

So yes. I still feel peer pressure, but it looks different at 29 than it did when I was in college. Things that would have had more influence on my decision-making back then now feel laughably insignificant. My personal experience has proven that people care less about what you do and far more about how they’re being perceived. Once you realize everyone’s self-conscious, it becomes easier to prioritize your own track.

You’ll care less about potential social damnation once you leave behind the confines of a school system. I assure you that as your post-collegiate world becomes a priority, you will barely remember the name of the popular girl who encouraged you to chug (or whatever it was) for the lame consolation prize of an ephemeral Cool Badge. As your life gets busier, friends who encourage you to go against your gut, beliefs and conscience become exhausting, boring and un-fun. At a certain point, it becomes instinctive to pull people into your orbit who support you for your positive endeavors rather than your contributions to the Legends Hall of Fame; in your late twenties, you’ll be so tired by the existential exhaustion of humanhood that you’ll choose the option to nap over nearly everything — so your friends better be friends as fuck.

As for those new pressures, well, you deal with them. At the risk of sounding like a Portlandia-character sex therapist, “what you do about it” is you get to know yourself. Maybe this part does come with age, but you start to become more self-analytical and thoughtfully critical, not in a mean way but as though you were your own advisory board: “Why did I do that? Why do I think like that? What made me crave this particular kind of outside validation?” You start start to parse out what kind of people, friends, (peers), values and lifestyle choices are important to you, bit by bit. I bet you already have. You start to figure out who you want to be “when you grow up,” even if you still feel like a crunchy bug and your ideal future self seems hypothetical and almost out of reach. You start to hold a microscope to who you’ve become thus far, and examine if you’re happy with it. As these things begin to clarify, it becomes more and more apparent what you will and won’t compromise, including those parts of yourself that are vulnerable to peer pressure. Those parts may still quiver, but they’re less likely to break.

Right now, though, given that you’re in the same body of the same age of the same person who wrote this question, next time you feel peer pressured to do something, remember that pressure is relieved by poking holes in the swelling. Sharp tools I’ve previously used include: Will this experience be wholly mine, or someone else’s? Who reaps the benefits? Who bears the consequences? How will this make me feel tomorrow? Will I want to be this person in a year? Would I want to watch this on playback? Do I actually want to do this?

Be kind to yourself, Anonymous. You are doing great.

Feature photo by Keystone View/FPG via Getty Images.

Get more Pop Culture ?
  • Adrianna

    Am I the only one who never felt the effects of peer pressure? I remember watching those After School Specials about peer pressure in elementary school, and I didn’t get what the problem was. Popularity? Pfft. If anything, peer pressure has the opposite effect on me. Why would I drink something I didn’t want to, just because some smug dick at a party told me to?

    This attitude creates an interesting dynamic in relationships. I’ve had other women tell me that love means “sacrificing” and doing something you don’t want to do sometimes. Hm.

    I’ve been with my boyfriend/partner for 5.5 years. When we started dating, I made it very clear to him that I’m strong willed. He told me he was looking for someone independent. But I don’t think he fully knew what “independent” meant, and he still tried to use peer pressure techniques to get me to do what he wanted during the first six months or so. I don’t mean he’d try to pressure me about anything serious, but he’d be dumbfounded when I’d say “no, I don’t want to go to that party.”

    Was I driven by peer pressure to succeed academically? Or was I just arrogant and wanted the paperwork to prove my brilliance.

    • Aleda Johnson

      Are…Are you me? Just in a different body?

      This is so me (even the boyfriend thing). I was always a “shrug it off” person and responded to peer pressure with a “why?” Why would we go to a party on a Wednesday? Why should I try pot? Why do I have to go to the beach on Spring Break? Why do I have to have the same Ugg boots as other girls? Why do I have to get married straight out of college?

      My friends/boyfriend quickly learned those questions weren’t rhetorical, and we only did those things when they could actually give me a good answer. “Because everyone else is” was never a good answer.

      • Adrianna

        Happy to hear someone else relates!!

        • gracesface

          THIRDED, Y’ALL. Gretchen Rubin calls us Questioners and I’m a 4 on the enneagram. Or uh, I don’t really do anything if I don’t think it’s a good idea.

          • silla

            YERP. Questioner af. I have definitely felt peer pressure, but definitely not as much as many of my…peers.

    • I can relate to this as well. If I wasn’t like this, I would have hated myself after all the study visits and trips around Europe during university.

      I really don’t want to spend my precious travel times in best bars and clubs / hungover / shopping, but would rather go for a run early in the morning to get to know the city, have a nice breakfast and hit all the museums etc. Or go on an exchange (I was in Zurich last spring) and spend all the semester travelling solo around Switzerland, while many spent that time partying and planning on group trips (that eventually didn’t even take place) and afterwards telling me how they admire me for being so brave (?) to do all that stuff by myself.

      Ahhhhh I’m so grateful for loving to spend time alone.

      • Adrianna

        SAME. It’s always the kind of awkward “uh, I don’t really drink when I travel” conversations when I return from a vacation. Some of my favorite travel memories include the hikes I did in California and dog sledding in the Arctic Circle. I’ve given up on a close friend who cancels hiking/walking trips to spend the weekend day-drinking. Luckily I can still have a good time by waking up at 6am on a Saturday and reading on the train on the way to Cold Spring NY

    • Ciccollina

      Totally! My friends joke that I’m too good at saying no because I stare blankly as they tell me stories about how stretched they are feeling.

  • I didn’t have too much of it at school either – maybe because we were totally supposed to be totally equal, in those days when Melania was knitting her clothes.
    But it sometimes gets worse afterwards: I still resent people sticking their noses into my life and actively try to avoid them: there are way too many people out there preening and lecturing just to boost their seelchen (German for tiny, scared soul). Sigh.

  • Really interesting post, Amelia.
    I think now, at my age (26), I really only feel peer pressured by direct family to do certain things, look a certain way, etc. But, do I consider family as peers? I don’t really define my family as being my “peers”, but I suppose it’s close enough. I suppose I also feel pressured by coworkers, but again, are they really peers?

    • Eliza

      Same here… the only “peer pressure” I feel is from my immediate family. It’s much worse, to me, because it’s way more difficult to go “lol no thanks bye” when it’s your mother… -_-

      • Ha! I wish we could. I completely feel you there.

  • Samantha s

    This past weekend, I had this “ah-ha!” moment. I was with family over Thanksgiving weekend. Only family. No friends. We made and ate food, drank beer, played board games, passed out at 10 pm…”family” stuff. I realized for the first time in my life- “wow, I feel so FREE of the pressure I felt in college and soon after- that every holiday/break/Friday night came with the inevitable, silent pressure to “go out” with friends.

    I don’t know at what moment that changed…but I’m 28, and it’s probably been the case for the past 3 years or so. Of course I have friends, and do spend time with them, but only when it is convenient and desired by all, not because of any external pressure to prove how rich our social lives are, rather, we actually enjoy each others company.

    So yes, things change : ) Peer pressures never go away, but some of the peskier ones do fade.

  • Rachel Janfaza

    As a sophomore in college I can assure you that the pressure you feel is so real!!! But as I found in high school, and I seem to be following a similar trajectory now in college, once you become more familiar with your life in a certain setting or time period (and I purposefully use the word familiar, not stable), the pressure starts to matter less and you feel more comfortable doing what you truly please.

    There is a certain fomo with peer pressure. Freshman year of college I forced myself to go out even when I just wanted to stay in and watch a movie. Now that my life here is more familiar, I am much more comfortable with choosing to stay in, and I have done it far more frequently (quite frankly, I stay in once a weekend). I now feel far less fomo because I know both what I’m “missing”, and because of the familiarity. I am way more comfortable choosing to do what I actually want to do, instead of choosing to do what I think I should out of fear of what others will think or what societal norms dictate.

  • Millie Lammoreaux

    As a much older and wiser 32-year-old (lol), I want to offer another perspective: “peer pressure”, by definition, isn’t always negative. When we’re growing up, our friends are often the first socialization we have beyond our families: they peer pressure us into seeing the world through their eyes, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. I think it’s important, especially in our early 20s when we’re learning how or function in this world independently, to look at new friends and think, “what are they inspiring me to do that’s positive?” There’s probably a whole lot that you’re not be seeing, but if your friends aren’t offering any positive impressions…they aren’t good friends.

    To answer the question, though: I started giving wayyyy less fucks around age 24. At that point I felt very sure of who I was (spoiler alert, I had a lot more to learn about myself), and began to accept that it’s impossible to be liked by everyone. By saying no to some people, you’re saying yes to a whole load of other things.

    • Alexia

      I’ve never felt peer pressure to drink or party because it’s not my scene. But I’ve definitely felt peer pressure to load up on internships and other resume builders. I personally just try and stick to what I know is right for me, but it’s hard not to feel the pressure.

  • Court E. Thompson

    This feels like a very “depends” question.
    I felt a lot more peer pressure in my late 20s than early 20s. In the early 20s, I think family pressure is much bigger but they give up trying to figure you out around 27. Then things didn’t heat up again until this year (31). I started to feel a lot more pressure to find some sort of success, be it familial, professional, existential, etc. It definitely is always changing.

  • Anne Dyer

    Amelia – this is some of your best writing. XX

  • Cristina

    I, thankfully being the stubborn Taurus that I am, have always lived by the mantra “You aren’t my mom.” So quite literally, no one can make me do anything. I’ve been known to utter said mantra out loud. Like eff what everyone thinks. I don’t have to use VSCO to edit my Instagram photos. I don’t have to like IPA’s when really all I want is an ice cold basic Ultra. I don’t have to eat the superfood salad at lunch when everyone else is doing it (hi more chicken nugs for me thanks). I got married at 30. And I don’t have a kid yet and I don’t have to if I don’t want too cause you aren’t my mom and therefore, are quite literally, NOT THE EFFING BOSS OF ME.

  • Marion A.

    Great article Amelia , thought provoking.

    I think we can lump peer pressure and familial pressure in with social pressure in general. The main idea being that someone, who is not you, is directly trying to influence your behavior (choices, appearance, or whatever). I think pressure may change but never completely leaves for example at 21 people might egg you on to take a shot and at 27 your mother maybe trying to pressure you into producing grandchildren (maybe that’s just me).

    I’m also 29… what wisdom that gives me I don’t know but ultimately this questions seems to me to be about your own choices and values and how you decide to live that out. The pressure just seems to be the way people interact with each other, we all want have some influence. I think it’s important to understand that in the end we all have free will and freedom of thought and we can choose to exercise it or be influenced . What I try to do whenever I experience social pressure is to try to understand the motive behind it and ask questions. “does this person care about me?”, “what will they benefit by this?”, “what will I gain or loose by this decision?”, “who else with this affect?”, and lastly “am I ok with the possible outcomes”?

  • Emily

    As a college student, I can attest to the culture around partying and expectation that comes with it. As a freshman, I have noticed that when I have gone out at times that I wasn’t really into it, I truly didn’t enjoy it – I felt horrible the next day, I had to drink more to compensate for my crabby attitude. As such, I came to the conclusion during this first semester, that I will go out when I viscerally want to go out, when I feel excited about it. Because there will always be another weekend and another party. Put yourself in your personal ideal situation, be thoughtful about it. Also, why waste a hot ‘going out’ outfit if your not going to have fun dancing in it? (??)

  • Katie Love Little

    Beautifully stated, Amelia. You are wise beyond your 29 years <3

  • Kelsey Moody

    I only smoke cigs if Im out drinking in nyc to look cool/all my friends go outside and I want to hear what theyre talking about

  • As someone who is in a much lower salary bracket than most my friends, most of my pressure revolves around 1) being pressured to do things outside of my budget and 2) the pressure to pretend like I’m not struggling financially. However, I feel like much of this pressure is inside my own head as this is obviously something I’m stressed and insecure about. Any time I’ve opened up to anyone about this, they begin to pressure me to get another job, ask for a raise, etc. Not all peer pressure is bad pressure, because sometimes we push each other to do better.

  • So beautiful written and so true: “friends who encourage you to go against your gut, beliefs and conscience become exhausting, boring and un-fun.” I never had a bad problem with peer pressure, but in college I definitely didn’t know how to find the right friends I could be myself around. I don’t drink (it makes me awfully sick) and most people when you’re that age, don’t like to be around sober people. It taught me a lot about true friendships.

    Lately, I worry about a relative that seems so mired in peer pressure that she’s left school in pursuit of a different life. It’s difficult to see someone go down that road, but at the same time she has to learn these lessons for herself.

    It’s hard to navigate those early years of adulthood, but listen to Amelia! She knows the answers!

  • Sundae

    I didn’t fully reflect on peer pressure until I read this. I always thought I’d been reasonably immune. Voiced controversial opinions, refused what I didn’t want, accepted what I did.
    Until I realized I was prepared to humiliate myself and pander, to be liked and included. Actually being like able didn’t interest me, being included meant I was accepted, interesting. I’d ignore my better wisdom telling me to say f*** it, and hang in there. Foolish. Reading this put it in a new light – peer pressure under a different guise.