Last week, a student came into my office and sat on my couch with a completely frazzled look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she preceded to tell me how she was “way behind everyone else.” I asked her why. “Because I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life yet, and I only have a couple years to figure it out.” I asked her how old she was.
When I was 19 years old, the only thing I cared about was where the party was that night and whether my grades would suffer too much after I skipped classes the next day.
Unfortunately, the student I described above is not an anomaly. Instead, it seems that more and more students are coming to my office, completely anxiety-ridden. A report published by Dr. Jean Twenge a number of years ago supports this observation. Twenge found that children in the 1980s and early 1990s showed levels of anxiety that were equivalent to child psychiatric patients in the 1950s (and I’m sure the level of anxiety has probably increased even more in the last 20 years). Although her study did not focus on the causes of this increase, Twenge speculated that decreases in social connectedness (because we can’t put down our iPhones, maybe?) and increases in certain environmental threats (like pressure to figure out life, perhaps?) might be responsible. She even suggested that the race to “get ahead” could partially explain the increase:
“When everyone is doing well, there is more pressure to succeed, leading to anxiety” (p. 1018).
Today, more and more students are going to college, which, for many reasons, is good. But it also means that there is more competition for jobs and more perceived pressure to have things “figured out” as soon as possible.
I’ve heard students (and their parents) say something like this before: “If I don’t know what I want to do with my life, then I’m not going to get a good job. And if I don’t get a good job right away, then I’m not going to make any money. And if I don’t make any money, then who will want to marry me? So basically, then, I’m going to end up penniless and die alone.”
This notion is becoming so pervasive that it’s starting to filter down into our elementary schools.
Last year, my son came home from kindergarten one day and said that, “Tomorrow is career day at school. We’re supposed to dress up like the job we want to have.”
Are you kidding me? He’s 5 years old! He should be playing in the dirt, riding his bike, and getting scraped knees, not thinking about what job he wants to have in 20 years (as if he can even fathom that idea right now).
Fortunately, when we asked him what he was going be, he said, “A superhero!” Knowing that society will beat that idea out of him soon enough, we said, “Great! You be the best superhero you can be.” Later that day, he told us that some second-grade girls made fun of him for dressing as a superhero; they told him that’s not a real job. I didn’t think “society” would come so soon and in the form of second graders.
If 5-year-old kids are already being forced to think about what jobs they want to have, then no wonder my college students are freaking out. Multiply that “what-are-you-going-to-be-when-you-grow-up” pressure by another 15+ years, and I can understand why anxiety levels are sky-high.
But the idea that life should be “figured out” by the time you graduate from college–by the time you’re 22 years old–is, to me, ludicrous. For whatever reasons, some people are under the impression that life is supposed to progress in a straight line, moving undisturbed from beginning to end, with no roadblocks or hurdles in sight. Plans that you make at age 22 get carried out without interruption over the next 45 years, and it finally culminates in a great retirement that includes lots of golf, traveling, and eating dinner at 4 PM. But in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Life, without exception, is unpredictable.
When I think about my life, there have been many–MANY–times when my plans and predictions didn’t pan out. For example:
“No, I am not going to be on academic probation in college.” (Yep, I was.)
“No, I am not going to be a psychology major.” (Yep, I was.)
“I’d never want to be a college professor.” (Umm…)
“No, I am not going to live in Auburn, Alabama.” (Yep, I did.)
“No, I’m never going to gain THAT much weight.” (Yep, I did.)
“No, I am not going to live in ‘Deep East’ Texas.” (Yep, I did.)
“I’ll never stop playing guitar.” (In my early 30s, I rarely touched it.)
“I’ll probably be married by my late 20s.” (I was 33).
“I’ll probably have kids by the time I’m 30.” (I was 35.)
“I’m never going to own a minivan.” (Fortunately, that one hasn’t happened yet.)
The reality is this: Life is not linear. I have no idea what’s going to happen to tomorrow. You have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Even your parents and your all-knowing professors can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone 5, 10, or 20 years from now. So to prepare for life in 30 years is nearly impossible.
I certainly couldn’t have predicted that my life would turn out the way it has. And I’m fairly certain that anyone who happens to be 30 years of age or older would tell you the same thing. In fact, I might go so far as to say that many, if not most, of those same people–me included–still don’t have life figured out. And you know what? That’s okay.
So, why are we pressuring students to have their lives figured out by the time they’re 22?
To me, that’s the same as telling two people who have been dating for a month that they have to decide on marriage after 6 months of dating. Most likely, that type of pressure would not make for a relationship of rainbows and butterflies.
To make things even worse, though, let’s think about what often happens to students when they don’t have things figured out by 22. They get ridiculed and called “unsuccessful.” Others wonder why 4 years of college wasn’t enough for them. “Everyone else knows what they want to do with their lives,” critics (incorrectly) complain. “Why don’t you?”
So rather than admit they haven’t quite figured it out, students make hasty decisions: “I’m going to graduate school because my mom and dad want me to” (something I’ve heard more than one of my students say). Or they take jobs so they can show how “successful” they are.
And unfortunately, the pressure to have life figured out only gets worse as the years go by. Maybe some people can accept a student who hasn’t quite figured it out by 22, but god forbid if someone doesn’t have all of her ducks in a row by age 27. There’s no hope for that person (or so many people believe)!
Maybe this is why less than one third of people are engaged at work. Maybe this is why “work” carries such a negative connotation. Maybe the reason people live for the weekends and despise Mondays is because they’ve been pressured to make decisions without really knowing what they want to do with their lives.
Maybe this is why more and more students are coming to my office and feeling incredibly anxious about their futures.
We shouldn’t be pressuring students to decide what they want to do with their lives by the time they’re 22. If anything, the early 20s is a prime time to go out and try new things, to find who you are, to figure things out–to screw something up. I know that the person I was at 22 was completely different than the person I was at 26. And that person was completely different than who I was when I was 30. In fact, I’m not even sure I was mature enough to make life decisions in my mid 20s.
As social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk put it, the early 20s is a great time to be impractical, to try things that might not be what you’re “supposed” to do, to take a risk and see if it works out. At this point, students have graduated and have the rest of their working lives in front of them. But if that life is going to last, on average, for another 40-50 years, does it really matter whether it starts now or a few years from now? In fact, if students take some time now to “find out who they are,” I would argue that, in 4 or 5 years, they’ll actually be ahead of their peers who rushed into life decisions for the wrong reasons. They’ll be more certain of what they want to accomplish whereas their peers might be wondering whether they made the right choice. Of course, the “right choice” can only be determined in hindsight. But having some time to figure things out, to have some freedom, to explore, to make some mistakes and learn from them, to find what lights them up, is likely to make students feel more confident when it comes time to make “big” decisions in life.
Life doesn’t have to be figured out by 22. Let’s stop telling students it does.Share