Just another short month until the start of a new school year and I’m starting to hear it again — all those doubts and insecurities from classmates wondering how to best fit their lives into the templates expected from us all since preschool: finish grade school, go to university, get a good steady, well-paying career, get married and have kids, retire around 60, then die, having fulfilled your duty to society. It’s a fantastic path, truly noble and beneficial to everyone. The problem is, it’s really not that simple.
The identical consistency of this plan allows for little room in differences of individual ability, interest, or maturity. For some, 12 years of grade school may be enough, and university may be the perfect next step. Others may need an extra year, or a gap year to travel or work, or may find that college is a better suited choice. Although I definitely feel like I belong at university, I never did consider any other options because they were rarely, if ever, presented to us. Many friends and classmates were not as lucky, and paid thousands of dollars to spend an awful year in an unsuitable program, taking classes of no interest, because they felt obliged to choose a university program straight after grade 12, for fear of being looked down on. How is that beneficial to anyone?
Furthermore, a very limited number of jobs are presented to us in class — doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, and the list doesn’t continue much longer. A couple interesting points to note is the relative absence of humanities from that very short list of careers, as well as the assumption that we will all be doing one same job for the rest of our lives. 40 years is a very long time to be doing the same thing and most people will experience multiple career changes. Many also work more than one job at a time (i.e. writer and cafe manager, researcher and professor, etc.). There are so many options and here I thought that I had closed off doors forever by not taking psychology in high school. Nothing is ever set in stone.
It’s no wonder kids have no idea what they want to do. If “manager of a cat cafe” or “noetic scientist” had been on those worksheets in careers class, that sure would’ve saved me some sleepless nights. Just knowing how many hundred million options there are out there would’ve made a great difference. That is not to mention the new jobs being created every year. How can you ask a 16 year old to start thinking about what what they want to do for the next 50 years, when their future career might not even exist yet?
That brings me to yet another criticism: the timeline. The life expectancy now is about 70-80 years old. When the average person graduates from an undergraduate degree, they will be 22 years old. That is ridiculously young. Why such a rush? As a society, we are obsessed with efficiency, at the expense of so much knowledge. I have yet to find a person who’s spent a few months abroad and not described the experience as the most instructive and rewarding experience of their life. There is so much that cannot be taught in a classroom, but not enough people take advantage of these exchange programs for fear of it putting them one or two years back in life. This mindset of hyper-competitiveness is like a race that stops young adults from participating in extra-curricular activities, exercising, taking courses they enjoy, and even from forming good relationships. Most of us are fortunate enough to have decades of time after university so why does it feel so crippling for our future to join a dance club just for fun or take a cupcake-decorating workshop?
17 is so incredibly young. 17 year old students had to ask for permission to go to the washroom for their entire lives. Is it so unreasonable to not expect everyone to be ready to make critical life choices? There is no right way to live a life, and it shouldn’t be such a struggle to choose what we think we’re personally suited for. There should also be no shame in taking some time to figure out what that is.
This isn’t to say that I’d like everyone to drop all their responsibilities and do whatever they want. I think university is a wonderful place for young minds to be, but only if they really gain from the experience. Happiness and self-fulfillment may not be the only things to consider when making choices about the future, but what about depression? Anxiety? Insomnia? Do people realize how many students break down and cry in the library during exam season? I won’t even get started on the abysmal mental health services. Every job, and every future, comes with an enormous amount of sacrifice and difficulty that can only be overcome with true passion and dedication to our work and our causes. As Jim Elliot said, “wherever you are, be all there.” The best way to serve others is to serve yourself first.
There is a balance between happiness and duty, between efficiency and stopping to smell the roses. But what we have now isn’t it.
“Good morning,” said the little prince.
“Good morning,” said the merchant.
This was a merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need for anything to drink.
“Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince.
Because they save a tremendous amount of time,” said the merchant. “Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week.”
“And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?”
“Anything you like…”
“As for me,” said the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”