Why You Don't Need to Have Your Life Figured Out in Your 20s
The pressure on millennials to find their purpose is unwelcome. I explore the impact it has on mental health and advise on deciding on a career path.
There's an immense amount of pressure on youngsters to have their life figured out. To find their purpose and to begin working towards it from a young age.
The pressure to know exactly what it is they want to do with their lives and to know exactly how their lives to turn out. This pressure arises during a period where they are yet to discover themselves. A period where they are yet to understand who they are or how best they can contribute to society.
This pressure from a young age appears unwelcome.
A recent UNESCO policy paper highlights that more students than ever are attending university. The number of students in higher education globally has more than doubled to 207 million between 2000 and 2014. At first sight, this may appear to be a good thing. After all, there is a high correlation between education and prosperity, where highly educated countries tend to be the most wealthy and the converse holds for less educated countries. But this comes at a cost. An increase in students entering further education is negatively impacting the mental health of the youth. Depression and anxiety rates have soared in most of the western world. Generally, happiness appears to be on the decline.
Closer to home, in the UK, a YouGov survey found that 60% of our 18-24 year olds have felt so stressed by the pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Such a society does not allow the space, time and creativity for our youngsters to grow into the leaders of tomorrow. We as a society are likely to pay for this further down the line with some potentially severe consequences.
The Pressure Starts From a Very Young Age
Since a very young age, perhaps shortly after the toddlers initially learn to start speaking intelligibly. A well-meaning question that adults will often ask "so what do you want to be when you grow up?" I'm sure this question resonates amongst many of you, where you can recall several instances of being asked this question yourselves while growing up. How do we expect a toddler to answer this question with a meaningful and thought out response?
Furthermore, the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in jobs that do not even yet exist. Neither the toddler nor the adult asking the question has any idea of how the toddler's interests will grow and evolve over time, or the potential choices of careers that will be available to the toddler in two decades. Yet it's an obligatory question nonetheless that adults often force on to the young.
I remember being asked this very questions by almost every adult I came into contact with during my formative years. My responses rotated between "Fireman", "Footballer", "Accountant", "Lawyer", depending on what I happened to be most interested in at the time or how I was feeling at that particular moment.
The response that remains most memorable was "aeronautic engineer". I don't even know how I knew what an aeronautic engineer was as a five year old boy. I certainly didn't know what aeronautic engineers did during their working hours. Still, it sounded cool, and it always seemed to win over the respect and approval of the adults. So I stuck with it, and that was the plan - to become an aeronautic engineer. At the time, it seemed like an excellent plan; everyone around me was impressed. As a young boy growing into my teens, I felt validated by this career choice I was making - so it was one I decided to stick with and pursue.
In the UK, most bright students aiming to attend university and obtain a university degree will need to get their A-levels, which they start studying for from age 16.
The choice of which A-levels to sit will need to be decided by the age of 14/15. The choice of the students A-levels at this stage will largely determine what students will study at university and ultimately, the career opportunities that will be made available to them upon graduating.
It follows then that for most people, a 15 year old version of themselves will inevitably determine the career they spend the next 40 to 50 years of their lives doing. In typing this out, it's become apparent how worrying this thought this is.
Life Doesn't Always Turn Out as You Expect
To achieve my aeronautic engineering ambitions, I intended to study for and obtain my A-Levels in Further Maths, Physics and Computing. They appeared a solid plan for getting into an aeronautic engineering degree, setting me up nicely for a career as an aeronautic engineer.
Well, this was the plan until I decided to drop into an Economics taster session before we officially started our studies in the autumn. During the hour-long session, the teacher explained what economics was, followed by a flavour of what we could expect from her A-Level economics class. I was completely won over by her class. At the time, that Economics taster session was probably the most interesting class I've ever sat in, throughout my 11 years of formal academic education at that point in time. I was so impressed that I decided to switch my A-levels right there and then. It was a gut feeling, and I decided to trust my gut and go with it. I'm doing an Economics A-Level.
Little did I know at the time, but that decision will forever change my life.
I rejigged my A levels choices and eventually obtained A-Levels in Economics, Maths, Business Studies, Computing and Information Technology. Fast forward a few years, and I graduated top of my class in an Economics & Accounting degree. A few more years after that, and I'm an exam-qualified Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Advisor.
My economics training remains fundamental to my work today, and this will remain the case, for the rest of my career. It's given me a solid foundation for understanding how the world around me works, an awareness of how government policy and taxation filters through the economy and how this impacts our daily lives. It's given me an appreciation of how economics can solve some of humanities most significant problems, or lesser problems within individual organisations.
The decision by a 15 year old boy to trust his gut appears to have paid off.
In hindsight, I would have been a miserable engineering student and would have been mediocre at best. An aeronautic engineering degree wasn't something I wanted to do. In essence, it was something I decided to follow along with because it seemed to impress the adults around me. I felt validated by pursuing that option, not because it was the best fit for my skills or something I wanted to do for myself. It would have been challenging for me to succeed in this discipline, given this fact.
Economics is something I love. It evoked a keen passion and curiosity within me. I certainly enjoyed each of the four years I spent formally studying the subject at university and the two years during my A-Levels. I found it highly rewarding, and the subject remains a big passion of mine. I still often write about topics in an Economist's domain, e.g. the US/China trade war (see article).
We're All Making It Up as We Go Along
Everyone is making things up as they go along and figuring things out as they go. Even people like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are navigating their lives by still making it up as they go along. No one knows the answer to everything and anyone who claims that they do is a fool. There's no absolute truth to life.
Life is a lifelong journey of learning and discovery.
The immense pressure put on our youth of today is an unwelcome one. Our societal and education system shouldn't require the youth to know the answer to what they want out of life by their mid-teens. It's why I prefer the American education system. Students undertaking a bachelors degree can select a bunch of courses and modules to study, before narrowing down further and deciding on which subject to "major in" i.e. their degree. By the end of their university degree at American colleges, most students would have received exposure to a plethora of subjects and disciplines. They will be in a much better position to decide on which careers are most suited to them.
Following their first degree, if these students want a career as a Lawyer, Doctor, Accountant and other professions, they will require further study. Aspiring professionals don't need to have studied these subjects previously. So a student majoring in Philosophy could become a Lawyer, while a student majoring in art history could become a Doctor. Under this system, American students are more mature and are in a better position to decide on careers better aligned to their skills and interests. They are therefore more likely to be better fulfilled in their professional lives.
Why does the British education system force this decision on our youth? It doesn't make sense. Forcing this decision is crippling the creativity of our youths and pressurising them into careers not suited to their interests. It's a factor contributing to why many remain unfulfilled in their professional lives.
Baby Boomers and Gen X's
Some of this issue likely arises from the expectations of our parents and grandparents. They grew up in a vastly different environment to millennials, so they valued certain things more and other things less than their children and grandchildren. To the baby boomers and gen X's, job security was more important than job satisfaction. A high salary was more important to them than purpose. So it follows that a high paying career with strong job security would top their list of professions and occupations. Careers they would want their millennial descendants to pursue.
Very rarely did these baby boomers and gen X's change employers. They'd prefer to work a career they didn't particular enjoy for 30+ years, so long as it paid the bills and left them with a decent pension on retirement. The things they valued are different from the things we value, and that's party because we're all a product of our environments to a certain extent. But that's not to say a high salary and good job security are not important to millenials, they're just not maybe as important as they were to the earlier generations.
It's a reason why the older generations prefer careers in engineering, accountancy, medicine, law, architecture and other stable professions. They would validate their toddlers aspiring to pursue these professions. But aspiring to become a YouTuber, gamer or a social media influencer is not something the parents and grandparents of millennials take to well - they valued different things to us.
It's also impossible to predict 20 years in advance that you wanted to become a YouTuber if YouTube didn't exist. Asking toddlers what they wanted to be when they grow up is futile.
There's nothing inherently wrong with following the "safe" career paths, and they can be highly rewarding for some. Many people who find themselves in the "stable" careers would arguably find themselves more fulfilled and satisfied in these "modern" careers. Yet, they'll never know because they're unfortunately born into a society that forces people to decide before they even know themselves or the options available to them.
I'm not at all suggesting that the "safe" careers are miserable - far from it. Many people would find themselves most fulfilled by working in these careers - they can be highly stimulating, rewarding and satisfying. But so are many other career choices, and these careers aren't for everyone. The disproportionate amount of young people aspiring to follow this career path seems counter-intuitive. A vast majority of them would be miserable - and many of them are (just like I would have been if I decided to become an aeronautic engineer). They choose to pursue these careers because they feel validated and not because it was something they wanted to do.
Unlike the generations that come before them, millennials are starting to realise that job security or highly paid careers isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Millennials will be the generation to be working the longest, throughout human history. A secure and highly paid career is certainly not worth it if they're to be miserable. Millennials are now estimated by Forbes to have between 15 to 20 different jobs on average during their lifetime. A vastly different statistic to those of the preceding generations.
Perks of a Fluid Career
My advice to millennials is that we should try things out when you're young and make career mistakes and failures fast and early, where the consequences are less severe. Making these mistakes later in their careers can be devastating. Trying things out when you have a lot more responsibility can be almost impossible.
Millennials need a varied experience from having tried out lots of different things. It'll then be easier to follow the path best suited to us as an individual, where we're most likely to succeed.
I've decided to have a fluid career, where I try out lots of different things and gain extensive experience while young. Doing so would give me a solid foundation, help me develop and will offer a unique career. I don't agree to the notion that a 14/15 year old version of myself should be determining what a 55 year old version of myself is doing.
The idea of doing the same thing from the first day of work, right up until the day I retire is unappealing. It sounds very dull. I can't think of anything more boring. For some, it may work well, and that's okay. For me, it's sad - there's a big world out there.
I've concluded that living in the moment, enjoying what I'm doing and what I am learning is a hell of a lot more important than what I'm doing or how I identify myself.
You need to know who you are, what your interests and passions are, what excites you, what you stand for, and what you enjoy doing. It would be difficult for you to be able to decide on the most suitable career for yourself otherwise. Getting to this point takes time and varied experience.
Unless you know the answer to each of the above, you need to release the handbrake a little. Take the pressure off yourself. Take things easy, follow your intuition, chase your passions, and I'm positive that you'll arrive at the destination most fulfilling and rewarding for you as an individual.
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