There are certain milestones in life that most people expect to reach before they get old and die. These include, but are not limited to, graduating from high school, getting your first job, getting married, having kids, and (in many cases) graduating from college or graduate school. I think it’s pretty safe to say that when I was in high school, I had a pretty solid expectation that I would reach most, if not all, of those milestone by the time I turned 30.
These milestones represent different things to individual people. There are undoubtedly reasons why individuals prioritize these milestones differently. For instance, some people feel they’re born to raise kids, some feel incomplete without a life partner, and others refuse to stop going to school until they’ve earned the right to be called doctor. The one thing these milestone have in common is that they’re all goals that are desirable to us as individuals.
However, it seems to me that their meaning to society at large is pretty similar. The implication is that those individuals who fail to accomplish those goals are not full members in our society. Over time, the rules seem to have relaxed a bit. I would argue that the accepted pattern before 1960 was this: graduate from high school (and college?) > get married > get your first job > have kids, all before the age of 25. Moving toward the present, the importance of college and graduate school became more prevalent, and the deadline for many of the other deadlines was pushed back.
It’s difficult to say what the most accepted pattern today is. I would argue that for the middle class, the pattern is more like this: graduate from high school and college (and grad school?) > get your first job > get married > have kids, before the age of 30. Of course now that the deadline for accomplishing these milestones has been pushed later in life, this gives individuals a lot more wiggle room to reach them in any number of different sequences.
I think the most challenging part of your 20s, that tumultuous period between high school graduation and becoming a full member of society (having met those all-important milestones) is that we are no longer on the same path as our friends. While in K-12, we are all compelled to accomplish the same milestone by (roughly) the same age. However the next 10-13 years can go so many different ways. Some people go straight through to a terminal degree in their field, which can easily take them to their late 20s. Others start a family before they even turn 20. Regardless of which sequence you begin, the pressure is on to accomplish the rest of the milestones.
I have so many married friends who feel pressure to have kids. I have single friends who feel pressure to get married. I have over-educated friends who feel pressure to get a job. I have friends who feel incomplete because they haven’t yet graduated from college or graduate school. But through all of this pressure, do we ever stop to ask ourselves what purpose it serves? Who made up these milestones, and why do we work so hard to achieve them according to society’s standards?
While I don’t intend to argue with the importance of education, working, and starting a family, I do think we place too much importance on the deadline of these goals, and argue that there are other things individuals can (and should) do that are equally important. I would argue that increasing your understanding of culture, through traveling, reading, and networking, is a very important life goal. I think we should all cultivate hobbies, find what makes us passionate about living, and spend time forming lifelong friendships. Certainly, friendship and travel and your personal journey can be accomplished within the framework of these societal milestones, but it seems to me that too many people put them on the back burner.
Another problem I have with these milestones is that they turn life into one giant “To Do” list. As soon as you finish school, get a great job, and start a family, what’s next for you to do? I suppose the answer is obvious: advance your career, raise your family, and start working on these milestones for your kids. After all, pressure on kids to be achievement-oriented is getting stronger every day. If your kid isn’t captain of a sports team, president of a few clubs, on the honor roll, and a model citizen by the time he/she is 17, then you’ve obviously failed as a parent.
But what about your life? What about just living? Working is for others (for the money, on a personal level), education is ultimately for work, and marriage is for the production of offspring. But where in that formula is there room for you to live for yourself? I’m not talking about being selfish… I’m just talking about taking actions that don’t accomplish a specific “societal checklist” purpose. What’s so bad about moving through life on your own timeline, operating by your own set of standards, and finding your own purpose to be alive?
Now I have no right to give you advice any more than society has a right to pressure you to live within certain standards and timelines. However, just as in my makeup and credit card posts, I have developed certain beliefs from personal experience, and it is just as much my right to compose these essays as it is yours not to read them. I hope that if you have read all of this, you’ll add your thoughts in the comments, so I can hear about your perspective just as you’ve just heard mine.
Until next time,
From Apple to Zipper
“Happiness is making a bouquet from those flowers within reach.”