I started thinking about the 'college, job, family' expectation when I saw the movie The Vampire's Assistant. I really connected with the below scene between a teen and his parents. Their reaction to their son misbehaving is not what you might call a proportionate response:
What I'm questioning is the mantra, the force feeding of this life pathway to all young people, regardless of whether it's desirable to them - or even achievable.
Let's take my life as a case study. In years past, this story has been a very painful part of my life, but thanks to obscene amounts of therapy I am able to tell it without much difficulty.
Treading the path
I am relatively academically gifted. It's not a brag as such; it's just the way the whole 'nature/nurture' thing worked out, and I am terrible at many other things. My coordination is questionable: I once fell and broke my arm walking across a flat, stable surface while embarrassingly sober. I also have a tendency to talk to myself (and to any inanimate objects in the immediate vicinity), which must cause no end of grief to people unfortunate enough to work in the same office with me. But I digress .
So, being relatively academically gifted, and a hard worker, I seemed like the perfect candidate for the 'college, job, family' path. I achieved titles like National Merit Scholar and AP Scholar, with perfect '5' scores on AP exams, and SAT scores ranging from 700 to 800 across the board. (Translation for Australians: that's good.) I excelled in chemistry, physics, writing, maths and languages, and had the highest GPA in my graduating class. Rowing came easily, and I advanced to stroke seat; academics came easily, too, and I won scholarships to study programs interstate and overseas. The Path was going to work out fine.
Hitting the quicksand
There was a problem, though. I was terribly, tremendously socially awkward and anxious, and later was diagnosed with social anxiety - along with depression and generalised anxiety for good measure. We needn't go into the reason(s) why.
When I started university in the autumn of 2000, living on campus as Americans tend to do, I was completely unprepared. I had no basis for navigating normal friendships, romantic relationships, rejections ... or even the everyday interactions of going to class, rowing practice, and living in the dorms. I had nowhere to hide from all the people. I was terrified of people. It did not go well.
My GPA eventually dropped, and all of my self esteem right along with it. Faulty wiring in my brain kicked in, and along with my relative immaturity and inexperience with mental illness, it resulted in me spending 16-18 hours a day in bed. I went off the rails.
If we had lived in a society where failure was normal, or shortcomings in the mental health department were supported, my life might have proceeded differently from there. But we do not. One period of failure can make any future progress on the 'college, job, family' path tortuously difficult - and there aren't a lot of other socially acceptable paths, especially in America.
Due to my academic failure and quickly ballooning weight, I was ostracised by friends and family. (I will add here a side note to acknowledge that, when people are struggling with depression and anxiety, they can be a pain in the ass to be around. I really don't blame acquaintances and teammates for, you know, backing away slowly. Those who stuck by me put up with a lot.) Ostracism didn't help. Following a dismal semester in the rowing team, my rowing coach - and this is true - questioned whether I should sign up for another season, because:
'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.'
Apparently, he had seen cuts on my arms the previous season, and he thought that the words 'fool' and 'shame' belonged in the conversation. Because ... I had fooled him? Or should be ashamed? To this day, I really don't know what else he could have meant.
A different perspective
I eventually relocated to Australia, where I had a handy citizenship, and went to Monash University in Melbourne. Words cannot sufficiently convey my relief.
In Australia, there is an acceptance of multiple pathways through life. You may go straight from school to university, or you may take a gap year. Or you may go to a technical school (TAFE) instead, and/or do an apprenticeship. You may decide to go to university later in life, and changing up careers is common. Failing in Year 12 does not proscribe later attendance at university. And I have had a great career writing, even though I never finished my linguistics degree.
Careers in trade, retail or administration aren't looked down upon in Australia the way they are in America. It's also common for young people to spend one or more years overseas working in a job that may or may not have anything to do with their future careers. It's even considered admirable to do so.
And family, well, family is still a subject of pressure, particularly in conservative, heteronormative circles, but I have seen much more acceptance of the concept of 'partners' (whether same sex or opposite sex) who live together without producing any offspring at all . The couple may or may not be married, but that's rather less relevant in Melbourne than it was in Kentucky.
I never finished my degree at Monash, and my 'job' has been a bit of a patchwork quilt of contract writing when I've been well enough to do so. I haven't totally got around to the 'family' bit, though I have been lucky enough to find an amazing partner .
As a young person, I might have seemed like someone for whom 'college, job, family' might have worked - heck, I'm white, straight, cisgender and middle class, the South loves that - but it wasn't achievable for me. In America I was made to feel like a failure for that mismatch; by contrast, in Australia the social support has been really quite heartwarming.
A culture of demonising young people for failure only serves to exacerbate an already difficult situation.
My story is not that unusual
So let's extrapolate this story out a bit. My story is not unique - or, I imagine, even uncommon. It's entirely possible to have smart, hardworking people for whom the 'college, job, family' trope is not achievable. Given the rapidly changing markets for jobs and for housing in most of the world's major cities, this trope may become more difficult for an increasing number of young people.
A culture of demonising these young people for failure only serves to ostracise them, and to exacerbate an already difficult situation. (This fascinating video about suicide, which is worth a watch, discusses the connection between the perceptions of failure in a culture, and the rates of suicide in that culture.)
It is also worth considering that this trope might not even be what the young person wants. And really, as long as your progeny isn't saying that it's their lifelong dream to snort heroin and steal lollipops from small children, can you really fault them for wanting something different out of life?
The point of this article is not to demonise parents, governments or schools for force-feeding young people this narrative. It's the narrative that they grew up with, and it's unusual for society to change so much in the space of one or two generations: usually, parental advice is pretty worthwhile stuff. It is exceptional that, with respect to careers and procreation, rapid technological changes, societal changes and population growth have made our parents' and grandparents' experiences almost completely inapplicable to our own.
I do think, though, that there is some value to the larger 'machine' for people to continue to run the rat race. Secondary schools and universities make a great deal of money out of educating young people - not that there's anything wrong with that - and larger employers thrive on hungry young employees who are eager to establish themselves, pay off student loans, and climb the corporate ladder. They make much, much more money out of these employees than they pay out - even, usually, for highly paid professionals. As long as hungry young people want SAT tutors and a Harvard degree, the market is happy to oblige, and as long as those people will slog their guts out, employers will continue to take advantage.
Unfortunately, recent trends in Australian society are pushing young people toward a more 'American' path of straight-to-uni, straight-to-career single-mindedness. I have felt a tremendous protective instinct for these poor, pressured kids. It's not their parents' fault: the competitive nature of the labour market means that new entrants have to keep up with the latest trends. But sometimes, I dream of a society willing to push back against these competitive forces, and insist that quality of life is more important than 'quality of career' or 'quality of your future children's iPads'.
Beyond the fairy tale
The goals of college, job and family might be realistic for some - just as high income, a thin body, and an expensive house are achievable for some - but for many, these widely recognised goals are not much more than fairy tales. It might be worthwhile to consider multiple definitions of 'success', and multiple pathways for getting there - including some pathways where failure might be common.
All up, it may not be necessary to shoot the messenger, but it's probably worthwhile to question the message.