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So clearly, you don’t often start the day thinking of “The Graduate.” But I was reminded of the iconic film about post-grad angst this A.M. via an op-ed from the Daily Pennsylvanian, written by Juliette Mullin, a senior at Penn, where, Mullin writes, students tend to equate the Penn seal on their diplomas with a six-figure salary.

And what I thought was this: Funny how expectations can do us in. (This seems to be a recurrent theme on Undecided, yeah?) Here’s how Mullin’s piece begins:

Lately, I’ve been having the same conversation on repeat. It doesn’t matter whom I’m talking to or where I am, everyone loves asking the same question: “Do you have plans for next year?”

This question has become such a sore spot for so many seniors at this point in the year that most will flat out preempt it with “I know this is the question we’re not supposed to ask each other but…”

Now it’s not how you ask that bothers me. In fact, unlike most, I don’t even mind being asked. What bothers me is the response I often get when I tell someone my plans are still up in the air — the look of slight pity and concern that I still don’t have my life completely figured out, followed by a weak, “Sorry I asked.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? No matter how old you are. Sure, it’s a question college seniors have been ever asked, and it’s been ever loaded, mixed as it is with curiosity on the part of the questioner (I confess. Often guilty as charged) with just a dash of reproach. But add the expectations that ride the backs of so many women today — Succeed! Excel! Score Trophies! — coupled with the added onus of graduating from a prestigious school like Penn and you’ve got a boatload of angst, according to Mullin, who compares figuring out her future to the stress of taking one more class — but more so:

Unlike our classes, however, we tend to go through this alone, constantly feeling behind the pack. This year, it’s especially tough thanks to the economy. And, of course, it’s all made more stressful by being at a school with such a pre-professional focus.

When Career Services Senior Associate Director Barbara Hewitt used to work at a more “liberal-arts focused school,” she found that the general stress level surrounding the job hunt was not nearly as pronounced as it is at Penn. Here, we look at the students who have already secured well-paid Wall Street or engineering jobs for next year and immediately start to feel like we’re behind.

Which leads us back to expectations. Sure, they help us to move forward, to do our best, yadda yadda. But when they are impossibly high, when the you-can-do-anything mantra becomes part and parcel of the iconic self, well, anything less becomes grounds for disappointment.

Or indecision. That grass over there? Gotta be greener. Let’s check.

Meanwhile, scroll to the end of the story, and you find that our Ms. Mullin seems to have things figured out. At least right now. And I agree with her, but in a much larger sense: no matter your age, your job, your personal goals — life itself is a work in progress. Look at it that way, and you’re less likely to be lusting over that other side of the fence.

Until you get to that mindset, though, what then?

There’s always plastics.

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If developmental psychologists have it right, that adolescence is the time we lay the groundwork for the grown-up we will someday become, and if they also have it right that adolescence now extends well into the twenty-somethings, what’s up with the new plan to usher kids out of high school in two years?

Well, not all kids. Just those who can pass a series of tests at the end of their sophomore year, allowing them to move straight to community college. According to the New York Times, the point is to make sure students master their basic high school requirements, then hop into community-college level math and English without needing remedial work.  Now, I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have minded blowing off the junior prom, but car-pooling to college at age 16?!  From the story:

Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Terry Holliday, said high school graduation requirements there had long been based on having students accumulate enough course credits to graduate.

“This would reform that,” Dr. Holliday said. “We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years. This would allow an approach based on subject mastery — a system based around move-on-when-ready.”

The new system aims to provide students with a clear outline of what they need to study to succeed, said Phil Daro, a consultant based in Berkeley, Calif., who is a member of an advisory committee for the effort.

I vote ugh. Now, I guess it all makes sense when you’re talking about academics, and making efficient use of state education funds. But what about, um, growing up? Did you know what you wanted out of life when you were 16? Did anyone?

Well, there’s Doogie Howser, M.D. But back on point. How do you figure out a life plan when you may not have even passed your driver’s test? Granted, there’s no real need for a 16-year-old college freshman to choose a career, or even a major, but still. Seems to me, this rush to adult-hood is another recipe for a lot of indecision down the line, just one more example of the treadmill we wrote about last fall. In case you missed it first time around, here’s a quick hit:

… Just last week, I came across a piece — call it an advice column — in the New York Times entitled “Helping Teenagers Find their Dreams.” Clearly, it was a parent who was asking for help. Not a kid. Made me want to take drugs.

The response rightly started out with an admonition that parents not force their own dreams on their unsuspecting kids. Cool. But once that was out of the way, the column kicked into overdrive with a double-dose of exercises and whatnot you can do with your teenagers to help them find their bliss. Or whatever.

Ugh. I can’t help wondering if these poor overly-guided teens are the same ones who grew up with (the now discredited) Baby Einstein series or some such. Or teens who, a few years prior, were like a young girl my daughter ran into once in Starbucks. Wearing grade-school plaid and drinking a double-latte, the little girl was working with her tutor, powering through a Kaplan-style prep course for her high school entrance exam. (And, for some reason, no one even questioned the caffeine.)

Or teens currently working with college counsellors, making a mile-long list — and checking it twice — that ranges from “reach” to “safety.”

About just that, we heard from a college counsellor at a private high school shortly after than post ran. She was up to her ears in letters of recommendation for graduating seniors, and wrote to offer her take:

It must be a blessing that your blog address was passed on to me at the time of year when I am writing letters of recommendations for my students.

It seems that so many of them are applying to 15-20 colleges this year. Most of them have been planning for college since they were small children and are so devastated when they are not accepted to their dream school. And they are so crushed because they have been building a “resumé” of activities since they could walk, which is almost as long as I have been teaching.

I see a lot of students who are overscheduled, stressed out beyond belief and afraid to give up some of their activities for fear that it will ruin their chances to get into college and therefore their lives.

Most of them go on to accomplish great things. But I wonder if they are taking the time to enjoy life…

Or to grow up.

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What a day for a daydream. Just as we’re settling into another week of work after a blissful three-day weekend, here come three signs of intelligent life in the universe. The common denominator? Changing the norms of how we think of work — and maybe even chipping away at the cult of busy-ness that encourages even five-year-olds to have dayplanners.

Sign No. 1 is a new study out of the U.K’s New Economics Foundation that suggests that a 21 hour workweek might help us all to flourish in the 21st century. From the study:

There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today. Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.

And, from a piece in the Guardian about the study:

Citing the example of Utah, the study shows how the US state’s decision in 2008 to place all public-sector workers on a four-day week saved energy, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

The report argues that 21 hours a week is already close to the average length of time spent in paid employment.

“A lot of this is already happening,” said the report’s joint author, Andrew Simms of the NEF. “Job sharing is common practice … It’s going to be increasing. Maybe we’ll have less income and more time.

“Other than the benefit of having more time, what will happen is a reduction in inequality and the potential to be better-quality friends, partners and parents engaging more with communities.

There’s a daydream for you. Scaling back the workweek — even to just forty hours — would clearly allow more time for life itself. And what if that became the norm, rather than the exception, even for those in high-powered careers? I think we’d see a change in workplace expectations with a possible bonus: If we knew that no matter what our life’s work, we could still have a life apart from it, would we be more free in choosing what to do with our lives? More likely to follow our passions?

As for the second sign — something we’ve noted here before but clearly bears repeating — Reuters Life! reports on that Accenture study we noted above that found that millennial women not only believe they will find a balance between a “rewarding career and a fulfilling personal life”, but because of their sheer numbers are likely to have the muscle to make it happen. Possibly a “trickle -up” effect for the rest of us? From the story:

Accenture surveyed the 1,000 women because “we are always interested in attracting and retaining the best and the brightest,” explained LaMae Allen deJongh, noting that globally the company employed 60,000 women.

Women are soon expected to make up half the U.S. workforce and the so-called millennials, those born after 1980, are now one-third of the working population.

DeJongh, managing director of US human capital and diversity at the company, said the survey showed that “one-size is not going to fit all” when it comes to retaining women. Half of the respondents said flexible hours were important to them.

Finally, sign No. 3 may not be representative of anything but one enlightened dad, but here’s a post from our fan Chrysula’s blog. It’s written by a freelance photog who has chosen to be a stay-at-home pop, “a part of the first generation of men that could consider staying home an option.” He explains his choice this way:

My own father, by which I mean– the only father I’ve ever known–was a great dad to me growing up, but he worked until 9pm everyday, and was frequently away on long business trips. I knew this model wasn’t going to work for us. What it all seemed to boil down to was being there for my son when he needed me. A simple proposition at first glance, until I realized that it meant being on call 24/7 for the rest of my life. Simply put, that became my priority. Other parents may prioritize putting food on the table, paying for college tuition, helping others, keeping the world safe, or simply holding on to their own sanity or self respect. And who’s to say they are right or wrong? All I knew was that I never really had a choice.

“Many people would disagree, pointing out that not only is there a choice, but that it is a real luxury. I know I am very lucky, although I resent people highlighting it. On the other hand I know there are many impoverished mothers, who are secretly wealthy because they hold tight to what matters to them most. And I know that even a child can put up with great hardships, as long as they know someone is always watching over them. It seems to me that as a culture when we sacrifice the goal of being there for the sake of practicality, or comfort, or convenience, or even ‘the future’, that we risk a lot more than we gain.

“And that’s my balance. I do most of the cooking, almost all the cleaning, all the laundry, and the weekday food shopping. I do my best to scratch out some profit as a photographer. I don’t give a damn what people think about my life. And I pick my son up from school.”

Wow. Talk about sweet dreams.

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Hey! You! Anybody out there?!

If you’re part of the Millennial Generation, you surely are. But you aren’t likely to read much more than the first few lines of this post, are you? That’s among the findings of a recent Pew Research Center study on Gen Y (roughly defined as those from 18 – 29) and how they communicate.

Out? Facetime. In? Status updates.

In short (literally), if you’re young and hip, you like it quick. So says a yahoo news story, via the AP, on one aspect of the study — the demise of blogging among the millennial set:

A new study has found that young people are losing interest in long-form blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief, and mobile. Tech experts say it doesn’t mean blogging is going away. Rather, it’s gone the way of the telephone and e-mail — still useful, just not sexy.

“Remember when ‘You’ve got mail!’ used to produce a moment of enthusiasm and not dread?” asks Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Now when it comes to blogs, she says, “people focus on using them for what they’re good for and turning to other channels for more exciting things.”

In less time than most of us care to note, we’ve seen the diminished use – if not outright demise — of snail mail, faxes, land lines, newspapers, email and now — blogs? Chalk it up to social networking, says the yahoo story:

With social networking has come the ability to do a quick status update and that has “kind of sucked the life out of long-form blogging,” says Amanda Lenhart, a Pew senior researcher and lead author of the latest study.

More young people are also accessing the Internet from their mobile phones, only increasing the need for brevity. The survey found, for instance, that half of 18- to 29-year-olds had done so.

All of that rings true to Sarah Rondeau, a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

“It’s a matter of typing quickly. People these days don’t find reading that fun,” the 18-year-old student says. She loves Facebook and has recently started using Twitter to share pictures of her dorm room and blurbs about campus life, which are, in turn, shared on the Holy Cross Web site for prospective students.

Life by status update? I’m all for short and quick. It’s efficient! There’s quantity! And yet, at the risk of being called, well, old, I have to wonder: Where’s the depth? The bigger picture? The other side? Where does this leave the art of chitchat?

And in fact, there are subtle rumblings around the edges that hint that all is not always well in the land of quick connections. For example, PR Newswire reports that a St. Paul company is offering seminars to show twentysomethings how to use facetime rather than screentime to score a job. Huh? That needs to be taught? And there’s this: A story out of CUNY’s Baruch College links the high depression rate among millenial students to uber-connection:

Baruch psychology professor David Sitt acknowledges the implications of technological evolution on an entire generation’s social character.

“We are changing our expectations of what we need in life to make us happy,” said Sitt. “Since technology has propelled us forward it creates a speed where everything is immediate and the window for gratification has narrowed.”

According to Sitt, depression grows from a root need for gratification as social networking tools and electronic gadgets instill in us a constant pressure to connect.

“Initially we only needed to see our friends once a month, now it has turned into everyday,” said Sitt. “We have this idea that if we don’t check our emails or post on Facebook every second then we missed out on something or that people have forgotten about us.”

I tweet, therefore I am? All of which brings us back to something we wrote about last month — the way in which these cyberlives have begun to erode our real ones. From that post:

Is this uber-connection to our cyber-lives and cyber friends and god-knows-what-all-else keeping us from being fully present in our own here and now? From appreciating what we have — rather than jonesing for what we don’t? Does the fact that we have one foot in our own life and the other in about a hundred others make us continually wonder what we’re missing?

All those distractions! All those choices! No wonder we’re always angsting over that greener grass — because the other side of the fence is always up in our face.

And the thing is, when that other side of the fence comes to you via short and quick, it’s almost always looking better than it is.

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Overheard last week on a college campus:

Two twentysomething women — call them Hannah and Suzanna — engaging in some chat about life, family and all things in between. Hannah reveals that she has three older sibs, and she’s the only girl. Which ultimately leads to this:

Suzanna: If you could give your brothers some advice right now, what would it be?
Hannah: It would be to do whatever makes them happy despite how much money it would make them or if it would lead to a successful life…

Suzanna: Do you think you’ll end up following your own advice?
Hannah: Yes. However, I think in my family dynamics it’s easier for me to do whatever makes me happy because the boys have more pressure to be successful breadwinners.

Makes you wonder, yes? Is this still true of most family dynamics? And if so, does it hold women back — or give them permission to follow their passion?

Interesting question, especially when you backdrop it with a couple of new studies out there: one on the so-called “stress of higher status“; and the other on what millennial women take into consideration when deciding what to do with their lives.

In the first study, researchers from the University of Toronto found that the more successful you are professionally, the more likely your work will wreak havoc on your personal life:

“We found several surprising patterns,” says [Sociology Professor Scott] Schieman. “People who are well-educated, professionals and those with job-related resources report that their work interferes with their personal lives more frequently, reflecting what we refer to as ‘the stress of higher status.’ While many benefits undoubtedly accrue to those in higher status positions and conditions, a downside is the greater likelihood of work interfering with personal life.”

What wasn’t measured in this study, but may follow, is that when 50 hours or more a week go into your work, your good hours — not to mention your emotional energy — are usually spent with colleagues or clients, or left at your desk. When you finally straggle home, it’s likely you’re spent. Which doesn’t do a whole lot for your personal life, regardless of gender.

Which may be what millennial women have seen in their older sisters, their parents — or brothers, for that matter. Which could explain why they want something different. In that second study, Accenture found that what women between 22 – 35 want from their career is work that matters (i.e., purpose) and a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives:

Some 66% of young women define success as doing meaningful work (i.e., “the type of work I want to do”), and 59% cite maintaining a balance between their personal and professional lives. Only 37% cite “being seen as an expert in my field” and even fewer (22%) cite “receiving awards or recognition internally.”

Which brings us back to Hannah and Suzanna. What at first whiff may have smelled like a pre-feminist dynamic may, for today’s women, be the impetus to carve out a new definition of success. Going back to Friday’s post, beating the boys at their own game? Not really a case of lowered expectations. Or limited expectations, either.

But expectations that all of us, regardless of gender, will eventually get it right. What do you think?!

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Late last week, I caught up with M., a young woman–a New York transplant a couple of years into post-collegiate life–we’re profiling in the book, fresh off the heels of a major decision. As she downloaded the details, so much of what she said about her choice–to leave a great job with a major brand in the field she’d always thought she wanted to be in–rang true. Here’s a bit from M:

It was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made because I knew in my gut that I was unhappy, but on paper it made a lot of sense for me to keep working there. I had good health insurance, I was making a good salary, I had a steady job, but I was just unhappy and to make a choice based on my feelings versus what logically made sense was really difficult.

Feelings. They’re so – well, touchy feely. Hard to quantify. They look so woefully wimpy on a list, lined up against numbers and facts and figures. Like they’re somehow less real. And yet – if happiness, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and other, you know, feelings are what we’re after, it shouldn’t seem so outrageous to base our decisions on them. But it can — if you’ll pardon the choice of word — feel outrageous. Irresponsible. Silly. And when it comes down to the choice that looks good on paper versus the one that feels right in our heart, choosing the one that feels right over the one that’s arguably right can feel kinda wrong.

Back to M, who aggressively went on the prowl for a new gig, and was rewarded with a couple of job offers (two of which came on the same day), all of which came complete with their own sets of pros and cons. But ultimately, in analyzing the facts, she realized that what it all came down to was feelings.

It wasn’t necessarily a matter of being worried that, oh no, I have no options, I was like, okay, I have worked really hard to put options in front of myself now I have to make a choice where I just put so much effort into making sure I put before me as many avenues as possible, but then, there I was, stuck having to make a choice.  That was really difficult for me, and since I’ve been in my 20s the big choice I made was to move to New York, and since then I’ve felt like I was just making very small choices. And this was going to be my first really big, life-changing decision since then. So, it was extremely difficult and I can tell you honestly that I put a lot of grey hair on both my parents’ heads and my poor boyfriend–I can’t tell you how many times we sat there with pros and cons lists that I had him talk me through.

It’s hard to adjust to being a grown-up and realizing that the repercussions of your choices mean so much more, so I think it was really hard for [my parents] you know, they wanted to help me in the ways they always have as parents. They wanted to be like, it’s gonna be all right and we’ll take care of it for you. The thing is they just at this point had to be council, and I had to figure it out because, at the end of the day it was me that was gonna take care of me, and if I screwed up I was the one who was gonna deal with the repercussions.

It came down to the fact that I was unhappy, and I would start to think about what my life would be like in these new decisions, and just what made me feel less anxious and what made me feel happy.

M’s story hits on a bunch of things: How relatively new it is for us women to be in charge of our own lives, and the decisions that design them. And how, the reasoning skills, the objective ways we’re often taught to approach decisions, don’t–can’t–take into account what’s most important, when it comes down to what’s going to make us happy: how we really feel.

M’s tale has a happy ending: she loves her new job. The one, she says, she’d “never in a million years imagined doing.” But she does have one regret:

I regret that I didn’t take the time to really reflect earlier. I just spent so much time I think pushing away my feelings and pushing away, hey, what is it that I really want to be, because it was going to be tough, and then it took me being really unhappy at work to stop and reflect: okay, what are you gonna do with your future?

It shouldn’t take a bout of extreme unhappiness for us to give our feelings the weight they deserve, but so often it does. And it shouldn’t seem such a daunting task to confront them, either, but so often it does. And the funny thing is, maybe if we could learn how to listen to them, to trust them, to value them, they might be the one thing that can make our decisions easier. And wouldn’t that feel good?

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First she made a decision. Then she wondered what on earth she was thinking when she made itDSCN6202. Now Maggie is living the life — and learning to love the unpredictability of it all. In today’s guest post, a newly minted college grad — who teaches English to French teenagers, fights off the advances of train conductors, and like the rest of us, is petrified of growing up — muses about how the reality of the adult life has suddenly crept up behind her and taken her by surprise. Baguette in hand, she stands ready to battle it back into oblivion.


La Vie Est Belle

by Maggie Beidelman

What the hell am I doing here? I keep asking myself this question. Sure, I filled out an application, booked a plane flight, and here I am: Lyon, France. Seven months of teaching English to unappreciative French high school students. But how did I get here?

Somehow I cannot reconcile the actions it took to get here and the actual existence of living, independently in another country. It’s like a dream that never should have come true, simply because these dreams always end with waking up to reality.

But this is reality. I don’t see why I have such a problem recognizing my own place as an American in France, because everybody else seems to notice. Just the other day, a train conductor asked me to explain the meaning of the word “ain’t” from the 60s classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Clearly, my status as an American entitles me to explain the existence of incorrect English grammar in popular culture.

Two months ago, I packed my bags, got on a plane and moved to France to teach English, write, and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Why did I choose this simultaneously terrifying and thrilling adventure? You might say it’s because there aren’t any jobs in America, anyway. And you’re right. But that’s not the sole reason behind my choice to throw everything I own into two suitcases, leave behind my boyfriend of a year and a half and my family, and spend all my savings on a flight to a place where I get a miniature monthly stipend to be handed keys and a classroom, with no training to speak of.

The thing is, I’m 22, and I’m petrified of growing up. This is the first autumn season in 17 years when I have not been sitting in a classroom, studying and preparing for a life that is no longer predictable, and therefore impossible to study and prepare for. I thought that moving to France would allow me to postpone the inevitable—adulthood—and give me something good to put on my resume. While the latter might be true, I have found myself mercilessly thrown into the writhing, gorgonic realm of adulthood with little more than a worn American passport and a strong sense of survival.

So far, that strong sense of survival has saved me from going completely insane in this absurd realm of expatriatism, where train conductors harrass young Americans about songs before their time and parfait does not mean an ice-cream at McDonald’s. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to dress in layers, buy bread from the boulangerie instead of the grocery store and say, “No, thank you, I’m not interested in your advances,” or rather, “Get lost.”

It’s mid-November now, and here I am. Thirteen-hour teaching week. Daily fresh bread. Cute little French apartment. If I had stayed in the States, I probably would’ve joined the 80 percent of my class who moved back in with their parents after graduation. But, I didn’t. Somehow I gathered up enough nerve to leave everything behind in hopes of finding some exciting new adventure, if not terrifying and completely maniacal.

And I found it. It’s crazy and fun and I’m homesick and happy and somewhere, at some point, adulthood has snuck up on me. But, with baguette in hand, I stand ready to battle it back into oblivion and embrace the uncertainty of a life suspended between the predictable past and a foreign future. Because not knowing what’s going to happen next weekend, next month or next year is what makes my life exciting. La vie est belle.

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Last week I fired up a post that began by asking readers to take a trip in the Wayback machine and revisit what they wanted to be when they grew up: A ballerina? A rockstar? A zookeeper? The first girl to crack the Major Leagues? A Power Ranger? Our Ms. X, a few years post-college and up to her ears in the vagaries of the real world, takes on the treadmill — and finds that if you don’t watch out, you never get off.

Decide, Decide, Decide!

by Nicole X.

Power Ranger? Sounds very familiar :) But I don’t remember if I said that in class or just thought about it when you asked. Maybe that glorious response belongs to someone else.

This post really speaks to me. When it came time to apply for college, and all through college, just about every conversation I had with my dad was all about what I was going to do with my life. Or more specifically — why had I not decided yet? It was always the same — DECIDE DECIDE DECIDE!!!! And then, since I couldn’t come up with a sufficient and satisfactory answer, I was supposed to go to the career center at my college, take a magic quiz that would tell me what I was supposed to be, and report back. A sort of personality test, if you will. You have no idea how lame I felt going in to the center to ask for that quiz. And guess what? They didn’t have one….

My sister tells me she feels that she just let our Dad pick her college major for her. She said it was easier that way, and she liked what he told her to do well enough. Maybe that’s why he and I got into way more fights than the two of them did?

It took me picking a career path and working full time while going to grad school to figure out that I wanted something different. That the career I had chosen would not be compatible with the life I wanted to lead. My decision had to do with the professional life I wanted — but even more so to do with the personal life I want in the future.

Still, after making the switch from news producer to aspiring teacher, I do sometimes feel like a disappointment for wanting to teach. Not so much from home anymore, because many of my family members are teachers. (Their concerns center around the viability and sustainability of my financial future since my chosen career path isn’t one where I can say to my boss, “Show me the money.”)

Instead, pressure seems to hit when I run into old high school classmates and have the awkward “What are you up to these days?” conversations. One instance went as follows:

After the question, I said I’m finishing my teaching certificate so I can teach high school social studies. The look in my classmate’s eye and the smug grin on her face said it all. That, paired with the tone of her “Ooh. You’re going to be a teacher” seemed to say “Ooh. Wow. I thought you would have done something more interesting. I won.” That feeling of being judged made me want to judge the choices she’d made that led her to a steady, safe and seemingly successful cubicle job.

And as I walked away, I just felt horrible, both for judging and for feeling judged. Isn’t this where we should be uniting as women? What we should be fighting against?

Being supportive, and not competitive?

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Quick! Stop what you’re doing for just a second, and take a seat in the wayback machine. Try to picture what you wanted to be when you grew up, back when you were a kid.

A ballerina? A rockstar? A zookeeper? The first girl to crack the Major Leagues? A Power Ranger? (True story: That’s what one young woman answered when I asked this question in class one day.) I wanted to be a back-up singer. My husband wanted to be a bus driver.

My husband is a lawyer. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. My point is that it takes a while to figure out your dreams, your goals, your life plan. And for all but the very few, it doesn’t take shape until we’ve got some life under our hats, till we’ve played a little trial and error. Until we’ve done some growing up.

And yet. Just last week, I came across a piece — call it an advice column — in the New York Times entitled “Helping Teenagers Find their Dreams.” Clearly, it was a parent who was asking for help. Not a kid. Made me want to take drugs.

The response rightly started out with an admonition that parents not force their own dreams on their unsuspecting kids. Cool. But once that was out of the way, the column kicked into overdrive with a double-dose of exercises and whatnot you can do with your teenagers to help them find their bliss. Or whatever.

Ugh. I can’t help wondering if these poor overly-guided teens are the same ones who grew up with (the now discredited) Baby Einstein series or some such. Or teens who, a few years prior, were like a young girl my daughter ran into once in Starbucks. Wearing grade-school plaid and drinking a double-latte, the little girl was working with her tutor, powering through a Kaplan-style prep course for her high school entrance exam. (And, for some reason, no one even questioned the caffeine.)

Or teens currently working with college counsellors, making a mile-long list — and checking it twice — that ranges from “reach” to “safety.”

Which brings me to a more recent piece in the New York Times on “The Whole Applicant”. Now even public universities are looking beyond the numbers to the “holistic student.” No longer are AP course, high GPAs and test scores enough. Now, selective public universities are focusing on the “what else?”

In some respects, this is a good thing: giving special consideration to students who have overcome hardships, are first generation college kids, or those who have done well despite a high school curriculum that offers few, if any, honors classes. But still, there’s the whole issue of the value added: Play the oboe? Start your own cyber-biz? Pitch until your arm gives out? Kick ass at the high school Moot Court competition? Stick that kid on the top of the pile.

All of which plays havoc with the normal scheme of things: the self-direction that most of us need to figure ourselves out. It’s great if kids are doing what they want because it’s what they love. But what I suspect is a recipe for indecision ten years down the line, when kids who’ve been riding the treadmill since before they hit puberty, are finally on their own, in a position to deal with their own choices, on their own terms. I can’t help thinking that many of these angsters are young women, too, raised to grab the options their moms never had.

The knock on American culture (maybe Western culture, in general) is that childhood has been compressed. Partly the media is to blame. And consumer culture, too, that tricks little girls into dressing like mini-grownups from the time they’re ten. But the treadmill carries weight as well. And here’s the irony: adolescence — that period when your job in life is to define your identity, not to mention your dreams — lasts longer than ever before, with some experts suggesting that late stage adolescence now carries on till the late twenties.

I see these driven kids in college — and beyond. I recall one recent college grad, finally on her own and trying to make her own decisions, who once confided that she wished she had been born into a culture where everything from spouse to career had been chosen for her. Or another student, soon to graduate, who reflected on the great expectations that were riding her back. She felt that she had to do something amazing with her life — when all (all?) she really wanted to do was teach little kids.

The treadmill to blame? Could be. But about that last kid I mentioned above? Last I heard, she was teaching little kids. In Japan. I hope that’s true.

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So, on Monday I posted a rant in response to Lamar Alexander’s Newsweek argument in favor of a three-year college degree. Got some good responses, including this one from tk:

The three year concept completely baffles me. Especially when Alexander makes reference to no summer breaks. Let’s see, three years plus three summer breaks. Hmmm! It sounds to me like four years. Without the opportunity to get a paying job in the summer and leading to more debt for the students. Some plan!! It may help the colleges pay costs in the summer, but it makes for more debt for the students. Not a good recipe…

I am an attorney, and have been one for almost forty years. My career has been rewarding and fulfilling for me. Without a wide ranging college experience, I would not even be a lawyer because I was a math major, and the math and science requirements alone would have left me no time to explore the humanities, without which…….?

Colleges are NOT simply trade schools. And education is much, much more than training. Core courses provide a context for whatever career we choose. And, context counts. I, for one, am tired of doctors who are science geniuses and devoid of understanding and personal skills. I detest techies who think that the world begins and ends with engineering, and who require mathematical solutions to human problems. And I think we have no more need for business majors to whom the bottom line of their companies is mkore important than their impact on the real lives of real people.
The three year solution will lead to a less educated college graduate, when what we desparately need is a more educated one.

But, let’s face it. He’s been there, done that. Me, too. I wanted to hear from the kids, the ones who are racking up the loans and writing five-figure checks.   So yesterday I sent my Intro/Journalism students out onto the campus to find out what students who would be affected by such a plan thought about it. Their money — given the hefty cost of tuition at our university — or their, well, life plan. Following is a sampling of what they said (I’ve left out names. Hope that’s not a problem). The majority emphasized that, despite the high cost of higher education, the full four year plan is a major factor in their development and growth.

“You learn more about yourself when you try other things, are exposed to new and unique ways of thinking, become more open minded and increase the capacity to understand others,” said one junior woman.

A couple of engineering students said that with a three year plan, they would only be able to focus on engineering classes, leaving them no time to explore other subjects and become well rounded students.

One first year student said that the three-year plan seemed like a more efficient and practical way to save money — and some others agreed, given the cost of tuition. But most of the students who were interviewed voted no. Two sophomores said that they valued the extra time spent as an undergrad, deciding their career path and major. Another described how taking a philosophy course spurred an interest that otherwise would have gone completely unnoticed. One first year kid wondered: “Maybe you find out you don’t like your major — and then you’re stuck.” With the thee year plan, he continued, “you don’t have a chance to experience different courses in college. I’m not a big fan of that idea.”

An accounting major agreed: “I think it’s better to have college students attend for all four years. You need that additional year where you’re still developing your professional skills, your personal skills and social skills. A fourth years would be very critical in working towards your independence.”

All of which was echoed by — okay, not a student — the director of the university’s Career Center: “School is an opportunity to explore what’s important to you, what you’re interested in, and/or passionate about. It’s not learning for its own sake. College allows you to grow in more ways than just taking math, science and English.”

Possibly the best perspective came from a recent grad, who took six years off between high school and college, touring with a punk band and working low-income jobs before returning to school and finally graduating at age 28. “I think it takes most 18 and 19 year olds a few years to decide what it is that they want to do. three-year programs will be sending 20-and 21-year olds out into the workforce when they might not be mentally invested in what they are doing.”

Truth, said one sophomore. “That would suck if you’re only here for three years — then you’re out at 21.”

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