Crisis at 19

January 19, 2012

Remember the good ol’ days when people had their crises in mid life, and it involved purchasing red mustangs and rocking jeans that stopped fitting a decade ago? Somewhere along the way we entered into an age when kids are drafting five year plans in kindergarten, planning their investments by middle school, and entering full blown crisis before prom.

My name is Alpha, and I use sarcasm as a communication tool.

But in all seriousness, its something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I had my crisis in the basement floor of a university library on my nineteenth birthday. I was suddenly struck by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. Where am I going in life? I’ve not done enough? I’m not doing anything right. How will I make a contribution on this big planet? And so there I was, sobbing head down in a dingy cubicle on my birthday. Why? Because I didn’t have my entire life figured out by nineteen!

Thankfully I snapped out of it, and for many years I dismissed that day as yet another chapter in my neurotic chronicles. However, after working with adolescents and youth for so long, I’ve come to believe that perhaps I’m not so crazy after all [ok, maybe I am – but I digress].

The age at which young people are coming to me in distress about life’s big questions is getting younger by the year. And who can blame them? In Ontario at least, kids have to make decisions about whether they are going to take college or university streamed high school courses by the time they’re in middle school. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they’re now thinking about whether that job market will be too saturated by the time they get there. And if you’re in college/university and are still not sure you’re in the right major – consider yourself a lost cause!

I get it. The world’s in crisis, jobs are scarce, the stakes are high. But I’d like to live in a world where young people are allowed to dream a little bigger than CNN headlines. And where mistakes are allowed. And where ‘youth’ is a stage in life where people spend more time discovering themselves and the world, than redrafting their CVs.

Because the truth of the matter is, the world is changing rapidly. No life plan is bullet proof, certainly not one drafted in grade 6. So let’s lift a little pressure off our young people and let them breath!



8 Responses to “Crisis at 19”

  1. Natty said

    I’m sorry to say but I think those days are gone. One main reason being international competition. Children outside North America are studying harder, longer, and smarter than those in North America, along with added pressure from their parents to succeed- starting from kindergarten. A friend of mine who went to teach in Korea said for the grade 6 national exams, the whole school would wait at the enterance and cheer their peers as they entered the exam.This exam would determine if they could continue their education, and affect the rank of the school. That is pressure at a young age. Likewise I’ve heard similar ancedotes of students in China and India, who have never heard the words “summer break”. Reading the NY times about how skilled jobs are moving to China not only because of lower wages but because of a larger skilled professional pool, I’m inclined to think that it has something to do with how the children are cultured for work life at a young age.

    The luxuries of North America have afforded the “let kids be kids” mentally and they will find their way, but with a power shift to the East, this way of upbringing might be all but dead.

    Although I’m not saying this is the correct path for fostering child growth, I think it’s important to challenge children early on about what they hope to attain in life. If children are not pushed from a early age, it makes it all the more difficult as they grow older. As long as the drive for greater aspirations is there, whether or not they know what they are going to for their career is secondary because throughout life our interests change, but it’s what drives us that will put us on the path to success.

    • alphaabebe said

      @natty, you bring an important dimension to the discussion. some might say, the realistic dimension. you’re right – the ‘let kids be kids’ mentality is a luxury. it makes me think however, that its probably less of a luxury of the past, and perhaps a luxury of the privileged. when you have a cushion, the stakes are lower and the playground for exploration bigger and less daunting.

      in any case, im not convinced that all this pressure puts young people on the path to success. for some, yes it will. arguably, they’re probably the one’s who would have found their way in any circumstance. my fear is for the masses of young people who are equally capable of succeeding but buckle under all this pressure.

  2. Susie said

    Unfortunately, I am one of those adults who pressure young people to choose a career path…which is not right! We have fallen into this false sense of urgency trying to prepare young people for the future pre-maturely! Even adults have second thoughts on their chosen career paths without the world coming to an end.

    Keep them coming Alphie!

  3. Hosana Tesfaye said

    If we need a “drive” to put us on the path to success, just because we have a “drive”, whether we live in North America or not, is that “drive” what we want? What kind of “drive” is the “right drive” that we can get that will still let us decide or figure out on our own what we really want to do in our life? A drive to greater aspiration is great, but it’s the specific aspirations that we are given that result in distress.

    I am taking Economics this year as an elective. On the first day of class, my professor asked the class where we would like to be in ten years. I found that funny because I remember being asked the same question in the eighth grade. The responses although were totally different. In grade eight, we all said “doctor, lawyer, engineer, firefighter, we all had a profession that we were so confident about”… and now students’ responses were “paying off my debts, figuring out what to do after graduation…maybe doing something…somewhere…” No one is really sure of what exactly they want, honestly including me. Yes there are the obvious things like working in the field of my study but is it really what I want? Yes and no. I have to say, my parents did have a role into my decision. It could be how they raised me, how much things they exposed me with, what they kept me from seeing, or what they put more of my attention to. All these really did play a huge part in my life. I am constantly asking myself the same question “Where am I going in life? I’ve not done enough? I’m not doing anything right. How will I make a contribution on this big planet? ”….But I realize its not just me. The majority is asking themselves this question now a day’s…and like you mentioned (Alpha), more younger kids are asking. I read an article the other day saying that mental health is affecting people at a much younger age. The report said that more young people appear to have mental problems as they struggle to adapt to life. It stated that a decade ago, most mental illnesses were between 18-30 years old, but now they are five years younger.

    In my opinion, I think in this frenetic world, parents only have one mantra for their children: you must win and win only…and their imposing so much pressure on these wards… Have we always achieved success in whatever we did? I think parents forget this part of life, and think that if they impose success all the time, then the less failure the child will have. By subjecting this huge pressure on their children, when the child fails to achieve success, he or she breaks down.

    I use to think this was a cultural issue. Being the first generation in my family to grow up in a country where I have more opportunities then my parents did when they grew up. But I think everyone can relate to this. Do you remember in your teenage years where some of your friends or someone you knew seemed to always be doing something?

    I fell somewhere in-between. I was not a complete slacker, but I didn’t join every possible club or team out there. But even then, there were defiantly times I felt overwhelmed by all the commitments I was in. The irony is that most parents both have a set agenda for their kids and always pressure them to it, or they don’t have any set agenda so they expose their kids to various things which ends up confusing the child. Mistakenly, it is their responsibility as a parent to expose their child to as many “opportunities” as possible. “Let’s sign up little Jonny for soccer, lets sign him up for basketball, oh and he loved that song, maybe he wants to be a singer, or a dancer…”

    There is a balance that needs to be found. Because what happens in many cases is that a child learns that their parents always want them to not just “do well,” but “exceed expectations,” to “excel” in everything they do. And as they get older, that work ethic turns into a nightmare in trying to balance their social activities and hobbies with academic pressure, and friends, and still have time to enjoy life. Teens don’t need to excel. They just need to find a place in life that feels right, to explore who they are, what they like, and what relationships are all about. I believe there needs to be a balanced environment for someone to choose the right career path.

    • alphaabebe said

      @hosana. thanks very much for the rich contribution. the youth mental health issue is one that weighs heavy on my mind, and was partly what inspired this post. i think the question “at what cost” needs to be asked more.

  4. Natty said

    I think the flip side of the coin has to be seen- our parents vision. We all know why our parents push us- they work diligently and tirelessly to make ends meet and at the end of the day worry about one thing- money. Their educated counterparts on the other hand have safety knowing their RRSP’s, mortgages, and debts have all been paid off. Their life experiences are living proof of what researchers with PhDs and six figure salaries get to study- that the poorer you are the less happy you are and limited are your opportunities. Our parents learned the rules of game the hard way and are trying to help us avoid the trap.

    I can tell you right now, at the age of 23, my friends are envious of my upbringing. My father is called General J. He pushed us at a young age, and I can vividly remember telling my dad I couldn’t do the homework with tears in my eyes and to him that just wasn’t an acceptable answer. Fast-forward to the future and now my friends are the ones who wished their parents had more of a iron fist and laid the rules down more strictly. The foundation just wasn’t there for them. And I know personally, nothing separates me intellectually other than the training I had as a kid. Both me and my friends are not clear about what we are going to do in life, the difference is, I have an education to freely choose what I want , while my friends are limited to the narrow skill sets they have acquired.

    A good example of balance for children I believe is the KIPP program in the United States; keeps kids in school for 10 hours a day, some times on Saturdays, and shortens the summer break to only 1 month. While the kids study harder, they are taught in a way that fosters learning. All the kids are put on the path to post-secondary education, no exceptions. Malcolm Gladwell noted that to be really good at anything you need 10,000 hours of practice (about 10 years ), and since you really don’t have control as a child of your activities, it really depends on your parents and the path they choose for your young and adolescent future.

    What I do think is happening though is the critical age to teach and push kids is being missed (before the age of 11) so come pre-teen or teenage when the parents expect their children to succeed they are forgetting the house was built on sand. That’s when parents and children start to see the house sinking, which sadly enough, is sometimes to too late…

    (link to KIPP program on youtube if you want a better sense of the program )

  5. alphaabebe said

    Fascinating debate going on about what it takes to foster development and success in young people! @natty argues that rigor and intensity brings out the best in young people. @susie who suggests that we have a false sense of urgency. and @hosana who is concerned with the mental health implications of pushing young people too far.

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