“Completing school, leaving home, starting a career, getting married, having children – until very recently this lockstep progression was taken for granted…”
-Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
There are a lot of expectations about how we should live our lives. You are probably familiar with the Script for Success – though I like to think of it as more of a checklist. The script is meant to play out like so:
- Complete the required levels of your local school system.
- Go to post-secondary school (this is especially true of the middle and upper classes and of our current time).
- Graduate from the above school. Bonus points if you finish in the discipline you started in for some reason…
- Acquire a Real Job. Real Jobs usually involve sitting at a desk and/or wearing business casual clothing. Only Real Jobs ever lead to Careers we’re told. If there is not lots of money involved, then it is not a Real Job.
- Move out of the family home. This can be switched places with the above act but they both must happen in quick succession or else.
- Find a (preferably opposite gender) partner.
- After a enough time passes that your relationship has matured like an inexpensive wine you must marry the above partner. 30 is a magical marrying number. No one can tell me why.
- Have huge expensive wedding. Invite all the people you love (and many you do not, but feel obligated towards).
- Buy a house.
- Fill house with stuff – but only the right kind of stuff. Nothing too childish (read: fun).
- Ensure your DNA’s continued existence by having some children.
- Set said children loose in the local school system.
- Repeat above steps.
Does the above list sound familiar? If you’re a millennial, like me, you probably began to feel aware of the script just as you started to look for work. There we were, set on the path to respectability…and then the economy blew up.
But you probably already know that story already.
There’s nothing like going off script to make you notice the script. When you’re following the checklist it is invisible, like gravity. Deviating from societal expectations gives you the chance to actually think about them. Considering how many people find themselves suddenly swerving off their presumed life path like a car on black ice, I cannot help but question the very idea of there being one script for living your life.
For one thing, trying to live your life like a linear story turns the simple act of changing plans into a crisis. You’ll notice the above breakdown of The Hero’s Journey, the ancient inspiration for most of our Coming of Age Tales, is a straight line. It can also be represented as a cycle – the hero leaves the homeland, journeys, defeats evil, grows, returns, – but we are most familiar with the linear quest narrative. It bears a noticeable resemblance to the “lockstep process” Kate Bolick identifies. If you find that to be just a little too unnaturally and too restrictive, then you’re not the only one.
More importantly, for many people living in today’s world, this linear script is at best unrealistic. At worst, it’s a stick to beat us with.
Search “millennials” on the web and you will get dozens if not hundreds of articles concern-trolling about how the past markers of adulthood, from moving out to marriage, are no longer fixed points in people’s lives. People have stopped checking things off the list in order. Other people are striking some things off the list altogether, or have begun to re-evaluate their expectations. Many people, whether out of choice or necessity, are not living as the generation before them live. The general conclusion: this change is a bad thing, because change is always bad.
In Life Story terms: we’ve all been hit by an event that we didn’t see coming. Many people feel that they are currently in a rather prolonged Intermission wedged between the proper sequence of life events. Doubtless there will be more such events in the years to come; if you don’t have the Gift of Foreseeing, you can’t plan for everything. There is nothing shameful about re-evaluating your choices or plans when you have to. Shaming people for starting anew or ending up in the same Intermission stage as their peers is just a snide waste of breath and bandwidth.
And an Intermission isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During the Intermission of a show, people stretch their legs, have a drink or two, chat with the other theatre-goers, get to know new people. Some decide that they’ve seen enough and leave for something else. Others enjoy the break and then go right back to the next act feeling refreshed.
We told the story of the Life-in-Linear-Progression so often that we’ve come to believe it. Now we’re going to have to tell ourselves a new story – or rather, a variety of new stories – about how to live life. I look forward to hearing these stories. I hope you do too.
Besides, the old, linear Life Story just isn’t reliable anymore – assuming that it ever was.