Last year, CPS students told me how they typically spend their after-school hours, from homework to procrastination to stress-crying, and how an “optimal” version of themselves would spend this time, from sleeping to knitting to masturbating. The results were honest and revealing, sometimes painfully so. (You can read that article here.)
This year, I thought it might be interesting to ask students about their future dreams and plans. One column asked respondents “where do you want to be?” while the adjacent column asked “where do you think you will be?” Students recorded their predictions for ages 18 through 118: some wrote down when they’d finish school, when they’d start working, when they’d become president, when they’d “adventure into the deep wilderness of Alaska to eat trout and fight bears,” when they’d retire, and so on. All twenty-three responses were entirely student-produced, and, honestly, mostly just funny.
The Troubles With Mortality
The most common trend across survey respondents came not in what they wrote, but in their reluctance to respond at all: students are highly uncomfortable with the future, and with death. Last year, when I asked CPS students about their after-school schedules, people were happy to fill out my survey. But this year, I had to beg/coerce/pester classmates to even think about life after high school. And when they did, most used humor to cover up anxiety about the future. Many respondents included some reference to avoiding death: one simply scrawled “IMM-ORT-AL” in the lefthand column. Another student wrote that, after his illustrious career as a professional snowboarder and environmental lawyer, he planned to fake his own death, then attend and speak at his own funeral.
In fact, only around half the responses I got were serious. The other half were joking, hopefully. My personal favorite response simply has “Dead” seven times on the left and “Stuck here” seven times on the right, with a brief interlude at age fifty for “France” and “Sweden” respectively. We can only wonder why the responder’s greatest aspiration is to become a Parisian corpse. I think many of us are just very very very nervous about our lives, and what we want to do, and how we’re going to get there. So we use humor to cover up our deep-rooted insecurities. Or maybe someone’s greatest dream really is to become the CEO of Burger King at age 118.
Work, Retire, Travel
The general model for an optimal life plan (at least in the serious responses) is to graduate university, get a stable job, retire early, and then either travel or pursue some passion, like music or writing. Several people also wrote about “eating good food” in their later years. Most feel the need to succeed, or at least work for a couple decades, before they can pursue their hobbies. Whether you find that depressing or simply practical is up to you.
Some students have their dream-life mapped out in specifics: studying engineering and music at 18, writing a masterpiece of music at 40, pioneering a new method of power generation/storage at 50, receiving the title of Prof. Emeritus at 60, etc. Others simply know that they want a “stable job” at some point and “happy days” afterwards. It’s also noteworthy that several people added in “marriage” or “have kids” with arrows or asterisks. They focused at first on their job path, only remembering to build themselves a family afterwards.
Pessimism Comes With Age
Since sophomores, juniors, seniors, and teachers filled out the survey, we can see how the “dreams” and “reality” discrepancy grows with age. One sophomore, for example, wrote almost exactly the same plan in both columns: college, get rich, marry hot husband, have kids, buy a nice house in NYC, die. The only major difference is that she aspires to marry Jared Leto, but admits that her hot husband might not actually be Jared Leto. One teacher, on the other hand, dreams to retire, live on a beach in Hawaii, then live on a beach in Bali, then live on a private island. This teacher’s expectations, however, are to work until old age, and then be abandoned in a nursing home. The same was (with exceptions, of course) true across the other surveys: the older you are, it seems, the more disheartened you become. Perhaps it’s because younger students have had fewer encounters with the crushing nature of reality. Somehow, they’ve just got a bit more hope.
Everyone’s nervous for the future. We’re worried about figuring out what we want to do. We’re worried about failing. We’re worried about ending up abandoned by our children in a nursing home. We’re worried about not marrying Jared Leto. It’s reassuring that we can use humor to cover up fears.And in the end, I honestly think that we’ll still find ways keep going, no matter what our future holds.