Rewriting a Life Script for the 21st Century

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Buying into a particular life script — a sequence of life stages that define what we do and when we do it — is easy to do without full consideration. Are we living old, inadequate scripts or are we adapting to new times and circumstances?

Our Parents’ Script: Up the Ladder

You most likely already know this script, so I’ll merely summarize. As a child you work hard just like all your other classmates to learn the same material and get a slightly better grade so you’ll go to and graduate from a better college. You will immediately capitalize on your superior degree to secure a career-track job and start climbing the corporate ladder. By remaining faithful to your industry if not your corporation, you’ll be promoted and regular raises you earn will allow you to buy a material lifestyle better than your parents enjoyed. You buy a house, then two, cars, and vacations. You “win” the game when you retire in relative luxury and can stop working altogether. Between your pension and a generous social safety net, all your needs will be met for the rest of your life. The End.

Breakdown

The promise of the old script was predictability and stability. Do well in school, and you’ll get into a good college. Graduate from college, and you’ll get a good job. Get a good job and you’ll have enough money to buy all the material goods you’ve been lusting after. Work at your job until you are 65, and retire in style. The script showed us step-by-step how to go from Kindergarten to a retirement community in one unambiguous, stable path.

Unfortunately, sinkholes and outright chasms began appearing along the old and trusted path. Getting into a “good” college has become less of a sure thing and more of a gamble. Accelerating tuition expenses put college out of reach for more and more students, or bury them under years of crushing debt. After graduation, a high-caliber diploma no longer comes with the promise of a good job, or any job at all. And for those able to land a job, layoffs lurk around every corner. Raises and promotions, once expected, are now the exception to the rule. Defined pension benefits are all but unheard of in the US these days. Buying a house, previously considered a stable investment, seems like a gamble with the housing market in free-fall. The promise of retirement appears out of reach to many after their savings evaporated in the latest economic crisis.

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The old script was fraught with assumptions that few questioned until change caught us by surprise. Abandoning our parents’ script isn’t an option for most — it is a necessity born of a world filled with new risks and uncertainties.

A New Outline: Blazing Trails

Rewriting our life script can seem more like a salvage operation than a renovation. But if we turn a blind eye to risk, it will find us anyway. The days of well-defined scripts are past, so consider this a rough outline of how some people are coping with new risks.

Beyond basic literacy and numeracy, our traditional cookie-cutter educational plan may be winding down. A new generation of homeschoolers and “unschoolers” are pioneering self-directed, independent learning outside the mandated curriculum. Their aim is not to compete on the same grounds as conventional students, but to find a way to demonstrate their worth by refining their unique interests and talents into marketable skills. Online resources like MIT’s Open Courseware and the Khan Academy are breaking the near-monopoly previously enjoyed by textbook publishers. The need for accreditation and evaluation remains, but if traditional collegiate credentials fail to make students economically viable, these disillusioned students will find independent ways of demonstrating their value, such as online portfolios or volunteer projects.

Lifetime employment has already been replaced by serial employment. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “baby boomers” had, on average, 11 different jobs between ages 18 and 44. Unfortunately, they spent a significant amount of time unemployed between those jobs as well. The new outline calls not just for shorter bouts of employment, but perhaps multiple jobs worked in parallel to mitigate the inevitable layoffs. In my own profession, most therapists have more than one job or business to keep their income steady. One of my professors reported working five different part-time gigs (including teaching), and a current co-worker claims no fewer than nine simultaneous jobs.

More workers are choosing to contract rather than seek conventional employment. While much of the shine may be off the title of “business owner,” freelancing contractors can at least have a little more control over their schedules and some input into their going rates. Being paid for results rather than hours worked is a way to hold multiple gigs while potentially putting in fewer hours than a traditional, full-time job.

With the credit, housing and employment markets in turmoil, buying a home makes less and less sense. Economists have identified “structural unemployment” as a major cause of joblessness, meaning that there are workers needing jobs, and jobs needing workers, but they’re not in the same place. A move away from home ownership toward greater mobility as well as telecommuting may be the new paths around structural unemployment.

The most fundamental assumptions of the old script — material abundance and retirement from work — are also under attack. The simplicity movement may be partially a “sour grapes” reaction toward the fear that this generation will be less materially wealthy than the one that came before it. But maybe we’ve already tasted over-abundance vicariously through our parents and found it wanting. The new life outline calls for a reexamination of what success looks like. If we enjoy our work, do we really need McMansions or luxury SUVs? What if we could work (and enjoy work) well into old age? Perhaps a delayed retirement will not sting quite so badly if we have control of when, where, and how long we work. Most profoundly, if we accept that layoffs and economic turmoil are a consistent fact of life, we can stop making thirty-year plans and do what we can today with what we have, resting at least partially in the belief that our abilities will still be valuable in a future we know remains largely undefined.

Your Turn

What script are you living? Is it the one you parents expected of you? Or are you doing something new and different? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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