"Prime Time" for What?

by Josephine Kim | 2/13/19 2:10am

You should really finish up that problem set, but you should also show up to that social event you planned. You should turn in that internship and job application ASAP, but you should also be sleeping more to manage your health. The pressure creeping over your shoulder. To work? Or to play? Are your 20s and 30s your “prime years?” Work now, play later? Work hard, play harder? 

With the combination of internal and external expectations weighing on you and the dizzying whirl of “shoulds,” you may not even find the head space to ask yourself these questions. You just go. If you live to see another day, you continue to move along. For some, anxiety and “hard work” comes and goes like a cloud above your head; for others, they form more of a perpetual haze. How can we begin to make sense of our “prime time” years? I decided to ask a few individuals for their insights. 

Madison Sabol ’18 is currently working in the Sustainability Office at Dartmouth. She collaborates with students on projects to help make our campus a greener space. As a student, she created the “Green2Go” reusable takeaway container program that we now use at Class of 1953 Commons and The Courtyard Café. While she enjoys her job and the benefits that come with working in a college setting, Sabol shared that she had to intentionally consider her other passions, like farming and education, alongside her desire to support herself financially at this point in time. 

“Being a farmer, in general, and in the United States, is really difficult financially and can be very burdensome,” she said. “And so, when I think about pursuing that career path, that seems even more risky to me, because there’s not a huge security net there.” 

She explained that there are many professions that she could have chosen to draw in more income. However, after many conversations with all kinds of people, from mentors to Vermont wine and cider makers, she reflected on her Dartmouth education and how it has allowed her to think about the future, especially in contrast to people of her parents’ generation. 

“It’s such a luxury to be able to choose what you want to do ... I think in the broad scheme of things, that education will allow you to choose your path ... I’m making enough to support myself this year, but I’m able to make that decision based off the fact that I love what I’m doing. I was able to choose this job,” Sabol said. 

Interestingly, Sabol also has observed the differing experiences some of her peers have had shortly after graduation. “Yeah, a lot of my friends who are doing work right now, they’re not passionate about, they don’t like it, or they feel like they’re compromising on their values or something to do their work,” she said. “But, they view it as a means to doing what they really love to do. And I think there’s different responses to that.” 

Economics professor Marjorie Rose pointed to a related idea. “Your generation, by the time you hit 30, will have changed jobs more than probably previous generations,” she said. “I have a number of students jumping from finance to consulting to nonprofits, just trying a number of different things before they’re 30.” 

Now, it seems people are interested in gaining as much experience as possible in different fields, in addition to pursuing more flexible working hours, having more time off and achieving a balance between personal and work life. Of course, career changes are not always by choice. Yet this trend is revealing of the evolution of what a “job” means. In Rose’s generation, a “job” meant a long-term 30-, 40- or 45-year career at one company. Perhaps that security is the natural sacrifice for shuffling in as many experiences and career path explorations as possible. 

Rose said that she had a conversation about work-personal lifestyle balance with her college graduate daughter, who has been working in New Zealand for the past four years. 

“Even though their per capita income is lower, by actually quite a bit, compared to the U.S., their perceived quality of life is higher because they’ve got that balance,” she said. Perhaps, our generation is experiencing a natural, reactionary push-back to the idea of working crazy hours for better pay. We feel this battle between “work” and “play” may point to something more significant. 

“Quite frankly, you are not defined by your job,” Rose said. But many of us may have been implicitly taught our lives as a series of achievements, she observed. What is the alternative to living our lives as a series of achievements then? 

In her book “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters,” Emily Esfahani Smith ’09 wrote that you must create a narrative from the events of your life. In 2017, she gave a TED talk reinforcing this concept and provided this example: many of us find purpose in our work because that is how we typically contribute and feel needed in society. However, there is a flip side to staking all your meaning into your work, as disengagement at work or unemployment very well may happen. It is important, then, to find a balance between the two to truly achieve a meaningful life. 

If your life is not just a list of events, then perhaps your life’s “prime time” is not just a war zone between working and playing, and which wins out. Maybe your 20s and 30s are the actually the “prime time” to do something else. Like Sabol, maybe it is about identifying your luxuries and treasuries, in order to make the spaces around you better while doing what you love. But the process of crafting any story alternative to the mainstream one will take time. Smith makes an effort to point out that this is not an easy task. But, at the end of day, I personally take Sabol’s words to heart: 

“Continue to seek out community and be with one another and rely on one another,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of asking for help because thinking about the future in isolation is terrifying, but thinking about the future [with others] makes it a lot less daunting.”