Stop asking graduates what they’re doing next

Washington Post
Monday, June 11, 2018

It’s that time of year when many new and soon-to-be graduates come to dread a certain question.

“Every person you meet will ask you what are you doing, what are your next steps, what are your plans for right after,” said Leigh Johnston, 22, a newly minted Smith College graduate. It’s the “older generation” who queries, she added. Her peers, not so much. They know it’s a touchy subject.

Earning a degree, college students tell me, is no longer enough. Now, you need a starter life to go with it, before you’ve even moved the tassel on your graduation cap. “That’s what is regarded as success,” Johnston told me. “Knowing exactly the next step right away.”

As a culture, we confer respect to those who have plans. To have a plan is to have intention, purpose, vision. People with plans appear to be going places.

Meanwhile, look up the antonym for plan and what do you get? “Disorganization.”

That hardly seems fair. Shouldn’t a new graduate get the chance to reflect and breathe? Doesn’t an unsullied horizon allow for serendipity and wonder? Yet most young adults have been trained, from their earliest years, for a highly structured life of next: Elementary to middle to high school, then college. SAT to college applications. Junior varsity to varsity. Internship to job. These guardrails may be restrictive, but they are also safe: With goals predefined, the anxiety of uncertainty is stripped away.

Over time, young adults may develop stellar résumés but get little opportunity to live with the discomfort of not knowing what’s next.

How did we get here? Just under a decade ago, elementary schools began introducing “recess coaches” for students who became either listless or unruly without structure during their free playtime. Over the last 30 years, more and more children have been driven to and from school, instead of allowed to walk independently. A childhood spent increasingly inside, under supervision and on screens has turned freestyle, outdoor play from a natural aptitude to a skill we need to teach our children.

First-year college students now spend the fewest hours socializing freely – without a plan – than any generation that came before it. Many say they feel guilty when they have free time. And a culture that worships at the altar of plans will produce children that find intermissions, lulls, or even 10-week summer breaks just short of intolerable.

Anxiety about not having a plan almost always masks a deeper fear: What to do when there is nothing to do. An obsession with structure over substance will lead some young adults to fill in the blank with something, anything, so they can check the box of yet another accomplishment.

“It makes you fake what you think sounds like success, but isn’t something that I care about,” Carter, a new college graduate, told me. Talking to older adults about his plans, he confided, “I’m saying things that are not even true.”

So how can you support a young adult in transition? Instead of asking what’s next, try questions like: What is something that excites you about life after graduation that you’re interested in pursuing? You might get to hear a story about wanting to bike cross country or read a novel – true passion pursuits, instead of faked ones.

Remind the young adult you care about that plans cannot – and should not – immunize us from the raw feelings that come with scary change. It’s okay and normal to feel a confusing mishmash of emotions: Fear, insecurity, jealousy, sadness, and anxiety, among others. Feelings are not the bug of a transition; they are the feature.

Johnston still feels anxious, even though she is heading to Taiwan for a Fulbright in August. The move deviated from her original plan and is following 10 weeks off, so Leigh felt unmoored, and squirmed through the first unpredictable week after graduation, then caved and made a list of goals. “The chance to process everything is scaring me,” she said. “I have gone 21 years nonstop, homework until midnight, meetings all day.” On her list: Read 10 books. Get a summer job. Exercise every day. Go fishing and catch a fish. Explore Buddhism and practice compassion.