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Too Many Options

Why are so many young people overwhelmed with possibilities today?

I remember talking with one of my students, a 20-year-old in her junior year, about the future. She was a Sociology major, but she told me that she was only a Sociology major because that was the easiest major for students who want to go into teaching. When she entered the university she was planning to become certified in Early Childhood Education so she could teach kindergarten. Now she wasn’t so sure. She had taken a class in communications that made her think about becoming a documentary film maker. She also thought that a business degree might get her a high-paying job. In addition, she said, she eventually wanted to get married and have a family. She was confused and not a little frightened by what was to come after college.

As we talked, it became clear to me that she was overwhelmed by all the options that life presented to her. She was in college because that’s where she was expected to go, but she was staggered by the oft-repeated notion that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anything she wanted to be if she just wanted it enough and was willing to work hard. Deep down inside she knew she couldn’t be a physicist or a concert pianist, and she wasn’t really driven to be a documentary film maker, but the rhetoric of education and society at large (“be all that you can be”) had a tight hold on her. "I don’t want to settle for something that will make me unhappy in the future,” she said, “and I need to make enough money to be comfortable.”

Her confusion was heightened by the fact that her biology was telling her to find a mate and have children, while society was telling her that she had to choose a career. She wanted both but she had no idea how to pull it off. What kind of career would give her the money she needed to “be comfortable” as well as the time to devote herself to a family? Would she find a partner who would invest in the family and share the labor with her?

It’s long been known that having a plethora of options can produce paralyzing angst in some people. But why isn’t everyone delighted by all the possibilities? Some are, of course. They thrive on trying out new directions, having new experiences. Others, like my student, get overwhelmed. We propose that what might be called “option overload” has its roots in our hunter-gatherer past. Hunter-gatherer children had few options; they couldn’t decide to stop being foragers and start making documentary films. There was no “trying out” a potential career. There weren’t any alternatives. So young people were clear about who they were, what they were going to do as adults, and how what they did would do fit with the world around them.

We certainly don’t want to go back to the hunting and gathering life, but we need to recognize that many people crave the meaning, purpose, and certainty once provided by the survival imperative. They’re confused, sometimes terrified, by having to make choices that often seem arbitrary.

That need for meaning, for certainty, is deeply embedded in our genes, and we think that parents, educators, and therapists should understand that many young people are less interested in being all they can be than they are in finding something to do that has meaning. For example, why not integrate a course on making meaningful choices into the education curriculum? Kids are rarely asked to get in touch with what they actually enjoy doing and what makes them feel like they’re making a valuable contribution to family and community. A course that asks these kinds of questions could help them clarify their own wants and needs and make the process of choosing a direction less stressful.