Making the ‘right’ choices

Navigating the fraught landscape of making decisions in young adulthood.

Jonathan Giammaria, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Ten years ago, Robin Marantz Henig published an article The New York Times Magazine whose opening header read, “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” The question referred to those who had entered adulthood in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and failed to meet the societal milestones of a generation prior. In 2010, the question echoed the vocal concerns of a nation of worried parents inasmuch as it commented on and empathized with the realities of a new cohort of emerging adults—informally called the boomerang generation.

While this moniker may have fallen out of fashion in the decade since Marantz Henig’s article (and with it, its implicit air of contempt), the harsh realities of adulthood that plague millennials and older Gen Zers have nevertheless persisted. In Canada, fewer young people are getting married than baby boomers did in the 1980s, with Quebec’s rates being the lowest in the country. Likewise, there is a widening age-range for those completing university degrees and more students are extending their studies with graduate work rather than launching into careers straightaway. It is clear that millennials are intensely reluctant to commit to lifelong jobs as their parents and grandparents once did.

Although they help to capture current trends, a statistics-based focus privileges those normative milestones as the constants against which such young people are “deviating.” In the public-private divide, the expectations of the whole are the default; they override the desires of the individual and take for granted such reasons behind developmental difference as a rebellion against or disillusionment with “the system.” But the blind spot in that logic lies in its holistic top-down rhetoric—if the actions of millenials are automatically tied to their context and judged by it, then an investigation into the crucially personal nature of goals and choice-making falls to the wayside.

The question, then, shouldn’t be, “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” but rather, “What is it about choice-making in early life that makes it so profoundly difficult to do?”

Not all choices are created equal. What they entail in commitment or effort influences how we make a decision. According to McGill psychology professor Richard Koestner, who studies motivation and goal-setting, the timeframes of choices we’ve turned into goals weigh heavier on our minds the longer it takes to complete them.

“We have long-term goals, we have short-term goals [...] and I think it is true that the long-term goals are the ones that will be most difficult to reach,” Koestner said. “The problem with a long-term faraway goal is that it’s too abstract, and it’s too distant [...] and the only way to really get there is by having sub-goals or proximal goals [....] The problem is, it usually takes several different attempts [...] before someone succeeds.”

For something like New Year’s resolutions, Koestner argues, this advice is sound. Their yearly recurrence appeals to the idea of reattempting those goals which remain important across someone’s life, and abandoning those that don’t. But for a 20-year-old reckoning with a single choice that may impact their life over a number of years—such as choosing their post-secondary education—Koestner understands the advice to be somewhat frivolous. For many university students, the choice of a major is a gamble of commitment predicated on their sustained passion or confidence for its subject matter—even more so if its purpose is to lead to relevant graduate studies or work. University can feel like a bottleneck, an inflection point where the potential for failure or misdirection is a dire one; even if it’s not necessarily the case, starting over feels like lost and wasted time. Such doubts over the course of one’s commitments are what Koestner calls action crises, and their potential to occur only increases with the amount of time it takes to realize a goal.

In my conversations with Ella Martin, M2 Science, who majored in Environmental Biology at McGill before starting their M.Sc. in Biology, they explained that such action crises came about as a factor of imposter syndrome, an issue that many university students experience during their studies.

“There is definitely a lot of [...] self-doubt where it’s like, ‘Am I even good enough for grad school or for academia?’ And it’s mixed with, ‘Is that the environment that I want to be in?’” Martin said. “Throughout the last year of my undergrad, I was going back and forth a lot about whether I wanted to do grad school. I had started working on some applications [...] and then got too overwhelmed and had to stop.”

Though Kayla O’Sullivan-Steben, M2 Science, felt more assured in her decision to pursue medical physics for her master’s, she nevertheless experienced similar feelings of hesitation when entertaining the possibility of particle physics as an alternative for her graduate studies.

“[I’d] wanted to do medical physics since CEGEP, when I discovered it,” O’Sullivan-Steben said. “But [making a decision] was a constant stress in my mind [...] because it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do a two-year master’s, and then a four-year Ph.D, and then a two-year residicency before [getting] a job [....] If I had done particle physics instead, I could have stopped in my master’s [...] and [gotten] a job right after.”

The need to move forward along a pre-established path and the desire to step back and consider other options appear as incompatible actions, especially if our expectations of personal growth are strictly linear. When commitment takes hold of one’s decision-making at the cost of exploration, the result is what Koestner calls a problem of disengagement—where the healthiest choice is to stop what you’re doing rather than force yourself to keep pushing forward.

“A lot of us, if we have really important goals that we can’t let go of, it’s because we may feel controlled, so that we put our self-esteem and our self-worth into these goals, or important people in our lives have pushed us to value them,” Koestner said. “That all-or-nothing thinking, that, ‘It’s either this goal, or it’s all been a waste,’ [...] really makes people feel bad and limits their freedom to switch to something that they would like [...] and could progress with in the future.”

Not since the 2008 crash have our expectations for the future been so shaken up as they have by the pandemic. In the current COVID-19 crisis, no one has been able to maintain a sense of self as established by the choices they made in a pre-pandemic world. And, much like in 2008, the reasons behind such shifts in our lives have been out of our control. For most, the avenues by which we could realize our decisions—be it academic, social, or career-wise—have been completely negated by the widespread reach of the pandemic. Over the last year, Jan Bottomer, a career advisor who has been working for McGill's Career Action Planning Service (CaPS) since 2008, has seen students reevaluate their paths in two broad ways. For students whose academic or professional outlets have been completely shut down—such as in music and the arts—the instinct has been to become less explorative, to mediate their stress by finding jobs that are secure—relative to the uncertainty of the pandemic. For others, with economic and personal conditions permitting, the break in routine the pandemic has forced upon them has engendered a sense of creativity or curiosity for paths previously unexplored.

“At CaPS we have seen a positive increase in demand for our services over the last year and lots of mixed reactions and emotions from students,” Bottomer said. “There is definitely stress, anxiety, and concern, but we are also seeing a lot of resilience, creativity, adaptation, and engagement.”

Both of these reactions, Bottomer contends, aren’t exactly new; though it may be more pronounced at the moment, the state of affairs in our lives are those of constant uncertainty and change.

But the pandemic notwithstanding, Bottomer identified a second factor that has always affected young people’s decision-making about their futures—namely, the number of choices available.

“One thing that’s really important to consider with regards to career planning and decisions is that there is now so much more choice around job possibilities and in many ways, so much more accessibility,” Bottomer said. “That’s a great thing overall, but this abundance of choice also makes decision making more challenging. When there are hundreds of options, it takes more time to reflect on possible paths, which can increase that feeling of, ‘I don’t want to get this wrong.’”

Across all my conversations, the most commonly endorsed source of anxiety was exactly this: The need to go down the right path. The suggestion hidden in this concern is that the sum of our choices is a narrowing of our selfhoods. Either because the proliferation of available choices sensitizes us to the weight of a single path, or because the framework of linear thinking depends on a single commitment to the exclusion of all others, the anxiety of making a choice becomes the fear of stripped potential, of missed opportunity. Making the “right” choice becomes a comfort not only because it promises a path we believe to be the most fulfilling, but because it absolves us of having to consider the alternatives, and the uncertainties therein. It’s a kind of future nostalgia, where we believe that the bliss to come is the product of an unerring choice, a moment in time that marks the before and after of our lives.

When the number of choices expands and the pressures of finding the “right” path intensifies, making a decision becomes all the more anxiety-provoking. That isn’t to say that we should completely dismiss the weight of our choices, but that our unchecked fixations on them may in fact encourage the stagnation they are meant to prevent. It is the business of most anxieties to make us avoid the problems that are most pressing—the anxiety of making a choice is no different.

But choices don’t measure our lives because they set us down the “right” path. They cannot predict nor control the uncertainties that life throws our way; their guarantee of success is as likely as their guarantee of failure. They cannot always move us forward, nor should we think of moving backwards as a failure. Because they court the unknown, they cannot always be easily made—and this applies to millennials just as it does to anyone else, of any age group, of any generation. Choices measure our lives because the meaning of a life unlived is a life lived without them.

Design by Chloe Rodriguez