By Savanah Mandeville
“Now that you’ve found your paradise
This is your kingdom to command
You can go outside and polish your car
Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la”
The above lyrics are from the 1969 Kinks’ song “Shangri La” in which Ray Davies sings ironic lyrics about the emptiness of suburban life. Mocking the “designed community” of his sister and her husband, or today what we’d call a subdivision or tract housing, Davies patronizes the song’s protagonist to “Put on your slippers and sit by the fire / You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love this song and I’ve listened to it about 5,000 times. But on my 1,000th listen, I got a little irked by the song’s message. Who is Ray Davies, an international superstar at the time, to be such a snob about regular people’s lives?
Granted, the song is 50 years old and the theme is pretty Boomer-ish but is it not a theme we’re still familiar with today? We love to bash the ennui of 9-to-5 jobs, cubicle life, existing as a “cog in a machine,” living in a cookie cutter house in a cul-de-sac. Average American life is gently mocked in pop culture all the time. I immediately think of things like Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs,’ movies like Office Space, and the Nance and Rand memes on @MiddleClassFancy. And while the three examples I just named are all pretty awesome, the enduring message that working a regular job and living in a regular house and having a regular life is kind of pathetic and sad has started to bug me. It’s not because I think we need to go back to the nuclear families of the 1950s or that I think people shouldn’t strive for greatness (or that I think it’s okay to eat at Chili’s), but I do think it sends kind of an unfair message to our kids.
“Shoot for the stars.”
I recently read a book called “The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter – and how to make the most of them now” by clinical psychologist Dr. Meg Jay. I didn’t choose to read this book — it was part of the assigned reading for a class I’m taking this summer.
I’m 29 so I rolled my eyes at the title.
“Whatever advice is in that book, it’s too late for me,” I grumbled.
But my curiosity got the better of me and I started reading. I came to a chapter where Dr. Jay writes about one of her clients, Ian.
“Ian told me his twentysomething years were like being in the middle of the ocean, like this vast, unmarked body of water. He couldn’t see land in any direction, so he didn’t know which way to go.”
What the client was experiencing was something I experienced in college — option paralysis. The feeling that, after years of well meaning parents and grandparents telling us “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “you don’t have to decide right now, you have plenty of time,” you finally come to a point where you don’t really know how to set your mind to one thing and go with it.
Dr. Jay worked with Ian and eventually landed on digital design as a realistic career that fit his interests. He still wasn’t sure.
“I just keep thinking my parents will say I should be doing something more prestigious like law. Or I think I should be doing something more interesting like [taking Arabic and doing international relations].”
Ian was worried he would go into digital design and be unfulfilled, or he’d fail and the time would be wasted.
“But if I go for it and it fails, I will have spent it. That choice will be gone,” he said.
“It won’t be gone. It will be better informed. Important questions remain: Can you make a living? Will you like the work? These are things you need to find out.”
Ian responded: “I get hung up thinking I should know if this is going to work out if I’m going to try it. It feels safer not to pick.”
“Not making choices isn’t safe. The consequences are just further away in time.”
This is where I feel like the “you can be anything” message is unfair. It causes young people to tread water, afraid to swim in any direction lest all their other options disappear. It makes me sad when I see so many people my age get caught in limbo because they can’t strike a balance between following their dreams and paying their bills.
Here is Dr. Jay’s TedTalk.
“What do you do?”
I think part of the problem, too, is that we place such an enormous emphasis on the link between career and identity.
When you meet a new person they inevitably ask, “What do you do?”
I know what it’s like to dread having to answer that question because I either didn’t care about the work I was doing or I didn’t feel like I was living up some arbitrary level of success.
Why though? Why should someone’s job always have to say something about them? Usually a job title doesn’t tell us if someone is kind, caring, empathetic, creative, or even intelligent or hard working. There are so many things that factor into someone’s career path that it isn’t fair to judge.
Let me expound on that. Chelsea Fagan of the Youtube channel “The Financial Diet” has saved my life more times than I can count. A couple years ago, I decided to whip my financial situation into shape and I did so by bingeing many hours of her videos.
In one video, Chelsea dispels the old adage: “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“For a lot of people, the job of their dreams is something that is very, very unstable financially, and to make one of those leaps, one has to have perfect timing, the right connections, and also the financial freedom to leave their primary job. … So implying that everyone is able to go after this dream job they love is a ridiculous thing to begin with.”
It was like a light switch went off in my head. No one had ever said that to me before. You don’t always have to be passionate about what you do. It’s okay for your job to just be about the money sometimes. If your boring cubicle job pays the bills which allows you to be a badass painter on the evenings and weekends, then you’re already winning at life.
It’s actually not that easy.
Another issue I have with the regular people bashing is that for many people, being “regular” and “normal” is really, really hard.
After finishing “The Defining Decade,” I decided to read another book by Dr. Jay, this one titled, “Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience.” It describes people who have overcome difficult childhoods to do great things with their lives. They aren’t celebrities or rocket scientists. These are people who’ve gone on to have good jobs and happy marriages despite the odds.
I’ve seen first hand how hard it is for people in generational poverty and people battling mental illness or addiction to just pay their bills on time and keep a roof over their head. I once sat next to a girlfriend who had such severe alcoholism that she had the shakes and helped her fill out a college application. A boring cubicle job and a cookie cutter house would be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for her, and actually for a lot of people I know.
Even for the average millennial, getting the type of life mocked in “Shangri La” is out of reach. Increased college loan debt, coming of age during the Great Recession, higher housing costs, and an overly competitive job market contribute to the financial woes of Millennials.
- The average Millennial annual salary is $35,592.
- Pew Research found that more Millennial households are in poverty than any other generation.
- The 2015 American Community Survey found that income stayed relatively flat between the ages of 25-35.
- Millennial starting salaries are approximately 20 percent less than Baby Boomers made at that age (adjusted).
- Millennials have 300% more student loan debt than their parents.
- Millennials are half as likely to own a home than a young adult in 1975.
As if this weren’t enough to deal with, social media is making us all feel even worse. It’s easy to get caught up in the comparison game thinking we need to have a nice house, a nice car, a big wedding, and 2.5 kids. All this “shooting for the stars” and “trying to have it all” is stopping us from watering our own gardens and being grateful for what we already have. If you’re a Millennial or have been dealt a tough set of cards, don’t be too hard on yourself.
So the next time you feel like you haven’t accomplished enough in life, take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come. We have all had to survive difficult things. You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards — especially the made up standards created by society. Just keep on keepin’ on and work at your own pace toward the next goal in your life, whatever it may be.
It’s okay to be supernormal.
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