Last night I watched a documentary called 21Up for my “Faith & Film with Young Adults” class. It's available online here. This film documents several children as they grow from the age of 7 to 21, currently focusing on age 21. Begun in 1991, the filmmakers started with children from diverse backgrounds across the United States, filming and interviewing each young person every seven years. They will presumably continue this until these people die (or the filmmakers do).
The film begins with the quote about, “Show me the child at seven and I will show you the adult.” The filmmakers are conducting research to see whether this is true. Do these people stay pretty much the same over time, or do they grow up to be quite different from the way they were raised? In 21Up we see the children when they are beginning to think of themselves as adults. They reflect on their childhood aspirations and the settings in which they were raised, basically addressing the questions of to what extent they have been shaped by their upbringings, how well they have lived up to their goals, and what it's like to try to move into the space of adulthood.
The filmmakers did an excellent job of making each of these people likable. They showed them in flattering and not-so-flattering moments, but you're pulling for them the whole time. You want them to succeed in many ways: wanting the poorer kids to get out of bad situations, wanting the rich kids to find some fulfillment in life—and you do see them succeeding in many ways.
One of the most interesting things I noticed was that the middle and lower class kids seemed happier at age 21 than the richer ones. With the exception of one poorer guy who was in jail, the extremely poor kids had all gotten themselves out of the Projects, and had created a relatively stable, healthy environment for themselves and their families. The middle class kids seemed fairly happy as well, although some were stressed with getting all their ducks in a row so they could have the career they wanted. The upper class kids seemed the most unhappy/unfulfilled. They seemed empty. They had aspirations and several of them were succeeding in reaching those, but realizing that they did so while sacrificing relationships and their health (mental and physical). I guess it may be true that the lower our expectations, the happier we are! The ones who simply had the goal of putting food on the table and having just a little bit more than enough seemed genuinely happy where they were, whereas those who had high expectations for themselves (and expectations put on them by their families and communities) had a harder time feeling worthwhile about who and where they were.
What does this say to me, as I'm in the midst of a master's degree, with the goal of going on to doctoral work and hopefully teaching someday? Well, it says “be happy where you are,” first of all. It's easy to get so caught up in the goal that I can miss the journey. Something else I've noticed is that my generation has to work harder and get more schooling in order to achieve the same things that our parents and grandparents did, and so the goals that we have (or that were given to us, purposely or inadvertently) are not attainable in the 22-25 years that it took our parents to begin their careers. Although this is the case, our society still has the expectation that young adults will be financially stable and taking care of themselves by age 22 or so. In my case I've been able to do this mostly, but with a lot of help from a community who gives me cheap rent or pays me to do stuff that isn't completely necessary or that I'm not really qualified for. So...I'm grateful to have been brought up solidly middle class, but it's also an interesting place to be. I can have dreams that my grandmothers wouldn't have because I have much more access to education and jobs than they had, but at the same time, the fact that both my husband and I will have to work most of our lives just to get by in America is kind of frustrating. But then there's the question of “needs” vs. “wants”—we could get by with only one income, but we would have to live at a lower class level than what we've been accustomed to, so our middle class upbringing makes it more difficult to be content.
But, with the help of God, we are content here and now, and by God's grace we will hopefully continue to be content wherever we end up.