Now and Later candies were serious currency on my middle school playground. You could trade the tiny sweets for just about anything: an "in" with the guy you liked, court time playing basketball, even the cessation of rumors by the resident mean girl. Maybe we had it all figured out back then, knowing what we'd need most in life is both now and later. Alright, fine, we just wanted a sugar high. But if the balance between living in the present while planning for the future could come in a sweet, colorful package, it sure would be a hot trade on the twentysomething circuit.
Little sticks in the craw of a millennial like the desire to be in the here-and-now when everyone is interrogating you about the down-the-line. Jenni of Twenty's Inc. recently summed this up well: "Thinking long-term is such a foreign concept for most 20-somethings. It’s a dreaded thought and simply uncool. It’s all about NOW. Being in the moment. Why care about tomorrow when you’ve got today?"
I remember that feeling intensely. My journal read like a glitchy status update button, perpetually spitting out "Why doesn't everyone just let me live?!" Yet here I am in my 30s, regularly imploring you poor 20somethings to plan ahead and think of your career. How out of touch am I?
So here's my contrition, and my contribution: what I wish I'd known about the now and later balance, based on psych research no less.
Perspective 1: Living in the Present
Many of us like to live in the present (hedonistic) time perspective. This approach centers around a "if it feels good, do it" mindset. Obviously it can lead to risky behaviors and can cause us to avoid actions that will be important for our future, like saving money or <clearing my throat> planning for a career. But it also feels pretty darn good. Which isn't for nothing.
This is the time perspective that has been stereotypically linked to millennials. The "I don't think I just do" approach has pundits and parents shaking their heads and lamenting the stretch of adolescence. What are you crazy GenYers doing with your lives? they demand to know. The thing is, as we'll see shortly, while "all now all the time" isn't a good plan, there is a definite place for "in the now" thinking. And it's something the aging critics could use a bit more of themselves.
Perspective 2: Planning for the Future
What parents and elders want you twentysomethings to do is get down to business and plan your lives already. They'd love it if you sucked onto a future time perspective, emphasizing future goals and rewards and delay of gratification. And they're not entirely wrong; of course a future orientation is need in our lives. But only in moderation.
"We are concerned for those excessively future-oriented people who cannot 'waste' time relating to family or friends, in community activities, or enjoying any personal indulgence," say researchers Zimbardo and Boyd. "Such a 'time-press' fuels high stress levels." They go on to suggest "time therapy" for people like that. Perhaps parents should be careful of what they wish.
Besides, you millennials are not actually ignoring the future. Much of the present (hedonistic) behaviors you demonstrate may actually be future-oriented. You read that right. In a study of 248 undergraduates, 77% reported that they engage in behaviors now because they fear they will lose those opportunities later.
Respondents generally characterized adulthood as a period of lost freedom, when they would become someone confined to a particular place and social group, and when they would go to bed early. In response, a number of participants stressed the spontaneous nature of their current actions. - Ravert (2009)
The feared "when they would go to bed early." That part cracks me up. And makes me cry from the reality; just look at what time my tweets end each day. So let me pause to say: tweet 'til 3am millennials! Do it while you can! The 30s are coming for you! And back to the story...
Perspective 3: Staying Grounded in the Past
There's one final element we've been leaving out of this now and later discussion: the past. Identity researchers agree that we develop our sense of self in the context of significant others, many of whom are from our families and our childhoods. For better and for worse. If we can focus on the "for better" part while discarding the social comparisons and other pressures that compel us to give up on our inner yearnings, then the past has a meaningful role to play in our search for identity. And, hence, our search for a fulfilling career.
Striking a Balance
So how do we find a balance between our three time perspectives? Or develop what the researchers call a "balanced TP"? (how out of it can they possibly be?) Simple: we find balance by maximizing them all.
We can - and ideally should - be high in all THREE time dimensions simultaneously. We don't have to give up now to focus on later, or the past to be in the now, or later to consider our past. Time perspectives are orthogonal components, completely independent of one another. It's a myth that you have to be an old stick in the mud in order to start thinking about life beyond your next Pinterest pin. In fact, as we saw earlier, we may look highly spontaneous in our twenties precisely because our minds are shifting into more intense consideration of the future. Which is a good thing indeed:
The future focus gives people wings to soar to new heights of achievement, the past (positive) focus establishes their roots with tradition and grounds their sense of personal identity, and the present (hedonistic) focus nourishes their daily lives with the playfulness of youth and the joys of sensuality. People need all of them harmoniously operating to realize fully their human potential. - Zimbardo & Boyd (1999)
If I could just wrap those sentiments in a sweet candy shell, I'd be the most popular kid on the twentysomething playground. Which would make my past, present and future selves pretty darn happy. Now that's what I call maximizing.
Ravert, R. D. (2009). “You’re only young once”: Things college students report doing now before it is too late. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(3), 376-296.
Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1271-1288.
Gooey sweetness with a dense center, Now and Laters offer enjoyment for both the present and the (near) future. Which is all we want out of life, isn't it? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What's time got to do with it? Everything. (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)