For today’s graduates, a new answer to the old question: “What are you doing next?”


(Illustration by JESS3)
May 29, 2012

It’s not a new question, but it is a tired one, especially for students like me who just graduated this spring: “So, what are you doing next?”

You might think our blood pressure would rise, our foreheads sweat, our weight shift from side to side, and our eyes scan the room for the nearest fire escape. You might think that we’re terrified of the uncertainty, that the truth — which is that I don’t have plans for graduate school, have not nailed down a firm job and don’t even know what city I’ll be living in — would cause panic. After all, it’s common stock for today’s generation of leaders to worry on behalf of tomorrow’s: What will they do? How will they eat? When will they find direction?

But talk to us about what the future holds, and you know what might surprise you most? Our excitement. And not only about what we might possibly do next, but what we’ll do next after that — and next again after that.

Sure, many of us waver between panic and eagerness, between joy and terror, at the prospect of uprooting 10 times in 10 years. Even so, our fundamental openness to change is probably the most important lesson we can teach the current generation of elders who ask us that perennial “what next” graduation question. We are willing to reinvent ourselves as we move into the world. When we discover something we love, even if it runs against our college degree or our job experience, we’ll chase it down.

For several years now, researchers have discussed and defined a new stage of life called emerging adulthood that distinguishes this generation of future leaders. The stage stretches from teenage years through the late twenties; and in that time span, people change jobs, locations, ideas of career and calling. A lot.

Emerging adulthood, a term coined by psychologist and sociologist Jeffrey Arnett, is characterized by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between” and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities,” according to a 2010 New York Times article. So as the rising generation, we graduate from college with more questions than answers, but we also set off with more openness to the process. 

The world we hope to build is one where the possibility of reinventing ourselves continues long after our first college degree. We want to be medical students turned bloggers turned novelists, domestic policymakers with a passion for fighting global poverty, lawyers who go on to study Arabic poetry.

This openness is visible not only in our changing careers and aspirations, but also in our relationship with social media. We are comfortable being several “selves” without feeling duplicitous. We move easily from Facebook posts to Twitter mentions to instant photo uploading. We express our emerging identities as well as our more polished personas. We publicly chronicle our process of discovery and change, and learn to see each other through many lenses — and ourselves through many lenses as well.

That’s not to say the fluid nature of our identities doesn’t raise some concerns for me. I worry about the ability of my generation to find solitude. I wonder if we are too comfortable with uprooting, and whether that puts at risk the grounding of our convictions and the confidence of our decisions. Good leadership requires contemplation, joy in one’s own company and steadfastness in decision-making. We can (and should) learn these from the generation ahead of us. The question is whether today’s young adults, raised to the rhythm of constant clicking from site to site, have the patience and willingness to learn these lessons.

Still, when today’s leaders ask us what we are doing next year, I hope that our uncertainty renews a sense of openness for them about the future rather than a sense of fear. I could just as easily ask: “What are you doing next year?”

And it’s not necessarily a good sign if you can answer quickly. That, after all, is the adventure of living.

Sherratt graduated from Gordon College in May 2012 and received the school’s Collegian of the Year award. She was a Pike scholar majoring in religion, ethics and politics, and she tweets at @hilarysherratt.

More from On Leadership:

The five worst mistakes I made as a new grad

PHOTOS | Inspiring quotes from this year’s famous graduation speakers

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