13 going on 30: Professionalism encroaches on America’s youth

The workaholic mentality isn’t something that Americans are surprised to hear themselves associated with. We work a lot. Because I’m a college student, this workaholic mentality causes me to go through an entire thought process before consuming my morning cup of coffee: How much coffee am I allowed to drink for the work I have to do before class? Will I take more now so I’m awake during class later? And of course: I have to balance my caffeine intake and my anxiety levels so I don’t get heart palpitations during discussion again.

And this is just the process I go through so I can educate myself and then become an actual workaholic. The workaholic lifestyle is starting to reach a lower age group, and because it pushes past the acceptable demographic, it has thus created detrimental consequences. 

Sure, there are definitely pros to this for some.

As Americans, we work hard — make money — play hard — usually spending that money — and are productive: In short, we don’t sleep. There’s a certain power high that comes after we cross off the tasks on our to-do lists. While many of us end our days exhausted, we are ultimately satisfied by the amount that we’ve accomplished.

Conversely, there are downsides.

For one, there’s the fact that we’ve somehow evolved into a culture of constantly moving individuals, hoping to push the limit of what we can accomplish in a day. Between the amount of coffee, snacks, smoke breaks,5-hour Energy shots and meditation sessions, it’s safe to say that we’ve become accustomed to doing whatever it takes to finish that to-do list. It seems that we would rather strive to become superhumans in order to accomplish more in our day than live and truly enjoy it. I’m obviously not implying that we’re killing ourselves by adopting this workaholic nature, but it seems that having a relaxed, slow-paced lifestyle is almost unfathomable by the American workaholic’s standards.

As I said earlier, this isn’t anything new for us, so I’m not advocating that we change our ways completely. Truthfully, I don’t think we can change our workaholic lifestyle. There is a stigma attached to citizens of this country who do not comply with our notions of what it means to work hard. But while we can’t change this mentality, we can strive to keep it within its designated limits, which have proven to be severely threatened. 

This workaholic lifestyle is starting to reach a lower age group, pushing past the acceptable group of college students and into the age range of high schoolers. Last month, LinkedIn, the popular professional social networking site, lowered its age group to 13-year-old in certain countries, including the United States. On this change, Eric Heath, the leader of LinkedIn’s Global Privacy Program, said, “Smart, ambitious students are already thinking about their futures when they step foot into high school — where they want to go to college, what they want to study, where they want to live and work. We want to encourage these students to leverage the insights and connections of the millions of successful professionals on LinkedIn, so they can make the most informed decisions and start their careers off right.”

Now there’s no turning back from the workaholic lifestyle, but when we’re willing to bring in people as young as freshmen high school into the professional mindset, I think we’ve gone a bit too far.

It’s one thing to spend your high school years working hard to meet your college or postgraduation goals. After all, for a staggering amount of students, little hard work or scholarship potential in high school correlates to little financial opportunity for college. But attaching the title “professional” anywhere near a teenager is a different story, and LinkedIn isn’t the first to suggest this. The amount of internships that high school students undertake — which usually entail mindless tasks such as coffee-fetching rather than an actual introduction to the field — has steadily increased in recent years. 

And we seem to forget that adolescence is complicated and plagued with social anxiety. The awkwardness and misplaced feelings of adolescence reality — cue my audible crying during a screening of “This Is 40” —  are already a hefty enough task to take on at the age. It seems a bit cruel to further the fragility of this age by adding the pressure of owning a profile on a professional site. 

Moreover, Heath’s presumption that “smart, ambitious students” have an idea of where they want to end up seems a bit strong. Adolescents don’t know that the future holds: It’s the bittersweet characteristic that defines their age in the first place. While some high schoolers do have an idea of what field they want to enter and whether or not they will choose a secondary education, most students of this age will likely change their minds. This is partly because high school provides a relatively narrow range of subjects from which students may categorize themselves and also because things simply change as these years progress. 

Yes, it is important for us to have jobs when we’re older; As a student who constantly views grad school statistics of low post-grad employment rates, I’m more than aware of this. And perhaps further preparation ahead of time could benefit certain students, but lowering the age for which we make our decisions regarding a field seems like an unfair trade to the anxiety levels at stake here. 

For a sad, but realistic majority of people, adolescence is the last time we think we can accomplish anything we want in the world and that we’ll end up in exactly the field that we envisioned. The notion that getting into Harvard Law is as easy as Elle Woods made it look, that a certain revolutionary idea of ours will spark the right business people and transport us to CEO status, that all those rehearsals in community theater will bring us to Broadway one day — this optimism and hope for the future is grounded on the fact that adolescence is mainly spent enjoying life and not transforming into a workaholic or potential professional just yet. Speaking as someone who’s incredibly nostalgic about this optimism, I think it’s important that we preserve it because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 

While certain people obviously do end up where they had envisioned, the truth is that the difficulty of growing up lies in the fact that this pursuit is going to be very difficult and often has its destination never fully met. Why make that realization come any sooner than it has to? 

Write Sophia at [email protected].