There Are No More 5-Year Plans

What does it mean to plan out our lives in unplannable circumstances?

The last time someone asked me about my five-year plan, I was in an office with too few windows, interviewing for a job that listed one set of responsibilities in the description and a different set in the interviews. I tried not to let it faze me, because the role came with health insurance.

By that point, I’d googled enough examples, filled out enough college applications, and written enough cover letters to be able to succinctly answer t when asked. I knew that people want to see the trajectory you imagine for yourself, and that we like to award bonus points to people who stick to those plans.

But the more I was asked to measure my accomplishments in these half-decade increments, by which time and accomplishment seemed to be measured, the more I doubted that five-year plans existed anymore — at least in the way they used to. Especially over the past few decades, planning long-term has come to feel like a fantasy in and of itself: There’s always a new crisis (typically an old crisis that’s just gone entirely unfixed) that throws people into social and economic upheaval. “Planning ahead” is the thing we’re supposed to be doing, ignoring how long people have just been trying to get by.

Five-year plans were once an indicator of certainty, a linear, cohesive ladder. (While pondering the concept, I found this info from Encyclopedia Britannica entry to be relevant: Five-year plans were conceived as a method of planning economic growth over limited periods, first implemented by Joseph Stalin.) Some advice says that employers and interviewers — often the ones asking this question p — want to hear certain themes in your answers: You’re eager to stay with the company or organization in the long-term, you’re not thinking about the job as a stepping stone to somewhere else (growth, but not too much growth), and you’ll keep working hard as long as you’re in your role.

This idea that not only should you always be working, you should always be thinking ahead to how else you will be working in the future, is like the pinky-promise of capitalism: That work, those plans about that work, have to have value, because how else would we be able to sort out who is doing enough and has it together? Getting to not have a plan feels like a luxury, but at the same time, having the resources to imagine life five years in advance is a privilege, too. This way, worth isn’t just nestled into our current work. It’s embedded in how we plan to continue working, too.

“Making a five-year plan makes it seem like our life is a factory, and we’re making a plan for exactly what we need to do and produce in the coming five years,” says Sophie, 24. “I think this capitalist element of planning is exemplified by the fact that so much of capitalism is about anticipating the future (for example in the stock market, but investing in general),” she adds. “But when it comes to planning to save the environment, for example, this suddenly seems impossible.”

Really, it’s impossible everywhere. There’s no shortage of headlines about how today’s young adults are “behind” where their parents were at the same age, citing inability to purchase homes, moving back in with family members, getting married later (if at all), and not having kids as signals that the traditional plan for adulthood has been disrupted. Economic shifts over the past 50 years have made it so that predictable milestones for entry into adulthood are now unpredictable, or impossible. The trope is that young people are delaying milestones because they’re poor planners, or they’re not doing enough — but the reality is the milestones themselves have changed.

As research points out, the most important milestones of becoming an adult are now considered to be educational and financial accomplishments as opposed to moving out, getting married, and having kids. It’s not hard to see at least one reason why: Stability and security and steadiness are all in short supply. Not coincidentally, those are the same thing the five-year plan is supposed to offer: the best shot at things turning out okay.

For Sophie, five-year plans exist more in her personal life than in her professional one: “I’ve caught myself thinking things like, ‘Oh no, I should have been living together with someone now if I want to have children by that age!’ but I’ve been letting it go over the past year or so.” She points out that having five-year plans offer the illusion that you know exactly what you’ll be doing within those five years. As Sophie says, most of us, over the past year, have discovered how little we actually control. “Then, it’s easy to start blaming yourself and to become stressed out, thinking that, for example, you should have adapted to the situation better or worked harder, which makes you feel like a failure,” she adds. “You end up thinking that you should have done XYZ by now and that you’ll never get to the ‘right place.’”

That piles on: The persistence of the five-year plan tells us a single “right place,” right job, right status of life, right accomplishment exists. We’re always hustling toward the elusive right thing, and this fixation on there only being one makes anything less than feel like a failure. It negates how much changes in circumstances might impact our possibilities or decisions. And it ignores that, ideally, we’d be changing and growing over five years, anyway.

Aria, 25, embraced a five-year plan by committing to a combined MA/PhD program. They were sad to leave family and friends, but thought a move, the first move away from the city they grew up in, “would bring stability and a mild rest from scrambling to make ends meet.” Then, the pandemic hit. They’d designed their life around this experience, only to find security crumbling and faculty support lacking.

Two years into the five-year plan (and program), they’re moving back home. Their mental health has suffered. They were working ridiculous hours on top of coursework. “Generally I wouldn’t jump without something else lined up,” Aria adds. “I was raised by a single mom, and breaking this news to her felt earth shattering.” But new paths will emerge, and they’re no longer interested in mapping out new goals to correspond with years. “Diverting from my five-year plan feels like the best thing to do, even if it’s the riskiest.”

It feels impossible for most of us to plan even a month out right now, and compounding economic crises, job crises, educational crises, climate crises, public health crises, and more make planning for, or imagining, a future feel unfathomable. Seniors are about to graduate, others are about to apply to colleges or go off on job interviews, and we’ll ask them the same naive question about how they’re planning out their lives — while existing in a place that gives them so few resources to actually live those lives.

When the margins for error are slimmer, and the debt and cost of living are higher, there’s less opportunity for a sense of “go explore, find your path along the way.” It doesn’t feel rooted in the same reality as rent, student loan and medical payments, and general holding-it-together. It’s one reason I clung to my plans so hard: Nothing else is stable. I need this idea of my life to be.

But the way the question gets framed — as if having a specific plan is the value, not even what the plan entails — feels like such a small question compared to what we could be asking people to get to know the vision for their life: What’s important to you, and why? What communities are you part of, and how? What’s the kind of world you might like to live in some day? What do you need? Maybe it’s reconfiguring the “plan” to be a way of imagining life, so it looks like a guide, rather than a series of benchmarks to check off a list. The prize shouldn’t be how well we stuck to the plan, but rather, a life that grows with us.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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