Career or Happiness?
Big cities around the world have different nicknames – New York City is The Big Apple, Paris Vegas is The City of Love and Milan is The Fashion Capital of the World. Well, I’ve been told many times, informally, Shanghai could be referred to as the City of Pressure.
For your average person, living here (in Shanghai) may not be the easiest thing. Though there are many job and business opportunities, a lot of people have the same idea of “coming to the big city to make something of yourself”, so the competition is fierce. I would say I’ve heard at least one person talk to me about this particular topic each week. So, it got me thinking, “Is there actually pressure for young people to have a career before happiness, before having a family, over everything else?” “Is this an issue specific to young Chinese people in Shanghai or does it apply to everyone living here and/or worldwide?”
I sought out to find these answers through a series of interviews. The interviewees are all between age 25-32. Half are current residents of Shanghai. Half have lived in Shanghai at some point. Half live outside of China. All of the names of those interviewed have been altered to protect their identities.
Me: “T.W., what do you think, is there any sort of pressure for young people to commit to a career above happiness?”
T.W.: “I definitely think so. I’ve heard this kind of thing from my family and close friends.”
Me: “So how do you respond when you hear things like that?”
T.W.: “Well, no one likes to be pressured into doing something they don’t want to do but since it’s coming from family, friends, people whose opinions I care about, I am always willing to listen before making my own decision.”
Me: “So, how has it turned out so far?”
T.W.: “Well, my parents are the most important ones and they have supported me in most things I’ve done. Sometimes I have to explain to them why I’m making that decision. They might not always agree with me but ultimately, I have to make up my own mind with what I want to do in my life. I would say I have always chosen happiness over my career.”
Me: “E.B., is there any sort of pressure for young people to commit to a career above happiness?”
E.B.: “In relation to society in general, I think there’s always this idea of comparing. For whatever reason, people are not happy with what they currently have and are always comparing themselves to others.”
Me: “Are you saying the pressure comes from within rather than from society?”
E.B.: “Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s always pressure that comes from society, perhaps it comes from the media? But then, somehow it gets internalized and it becomes the way we think about ourselves and others overall.”
Me: “So, have you personally had this kind of pressure from your family or friends?”
E.B.: “I have felt the pressure from society, to have a family or be at a certain place in my life by the time I reach a certain age but no, I can’t say I’ve received any direct pressure from my family or friends. I went to the university I wanted to go to, I studied what I wanted to study, I’ve always worked in jobs I’ve wanted to work in, I’ve always put happiness first in my life.”
Me: “A.M., is there any sort of pressure for young people to commit to a career above happiness?”
A.M.: “Well, in my experience and with my friends, I would say no.”
Me: “Really?! That’s it?”
A.M.: “Yeah. People want jobs they enjoy. They may have to opt for making a little less money than normal but it’ll be with something they enjoy doing. Of course, there are certain earnings based on age but that’s different.”
Me: “Would you mind elaborating on that?”
A.M.: “I think if people are past a certain age and have a certain level of education, it’s expected of them to make a certain income. Again, they may opt out of that but the expectation is definitely there. Also, I think it’s different between genders. I think if you asked more men versus women, the answers would change based on that.”
Me: “Wow, OK. So, where does it come from? You said, by a certain age and with a certain educational background, people are expected to earn a certain income, right?”
Me: “What if someone went to a top university like Oxford, they were several years removed from school and they were approaching their 30s, perhaps 28 or 29 years old. Do you think they are feeling any kind of pressure to take a higher paying job or higher level job, even if it sacrifices their happiness?”
A.M.: “Well... in that case, Yes. Ideally, you’d like to work in a job you like but as you get older, there’s pressure from “society” to do less of what you like and do more of what is “expected” of you. Someone in their 30s should have more of a handle on their life than someone in their 20s. I would go as far as saying it’s kind of a “self-pressure.” A lot of people around our age have grown up with the ideas that we can “do or have anything we want because we’re better than our parents’ generation.” Then, when the dreams and aspirations are not achieved, everyone is depressed.”
Me: “What do you think D.L., is there any sort of pressure for young people to commit to a career above happiness?”
D.L.: “Of course! I would say it mostly comes from society. Especially, nowadays in the social media age, a lot of people flaunt lifestyles online and others follow this, reaching for what are actually unattainable goals. Then, there’s this idea of your family and friends, perhaps a posse, that you grew up with and were very close with. As you grow more into your own, they look to you and may pressure you into helping them out.”
Me: “I see what you’re saying. Do you think there’s a difference in the pressure that goes to men versus women?”
D.L.: “Oh absolutely. Things have changed a lot and there are plenty of women in relationships today that make more money than the men but in some ways, it’s a pride thing. Many men still want to be that breadwinner and say that they earn enough money to take care of the family.”
Me: “So have anything of these pressures been given to you by friends or family?”
D.L. “…From friends or family, no, but I would say it’s more of a self-pressure. I have expectations for my life and where I want to be. Originally, I planned to go to law school. I worked at a law office for a year and hated it. I realized if I worked at a place like that for the next 30 years or so I wouldn’t be happy. More and more young people are understanding that happiness doesn’t come from having physical things. It’s more about having free time or more time to be flexible. More young people are understanding this but there’s still many that don’t.”
I must start by saying, I enjoyed this series of interviews. First, it turns out the pressure does exist and comes from a multitude of places. Second, the idea of “self-pressure” has trickled down after years of unconscious absorption from the ideas of those around us and can affect us in the biggest way. Finally, whether we feel the pressure or not, we must realize that only we can control the outcome of our own lives – it is up to us to choose career over happiness or vice versa. As the old saying goes, “I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul.”
And... That's it!