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3QD is a one-stop intellectual internet surfing experience that culls interesting articles from all over the web. Here, 3QD Editor Zujaja Tauqeer provides insights into some of 3QD’s top hits.

Scientists have given the present geological epoch the name ‘anthropocene’—it’s an informal but symbolic acknowledgment of the fact that human activities now constitute the most significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In our modern era, with everything at our fingertips, our environments respond to our needs and demands—not the other way around. The world is, as goes the saying, our oyster: more young people are attending college than ever before (up in growth by 48% from 1990 to 2012); at the same time, self-help books for parents, entrepreneurs, and lifelong learners stack the shelves at bookstores, giving the illusion of endlessly attainable lifestyle choices. Meanwhile the economy is becoming increasingly globalized and inventive.

But has the luxury of boundless possibilities paradoxically made timeless human endeavors like getting a job, raising children, and living in a house-with-a-white-picket-fence impossibly difficult? From the cynical rhetoric of economists, environmentalists, politicians, and most remarkably from millennials—the generation defining the #yolo present—it seems that expecting to have a decent, well-paying job and to not hate your children might be too much to ask. Youthful optimism has become the victim of righteous snark that constantly bemoans the failed promises of our future. Some blame the movers and shakers of the world economy who’ve made living a dignified life increasingly harder for the poor and young, while others point to the inordinate expectations of Generation Y, whose members supposedly feel they deserve happiness and success on the basis of good grades and big dreams. Is the truth at the extremes or somewhere in between? And why is there such a big rift between expectation and reality at the point when we should seemingly be most in control of our destinies?

The 3QD pieces curated here call into question how we define success, who can attain it, and whether everyday human activities have become too overloaded with expectations to be a source of happiness anymore.

1. Mommy Dearest

Here’s an uncomfortable yet ironic thought: do the opportunities and ease we have created for ourselves through the use of artificial technologies make it difficult for us to find happiness in traditional pursuits universally considered constitutively human? Do we simply know better than our biological clocks and social expectations tell us when it comes to how we should behave?

Take the example of motherhood, as explored in this London Review of Books 3QD pick in which Zoë Heller reviews All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. As Heller explores, women have historically been defined by their roles of wife, mother, daughter. But in a world where they see evidence of all else that they can and deserve to be—writers, soldiers, entrepreneurs—and have the tools and support to invest continuously in individual career and lifestyle experience, should they (and will they) be content with the self-effacing labor traditional motherhood aspires to? Many recent reports have drawn attention to the misery of parents who are statistically no happier than their parentless peers—indeed often unhappier. Mothers on the website Secret Confessions share long-repressed truths about how much they regret having had children. It’s shocking, yes, but ultimately not surprising and should provoke questions aimed at understanding what goes wrong when modern humans try to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps.

Heller explains how the emotional hyper-awareness of this generation combined with overwhelming expectations of happiness and self-actualisation produces fertile ground for the development of a self-centered attitude to achievement and success. It’s important to add that due to the nature of modern institutions, manners, and tools—all of which encourage women to “life hack” and “lean in” to become better versions of themselves—space in their well-ordered, inwardly-focused life trajectories for other humans with demands on their time can be an incredibly difficult and confusing adjustment. And if the mommy confessions are any indication, the adjustment can and does go horribly wrong.

2. The Passion Project

If the theme developing here is that there’s a growing rift between what we ought to be doing (if biology and history are any indication) and what we want to be doing, then it’s important to ask, as in this 3QD pick from Gordon Marino in the New York Times: Is following your passion and doing what you love an ethical pursuit? It is a question philosophers, among them Immanuel Kant, have grappled with. And though they reached their own conclusions—Kant believed it was your duty to do what you were good at never mind what you’d rather be doing—sentiments do change with the times. For one, there is no longer such a strictly observed link between talent, duty, and labor. A majority of the members of the “greatest generation” would have found honor and satisfaction—an approximation for happiness?—in the fulfilment of duty and work well done, a satisfaction that ideally would have trumped individual happiness and comfort. Success was the outcome of duty carried out diligently: you worked your way up in whatever job you found so you could take care of your family and retire comfortably.

But with the heightened self-reflection of Gen-Y, the barometer of success and the proof of one’s happiness has become how you feel about the work that you do. Is it any wonder that any option apart from satisfaction of one’s intellectual and personal passions breeds discontent? The case of the doctor, Dr. John Kitchin, a.k.a. Slomo, in San Diego who traded his stethoscope and clinic for rollerblades and beachfront is only the most extreme example of this dichotomy taken to its logical extreme. Questioning the “do what you love” maxim, occupational advisor Gordon Marino compares the college students he advises with the economically disadvantaged youths he works with to find jobs to question the “do what you love” maxim. He asks whether it’s province of a privileged few and if it creates a value differential doing work for the sake of it or following the path that makes you happy. He points out that the universally recognised heroes of our imaginations—the Nelson Mandelas and Mahatma Gandhis—risked the happinesses of a stable family life, an upward career, even a life of indolence in the act of sacrifice and in work that was important not for the individual benefits it conferred but because of the value of the act itself.

3.The Exclusivity of Existentialism

This is a good time to point out that the discussion of dashed hopes and existential dilemmas facing millennials is manifestly an exclusive, privileged conversation, as in this 3QD pick from the Boston Review. It might seem wilfully tone-deaf to preach about how the economy has let down thousands of aspiring graduates who have been (able to afford) doing unpaid internships and have a (really expensive) four-year college degree when multitudes of working class and adult students at the nation’s community colleges are managing through sheer grit to sustain an abiding belief in the relevance of the American Dream—the idea that hard work pays off. Yes there is hope that further education will broaden their intellectual horizons and better their economic prospects, but not much optimism in the face of daily struggles with one of the most neglected parts of the broken higher education system.

Mike Ross, writing from a community college campus in Southern California for the Boston Review, describes students caught between picking up kids from school and ferrying ill-relatives to hospitals while scrambling to register for fast-disappearing spots in increasingly reduced class offerings. They can barely afford to pay their rents let alone wait two hours in line to meet with the financial aid counsellor. Many need help from remedial courses the moment they enter the campus. While some are destined to waltz through without accomplishing much, there are others dedicated to using their education to achieve more in their personal lives and careers. Yet virtually all of the students Ross writes about work alongside their studies while often also taking care of families. This means they inevitably take longer to complete their degrees, while shrinking academic support services make their chances of passing more difficult. And all the while they accrue more and more debt in the pursuit of the vestiges of a dream. To these students who are grappling with “real life” long before their compatriots at more prestigious universities are thrust natively into it, talk of expected successes and promised riches is a privilege they cannot afford.

4. Conspicuous Consumerism

You might be getting the sense that when it comes to managing expectations about our futures and possibilities, people seem to be their own worst enemies. Modern men and women aim for the jackpot and end up in debt. But what if, as argued in this 3QD pick from Seed, the real culprit is actually biology—undeniable, universal, unyielding biology? This is the point Jonathan Gottschall drives toward when he asks, “Why do some people pay a 100,000 percent premium for a Rolex when a Timex is such a sleek and efficient timepiece? Why do others kill themselves at work just so they can get there in a Lexus?” In his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, which chronicles modern consumerism, Geoffrey Miller answers: they do this because of evolution. Indeed it’s no small role that sexual selection plays in propelling us to ridiculous behaviors and financial outlays simply to attract mates. Part scientific, part conjecture, Miller’s theory is that consumerist mania has deep-seated links to our base evolutionary needs to enhance—or fake—fundamental biological virtues like health, fitness, fertility, youth and intelligence. But the sheer power of marketing in our modern age—which he calls “the most dominant force in human culture”—has turned that pull into a veritable ocean in which we seem to be drowning.

The good news then is that consumerist culture is not inevitable and we can find ways to lower the cost to society, the planet, and especially our wallets. This would require drastically curtailing expectations and being more conscientious about needs versus wants.

However much he may overstate the case for sexual selection over other types of evolutionary processes, such as the need to conform and the psychological desire to flaunt conspicuous consumption, Miller does make some interesting points. In our “schizophrenic age,” when hard times are forcing everyone to pinch pennies, it’s worth remarking that government and media are desperately trying to do everything possible to crank up consumption by making us believe we need more, that in fact we should expect more.

Further Reading:

  • Jennifer Senior, the subject of Zoë Heller’s article, talks about finding joy in duty when it comes to parenting in this TED talk.
  • A controversial but powerful call to arms on the virtue of not wanting kids, in The Atlantic.
  • Monica Markowitz, deputy literary editor of The Nation, hits back in this college graduation speech at those who blame millennials for their own dissatisfaction.
  • The New York Times story of the neurologist who abandoned his career with the mantra “do what you want to” and nestled into a beachfront life:
  • In this article, Miya Tokumitsu argues passionately against the “do what you love” ethic.
  • The classic treatise and social critique of conspicuous consumption by the well-known economist, sociologist, and biting social commentator Thorstein Veblen.

Image credit:  Rachel Kramer via flickr