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Relating to cultural benchmarks

I was reading some articles a while back about how young adults are struggling with feeling themselves capable and ‘grown up’ given the seeming impossibility of attaining the ‘usual’ benchmarks of ‘successful’ adulthood: home ownership, stable marriage, career security, etcetera. This got me wondering about what these benchmarks actually are, and what they really mean about us. Does a career define you? Does your self-image or social life define you? Do your relationships, family, health or fitness define you? Or are all of these things expressions of you?

With benchmarks, I suppose they are events or standards that we tend to measure ourselves by – some have them, some don’t; some want them, others may not; some assign deep meaning to them, others find it elsewhere. In a way maybe we all evaluate our personal worth against the absence or presence of these things and our views on that. Maybe we struggle our whole lives to attain or make our peace with what was possible for us according to such reference points.

Naturally, they seem to be historical constructions carrying with them social and cultural meanings of the past. It seems marriage used to be this sign of social status, recognition, maybe a moral or personal affirmation or judgement. Also that career spoke something of your character, your nature, your standing in life, your values and concerns maybe. And home seems to have demonstrated success, priorities, the face you present to others.

I suppose the essence there is that all this was seen to speak of inner qualities and contain an element of truth about a person. With modern life, I’m not sure the extent to which that remains true. Does home ownership really say that much? It often speaks more of opportunity; and while many still see value in crafting a certain aesthetic to demonstrate to others, I’m unsure how much that says of their true nature. Does a career really tell you much about a person? Sometimes it might, often it seems more of a pragmatic choice or one endured rather than embodied.

In all these things, maybe they define us in some sense and allow us to form some conclusions about a person; but I don’t know how much meaning is really contained within that now.

If in the past these benchmarks genuinely told society something about a person – signs of inner qualities flowing out and finding a place in the world – then I can see how they held meaning. But if they no longer necessarily speak of a person’s true self in that way, what is the value in assigning meaning to the more superficial considerations that money can buy?

Maybe there’s a way to step back, re-evaluate things, and see each person as a valid expression of their character, interests, situation in life. Listening to how people relate themselves now to these benchmarks in terms of values and life opportunities may contain more truth about a person and how they engage with their choices in life.

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