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Increasing expectations

Only fifty years ago in our home we had no shower, no central heating, no telephone, no television, no car, no computer. We did have a large family, a big (vegetable) garden, and a quiet street. We wrote with a dip pen, we read books, played with lego or dolls, listened to the radio and played outdoors with other children. The world was no bigger than our village, the bicycle was our means of transport.  Only a few kids would go from primary to secondary school. Studying was for the happy few. Yes, I know, I sound like the song of the old. When I write this down I almost feel old!
Students and young people hardly know different times than their own. Sometimes they are bothered by sky-high expectations, they are being rushed and they rush themselves. If we look back in time we may become aware of the speed and the impact of societal change. That is hard to keep up with for many young people and there’s no harm in reflecting on that now and then.

Cultural sociologist Gabriël van den Brink argued in 2004 that developments in our western society lead to a change in moral standards. Consider democracy, increasing wealth, emancipation of women, and participation in higher education. In previous ages examples like clean drinking water, sewerage, the Industrial revolution, the combustian engine, the right to vote in general and for women in particular did mark a next level of development for men and society. Recently computers, internet, smartphones, social media and artificial intelligence were added. And every time the new invention becomes normal very fast: the new standard. Our increasing wealth parallels our expectations about possibilities, wishes or even necessities. We have increasing claims in relationships with others, in job benefits, in school performance, in views on good and bad, in politicians, in leisure time. A standard is a requirement that makes you want more. You aspire to something that goes beyond the actual reality. A standard embodies ambitions and expectations and incites to higher performance. But that also causes new forms of dissatisfaction. People have to spend a lot of energy to keep up with the higher demands and ambitions. Whenever they fail it may cause discomfort and stress. In the field of education the number of drop outs rises due to higher social and cognitive expectations on students. Increasing the standards will inevitably increase the numbers that do not meet the behavioral or cognitive criteria. Modern times do not only solve problems, they also create new ones.

In widespread areas of our society we see a raise of standards. This shift moves very gradually and we are hardly aware of it, but after a while it becomes clearly visible. I do not know whether that is good or bad, or maybe both. I do reflect on a healthy way of dealing with it for young people and ask them about their deeper desires and choices.


“We must achieve more in less time and multitasking has become next to normal”, says psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter in an interview on Februari 15th. We understand what he says, and yet his remark hides a big paradox. Because we do many things simultaneously it will cost us more time and we don’t get many things done. How exactly does this work?

There is ample proof that both men and women can only do one thing at a time. One thing that needs our attention and concentration. Like driving a car, really listen to someone or study for an exam. If we do such a thing with attention we will be effective and efficient. But we tend to do more and more things at the same time. While we are studying someone throws a question, the telephone rings a couple of times and we get a few pushmails or notifications from our smartphone. Then we put our book aside, answer the question, answer the phone, and with some bad luck we get involved in a number of online conversations. After a full hour of “studying” we have learned nothing. And then we’ll have some shopping to do, we want to go to the gym and by the way we want to see something on tv. We’ll study tomorrow.

The truth is that we want so many things at the same time that we do not achieve any of our goals for today. And we call that “I had no time” or “I am so busy”. This is the reality of multitasking. Switching between different tasks takes an amount of time for any switch, and that is how we become inefficient and ineffective on balance. The real important stuff gets out of sight and we postpone it for a while or indefinitely.

Yes, we can study while listening to music, or we can walk and talk at the same time, but then it Always concerns activities that we do automatic or that do not need our full attention. That is not multitasking, but backgroundtasking. Some people think that while driving a car whatsapp conversations are a backgroundtask, but experiments show that our driving behaviour perceptably deteriorates and that we are a menace on the road.

Can we change this behavioral pattern? Yes, that is possible, but to be fair it is an obstinate and addictive pattern. Try putting your smartphone aside, try to go offline for only half a day, schedule “do not disturb” on your phone and observe how east or difficult that may be. In that mode try studying for half a day, take five-minute breaks for a cup of tea and move around a bit. It will make you effective and you may even remember what you studied. Is it more fun? That depends on your ambitions and on your withdrawal symptoms.

Dealing with expectations

A poll in ‘studiekeuze123’ (on choosing your study) among 1060 young people in 2018 suggests that youngsters experience stress in making the right choice for a study. Financial pressure and parent expectations are a big part of the stressors. We are aware of parents that push their kids from the age of six years to any talent scouting, because the kid is so talented, but that does not seem typical for parents in general. In this blog I will focus on parent and student expectations.
Generally all parents want the best for their children, and to me it seems likely that it has always been like that. Past generations of kids would follow in the footsteps of their parents, sometimes even in several generations. With a (grand-)father who was a farmer, fisherman or soldier the sons would likely follow that trail too. Being a housewife was the obvious option for many generations of young women.
Today there are numerous options for a study, and that troubles making the right choice. On top of that students have to deal with personal and societal expectations and the changed circumstances, and that may be a pitfall: young people are being rushed and feel hunted. Being afraid for a real threat may be livesaving, but to fear vulnerability and striving for perfection can on the other hand be destructive for the personal wellbeing.

The winners dream
We live in a hypermodern society [1] where anyone may develop succesfully: “succes is a choice!” Striving for perfection, the expectation that you can create your own life to be nice and succesfull are embedded in our culture. Society offers chances for everyone to be succesfull, so you’ll have to get the best out of it: everyone can be a star! That imposes a big pressure on young people: if they do not succeed they will fail!

Both parents and students have big dreams. Everyone wants to have superb relationships, to live a marvellous live, to achieve above average, to make the difference and to earn loads of money. Our welfare state and the technological possibilities suggest that this dream will soon become true. The promise of a sunny world without shadows advances. Thus everybody posts the best experiences and the greatest results through social media for anyone to follow. A continuous flow of likes is the most probable feedback. In which bubble do we live and do we want to live?

If we look at this phenomenon a bit more critical and sensible we would see this dream to be an illusion. And don’t take me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with big dreams. To top that let’s all dream of a better world. These dreams may inspire us tremendously! But let us distinguish between dream and reality. We cannot all be the best, better still there’s only one single best. Life is not only fun, since there’s also pain and failure and loss, relationships are a matter of give and take, growth is a matter of falling and rising again. There’s no summer without winter. So you’d better learn how to fall and rise up again, how to handle setbacks or distress, dare to fail, and let go of the idea that you must be the best. A healthy life and being relaxed are better predictors of sustainable growth than perfectionism and fear of failure.

What does this mean in concrete terms for parents?
Our culture will not change overnight. Parents that want the best for their child may want to look at and listen to their sons and daughters. How are they doing and where are they heading towards? How do they deal with reality, are they able to focus? What should they still learn? Do they have realistic expectations of themselves and a realistic perspective upon their options and desires? Can they relax and do they sleep well, or are they often exhausted? Do they have a nice circle of friends? Do they practice some sport, do they go outdoors? Can they handle technology and media in a sensible way? Can they be who they are and follow their own track, do they have wise people to turn to with questions or when in trouble? These may be unusual questions, but it won’t hurt to discuss these matters and it may even clarify a lot, also for the children.

By the way, if parents can financially support the study of their children where the government steps back, it will absolutely decrease the financial pressure.

What does this mean in concrete terms for students?
Being a student usually means that you are an adolescent growing to adulthood and autonomy. Don’t be misled and don’t mislead yourself. Eventually you’ll have to find your place and learn how to handle your circumstances. Even with headwind, even offline. In your complex situation it may help to start with your own preferences and possibilities without all kinds of unreal expectations. Try to focus on what really matters too you, and make your own considerations and choices. Take time for your personal development, you don’t have to be fully grown when you have finished your study. Pay attention to your personal balance and relaxation, sleep well and live a healthy life, care for yourself. Pay attention to your techbalance. These are the basic, natural ways to step by step healthy and sustainable development and growth. In short: live up to your personal standards, be relaxed and succesfull and start from your own desires, qualities and possibilities.

To conclude
Obviously in this blog I pay attention to a general trend of unreal expectations and perfectionism, I cannot look into any specific situation. You may want to consider these options or talk about it with fellow students, parents or friends. How do they see you, what is there to learn?

In case parents or students have personal questions I am always willing to look into that.

[1] compare with Buijs, Verbrugge en van Baardewijk. Postmodernisme Hypermodern. Essay in Trouw, 1-12-2018