#Opinion Of TheDay

Why we are obsessed with five-year plans

One of my least favourite questions in interviews and appraisals: "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?"

Much as some of my best friends and I have joked about going into the fortune-telling business together if our current professions prove a bust, there is still a niggling anxiety that wherever we are in five years... it won't be good.

Enter the five-year plan, which has a life cycle that rotates through hazy goals, detailed road maps and elaborate fantasies. Advice has blossomed among career coaches and self-help websites about the necessity of good planning.

Pick a professional target.

What job do you want? How will you get there? What qualifications will you need, and whose posterior must be osculated?

Pick a life target.

What sort of partner do you want? Will you find them while dancing salsa or swiping right on Tinder? How many offspring will you have by the time you're 45? What's the dream neighbourhood of the inevitably mortgaged-to-the-hilt apartment?

Yes, of course, planning is often very helpful.

It gives something to work towards - whether a newlywed friend's timeline for having a first child, or a teacher friend's skills upgrading to become a department head.

But one also runs the risk of overcommitment.

Yes, take charge of your fertility.

No, maybe don't pick out names in multiple languages for precisely two boys and one girl, each 21/2 years apart.

Or, like a buffet where you can't choose between the salmon sashimi or the duck confit, you're tempted to pile both options onto your mental plate - thus ensuring a complete ruination of the flavour profile.

So it goes, with - just for the sake of illustration - my overloaded, creaking Pinterest account. Summer graduation celebration or winter party? I'll make one board full of primary colours and another that puts HBO's House Stark costume designers to shame.

I don't suppose five-year plans were very much in vogue a few generations back.

Life was more structured then.

You finished school, if you were lucky enough to have much of it; wed whomever your clan subtly matchmade you with; signed on with an employer for life, like making a blood oath of sworn brotherhood; and reproduced at the mercy of unassisted biology, rather than the scientific miracles of intrauterine devices and in-vitro fertilisation.

You lived out your threescore and 10, kicked the bucket and were buried - not cremated, and certainly not expecting to have your place of final repose turned into an expressway.

Generational changes have since extended to all kinds of life decisions.

A Gallup report last year found that three-fifths of American workers born between 1980 and 1996 say they are open to job changes.

Closer to home, the median age at first marriage for women has gone up, from 26.2 years to 28.3 years; the number of Singapore residents over 25 with university qualifications more than tripled; and total fertility rate dropped from 1.6 to 1.2 - all in the period from 2000 to last year.

Feckless millennial put-responsibility-off-till-later daydreaming cannot single-handedly explain our obsession with five-year ambitions.

Today's frenetic pace of change must surely have bred new levels of anxiety in the children who grew up since the dawn of the Internet.

I remember the weeks-long outpouring of grief in the newspapers when Diana Spencer died 20 years ago. Last year, completely bizarrely, another princess - Carrie Fisher - was on her deathbed even as thousands of cinemas resurrected her teenage self in computer-generated images.

And, compared with the half-dozen breathless breaking-news alerts that greet me every morning - well, at least in the 1960s you needed to be standing by a radio or a television set to hear about the latest missile test or mass murder. Now there's no escape.

At this rate, can you blame anyone for clutching at his fantasies? They are more than just a reminder that we have the privilege of choices that previous generations lacked.

These detailed plans are also a psychological reassurance - the to-do list equivalent of bomb shelters and first-aid kits - that the collapse of civilisation is hopefully not happening until after - hmm, 2022, at least.

Someone tell the nuke-wielding generals, please. Species extinction is just not on my professional development schedule.


  • #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'Why we are obsessed with five-year plans'. Print Edition | Subscribe