I have always prided myself on my youth. Correction, I had always prided myself on my youth. Growing up, I was always among the youngest in my class. Heck, I was too young to join an elite pre-school but my cocky four-year-old brain reassured my worried parents that I would ace the interview. That I did, and thus my cockiness grew.
Needless to say, my life has turned out very differently.
18. 27. 35. 45. 50. No, this is not some logical sequence to decode, but rather the temporal landmarks for my life goals. Finish high school at eighteen, read my PhD by twenty-seven, own a home by thirty-five, get married by forty-five and retire by fifty. My adolescent life was driven by these numbers and they quickly became a mantra. 18. 27. 35. 45. 50. Needless to say, my life has turned out very differently. I completed my secondary education at seventeen, and since I started my master’s studies at twenty-five, I did not manage to obtain my doctorate by twenty-seven. I may yet be a home-owner by thirty-five and as for marriage, I am way ahead of schedule and already ticked that off the list. A gold star for me. Yay!
As a tween, I would find myself obsessing over these milestones and how I could influence (read: manipulate) life events so that I would make my deadlines. I am happy to report that I grew out of that habit in my late teens when life’s realities set in, and set in hard they did. It was then that I truly began to question the genesis of these thoughts. It would be easy to blame them, but my parents were not responsible for this particular neurosis. No self-respecting baby-boomer African parent would push their daughter to be married after forty. No later than thirty if you want healthy grandchildren. Perhaps the biggest blame falls on my peers and the media. I would not be a consummate millennial if I did not eschew responsibility and shame the world for all my misfortunes.
Life can be particularly humbling when you are laser-focused on your ambitions.
Life can be particularly humbling when you are laser-focused on your ambitions. Owing to financial reasons, I could not pursue my undergraduate studies right after secondary school and had to wait for two years before matriculating at the University of Nairobi. This allowed me to study under a government bursary programme that massively slashed the cost of my studies. Similarly, after acing my bachelor’s studies, it took two-and-a-half years to get a scholarship to pursue my master’s abroad. I would often lament over my misfortune and jealously follow the progress of my agemates while they relentlessly pursued their career goals nonstop; there seemed to be no financial limitations on what they could achieve. I would then think back to all the time that I had saved in my youth. What was the point of having started and finished school early? My age “advantage” was apparently worthless.
My age “advantage” was apparently worthless.
By the time I was starting my doctoral studies, I was sure that I had left all my notions of age-related milestones behind. Turns out that academia is as age-obsessed as my pre-adolescent self. If I had a euro for the number of times my age has come up, I would definitely retire by fifty! As soon as I began my research, I started to understand how academia preys on youth. Students fresh out of their bachelor’s and/or with limited life experience are preferred because they tend to be more pliable and rarely stand up for themselves when being inundated with insane workloads and deadlines. The younger, the better. Lucky for me, my “older” age was my salvation. Had I started my PhD by twenty-two, my mental health would be irreparably impaired and my self-confidence would be non-existent. Don’t get me wrong, doctoral studies beat every ounce of ego out of you. However, were I younger, the damage might have been permanent.
It has taken me some time to understand how privilege plays an important role in realising age-related milestones.
It has taken me some time to understand how privilege plays an important role in realising age-related milestones. Growing up in Nairobi, it gradually became clear to me the role that wealth and social class play in attaining these. Had I had access to more funds in my youth, I would have been able to achieve every single one of my goals to date. However, the winding road was not all doom and gloom. These gaps allowed for tremendous emotional development and presented opportunities that the uninterrupted path would never have afforded. I enrolled in a counselling psychology course at eighteen that came in handy during my doctoral studies. I spent more precious time with my family – I did not know then that it would be a long time before I would call Kenya home again. The master’s programme that I ended up enrolling in after numerous rejections enabled me to travel widely and experience so many cultures, and most important of all, led me to my husband. And that alone is priceless.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would only say that youth, like beauty, is fleeting. Seek wisdom instead, for she “will multiply your days and add years to your life”. (Proverbs 9:11)