Why Millennials Struggle to Decide

Meet Samantha, 37, single. Samantha has a high-power advertising job that consumed most of her 20’s and 30’s. She’s trying to decide if she should have a baby on her own. While she would have preferred to have a partner before a baby, she hasn’t been in a serious relationship for years and worries she’s running out of time.

Then there is James, 26. He just left his startup to work for a larger company, but big company politics are wearing him down. After a visit from his aging parents, he’s wondering if he should quit and move back home to be closer to them.

I met James and Samantha in 2015. A year later, Samantha is still trying to decide whether or not to have a baby and James still works at the company he dislikes. They had struggled with the decision and therefore did nothing.

These days, like Samantha and James, we face many tough decisions: whether to have a child, whether to move. Yet, many of us have no idea how to make decisions. Why would we? We are never taught decision-making in school. Decision-making is a skill, and like all skills, it has to be practiced and taught. Given decision regret from decisions like Brexit, decreasing job satisfaction, and increasing divorces, it is time we prioritized teaching decision-making.

Today we face more decisions than our predecessors. In the 1800’s you married whoever was the fiscally prudent choice, usually the person with an adjacent parcel of land. When it comes to relationships now, we decide if we get married, whom we are with, and what our relationship looks like (is it open? are we polyamorous?).

When it came to work, up until recently your profession was determined by what your parents did. If your father was a blacksmith you became a blacksmith. Now, we create our own career paths and hold jobs like cookbook photographer or YouTube star, jobs that didn’t exist in our parent’s time.

Despite our increased need to make decisions, children today make fewer decisions than ever. Instead of free-play outside where children decided what to do, today, middle and high socioeconomic status parents cart children from activity to activity. The practice known as “concerted cultivation” is an attempt to “foster children’s talents through organized leisure activities, which theoretically teach them to respect authority and how to interact in a structured environment.” It is designed to help children excel in school. However, it means that up until college and often in college, our lives involve little choice.

Technologists, recognizing the need, have started to invest in decision-making software. Watson, an AI developed by IBM, aims to make decisions for people using large-scale data. “Cognitive systems reduce the bias from our decision making,” said Jouko Poutanen, a Watson Software Architect.

While the idea of a computer making decisions for us seems logical, life-decision making is not solely a data problem and involves self-knowledge a computer doesn’t have. We could tell Watson to find us the ‘best’ apartment, but we would need to define what ‘best’ means to us — do we value light? square footage? or proximity to friends?

To address the need for decision-making education, foundations such as TheDecision Education Foundation (DEF) have started to crop up; DEF partners with schools, offering curriculum development and teacher training to help schools implement decision-making skills programs. For adults, there are places like The School of Life (TSOL) in London, which offers courses like “How to Choose a Partner” and “How to Find Work You Love” to help adults make important life decisions.

These schools provide decision-making frameworks to help students avoid cognitive biases and learn how to work through complex emotions. The frameworks enable students “to judge the quality of a decision as it is being made,” said DEF representatives. “We can apply the ideas and methods […] as a checklist for simple decisions or as a systematic process for difficult decisions.”

Recently Samantha attended TSOL to help her make a decision. She’s since sold her flat in central London and bought a small house in the country. While she decided she’s not ready for a baby, she’s working to achieve the work-life-balance she was looking for. “I had trouble before because I thought it was an all-or-nothing decision. Instead, I learned I could take a small step and that was OK,” said Samantha recently to me. What happened to James? He’s relying on self-reflection. And no surprise, he’s still stuck.

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