An interesting if essentially anecdotal article in today's Washington Post started me thinking about how our lives are progressively hemmed in from childhood onward. The two main factors, outside of the geographic, class and financial background of one's parents, seem to be education and debt. Both are linked, especially here in the U.S. where a student has to pay for his own education unless he or she happens to be disadvantaged enough financially or advantaged enough intellectually to win a scholarship.
Education sets on a path to a career – what you chose to learn influences the jobs you will take. Debt also influences career – the need to make a high salary to repay debt also acts to push people into well-paying but not necessarily particularly enjoyable or satsifying careers. Unfortunately, most of us have to make educational choices when we are young, sometimes very young. At that age, we have no understanding of the real world of work, of what benefits and losses such work will give us and what price we will have to pay to do it.
It really is a jump into the dark, and I am not at all surprised when I run into people in the their 40s and 50s who have become progressively embittered about the course of their working lives. On the whole I have been fortunate personally, as has my wife, but a major factor in our being able to make career choices that give satisfaction if not necessarily riches is that both of us were free of debt from the very beginning. Me, because I received a state funded college education in England and a NIH-funded graduate education in the U.S., my wife because her family paid completely for her college education and she supported her graduate education by teaching.
I would estimate that being debt-free and thus able to start saving significantly for later life and retirement early in our lives has allowed us to compensate completely for being relatively low-paid, and we have had the added pleasure of doing what we like. But stepping off the treadmill has largely been a matter of luck, family and being in the right location at the right time. Not everyone is so fortunate.