Short-term, long-term, short-term; the Shifting Horizons of our lives

There is an immediacy about childhood. We are impatient, fickle; we want today’s new thing, an ice cream, to go to the park. And we always want them now. For young children, tomorrow simply doesn’t exist.

Then things change. School does that to us. It introduces us to “school days”, “weekends”, “holidays”; eventually it becomes even more specific: on Tuesday we have PE. “Tuesday” becomes a ‘thing’, it has meaning, difference. And then, as we become teenagers, school turns more to subjects, and tests, and measurement. There are suddenly new beasts on the horizon – exams! – for which we need to study, prepare, plan.

We shift our horizons from the short-term to the long-term. Life becomes less about what you do today and more about what you might do tomorrow. And as if to trump what school did to us, we face work and careers, relationships – perhaps marriage and children – and are told we should try to own our homes, get a mortgage, life insurance (a misnomer if ever there was one!). Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

It is a perspective that dominates until, one day, we find the catalysts for such thinking have disappeared, almost without recognition. Perhaps we finally do own our own home, or maybe the kids have flown the nest and gone to university/work themselves (suddenly enmeshed in their own version of the lifecycle!). Perhaps we have progressed as far as we can in our ‘careers’ – only to discover that one day we’re not actually working any more. Maybe our ‘skills’ and experience are no longer wanted.

And suddenly, the trump card. We wake up to the fact that we’re closer to the end than the beginning. It doesn’t matter that we still feel as if we’re thirty, we know we’re not. The aches and pains tell us that; the fact that we can’t run or cycle or push weights the way we used to. Bits of us fall off.

What then? What about all that long-term planning? Are there two inevitable questions? Firstly, what was it all for, really? And secondly, what do I do now? Long-term, as a concept, is suddenly invalid. There is no long-term. And if that’s the case, surely that means there can only be short-term. Not only is that frightening in and of itself, but the majority of us won’t have lived lives predominately based on short-termism for decades!

Maybe that’s why retirement kills so many people. It’s not age that does for them but shock and rootlessness.

We’re essentially on our own on this one. If you think about it, we were guided on the journey from short-term to long-term thinking by our parents, our schooling; there was a framework which – spread over many years – moulded us to think in a new way. Many kids will be oblivious to it; some find it daunting. Yet when it comes to making the return journey there is no guiding hand, no framework. Bang! One day we discover that we’re flying solo and are just expected to get on with it. There is surely no need for questions – after all, you’ve been preparing for this moment all your lives haven’t you…?!

Being freed from the responsibility of all that long-term thinking, can (should?) be liberating. Let’s be honest, making the jump back to a life where we can please ourselves like never before has to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Yet being able to take advantage of this, of being let out of jail, will not be easy for many. It requires a certain mindset – and the overcoming of all that programming to which we’ve been subject since we were five-years-old…