As Rebecca Hunter becomes a "mature student" at 30, she wonders: is being a lifelong learner the key to fulfilment?
I’m sitting in a classroom, next to a guy who’s ten years my junior. We’re discussing the merits of two film reviews we’ve been asked to analyse – comparing their stylistic components and their content. We’re reflecting on what we’ve learnt in previous weeks about sub-editing and crafting the most engaging of headlines and standfirsts. Conversation turns to why we’re both here, on this Tuesday night, learning about the world of journalism. He has no A-levels so he’s here on an alternative path to university. “History and politics” are what he tells me he’ll be studying. “Boring, I know.” I beg to differ. If I could, I’d be a professional student fo’ life, of politics and all. Tonight though, I’m here to satiate more than an unquenchable curiosity and a peculiar love of writing essays. I want to switch career paths, you see. When I tell the guy this, as well as the fact that I’m turning 30 this year, his reaction is one of mild shock. (*congratulates self on not visibly aging since 2005*) I’m breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling here and definitely not starting at the beginning, so let’s rewind three weeks. I’m sitting on my bed, savouring the last of Sunday and eating the best fish and chips in London (I’m from Yorkshire, so I dare you to challenge me on this). I’m fresh from a conversation over wine and cake – AKA the very best kind of conversation – with a friend who’s one of my biggest cheerleaders. I always feel fired up following a chat with her, and tonight was no exception. I’m licking the grease from the fingers of one hand as I use the other to Google ‘part-time journalism courses in London.’ I land on one that looks decent and affordable and takes place weekly at a time that suits my schedule. And it kicks off just two days from now. Perfect. That’s how I end up sitting next to a teenager on a Tuesday night in Lambeth, discussing the merits of being a film reviewer, playing critic myself (“‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a scathing attack on systemic injustice and a gut-punching MUST-SEE,” FYI) and taking the role of student for the first time in nine years.
I say ‘student’ in the formal sense of the word since not a day goes by when we don’t all learn something. Yep, that cliche catchphrase is legit. Every day is a new opportunity to learn a new thing, but actually becoming a sit-down-at-a-desk student in a real-life classroom and paying for the privilege to do so? Well, that doesn’t happen quite so often – and more than likely not at all once you’re past your early twenties. But that career-switching I talked about before is becoming way more of ‘a thing.’
My friend, who also turns 30 this year, is in her second year of a full-time undergraduate degree, and her tales of studying alongside people who never had to trade homework answers with a friend over a corded phoneline because Google didn’t exist truly make me LOL. Plus, she’s further proof that we millennial-types aren’t ones for settling in jobs that don’t thrill us. While it’s doubtful that anyone will ever declare unbridled joy at the prospect of going to their day job, the monotony and misery felt in a 9-5 that really isn’t right simply aren’t worth sticking it out for.
The thing about turning 30 is that I’m going to seize it ardently but, granted, through gritted teeth. I’m excited for the impending party-planning, that’s for sure. But the reality of this upcoming birthday has brought to my abrupt and uncomfortable attention the fact that I’m not living the life I’m able and yearning to live. I haven’t given my capabilities enough credit. I haven’t truly tried to realise my potential. And I’ve been watching my peers grab work opportunities I’d kill for, their career trajectories proving precisely what I could be doing if only I sorted my life out.
I’ve spent much of the past few months berating my past self for not doing better. For not trying harder in college, not grabbing great opportunities and not giving more kudos to my own talents and skills. But while I don’t think it’s an inherently bad thing to reflect on how things could’ve been different, that kind of self-flagellating simply isn’t healthy. That’s why I’m doing something about it. It might sound trite, but it’s never too late to go in a different direction. After all, 18 is a bit of a ridiculous age at which to figure out an entire life path. According to CNN, changing jobs four times before the age of 32 is now the new normal. While this might be a reference to the switching of employers rather than entire industries, the sentiment remains the same.
We’re the job-hopping generation who’ve figured out the senselessness of staying in jobs we don’t want to get better at. If there’s no delight or desire to grow, the need to make ends meet is literally the only thing keeping us somewhere. And if we’re in a privileged enough position to glean more from a job than an exchange of skills for cash, I say we go for it.
Even if a career change isn’t in the works, being a student again can simply be fun. I was never one for voluntarily answering questions in class. All eyes on this flushed face? No, thanks! But so far on this new course, I’ve spoken aloud, debated with the teacher and pretty much welcomed all tasks with wide-open arms. (I’ve also felt dismayed at the lack of homework. I really am that invested in this.) I always got a kick out of taking class, but I’m more confident with it now. When you’re three decades into life, you just care less about crimson cheeks and more about doing a good job.
So, don’t let the fact that you’ve got ten or more years on any of your classmates put you off learning something new. If anything, that gives a distinct advantage. You’re wiser now, and better equipped to know what you want.
And if you go get it, no matter what age you are or how long it took you to figure it out? Well, that just makes you unstoppable.