how predictable is the rest of your life?

Last year, I had a chance to add this question to the Tufts national survey of equity:

Imagine that someone summarized your life, long after your lifetime. To what extent do you already know what that summary would say?

I was interested in how people’s life circumstances might lead them to answer that question differently, and what different answers might mean. For instance, you might be a successful young student for whom the unpredictability of the rest of your life is a sign of broad options and unlimited possibility. You might hate your current situation and feel depressed because you don’t believe it will ever change. You might feel precarious, so that your uncertainty about the remainder of your life is mostly stressful.

I hope to investigate how various subgroups answer the question. In the meantime, I ran a very simple regression to try to predict answers based on people’s demographics (age, race, gender), their perception of their own economic trajectory (Are you better of than your parents, will you be better off next year, and will your children be better of than you?), their sense of civic or political efficacy (Can you make a change in your community by working with others?), a measure of stability at work (How far in advance do you know how many hours you will be working per day?), and a measure of stress about climate change (to see whether worries about the climate were making some people uncertain about their lives).

The results are below. (A positive coefficient indicates less certainty.) I’ll summarize the results that are statistically significant (p<.005):

  • Certainty about the story of one’s whole life rises with age, but the coefficient is small. People tend to get just a tiny bit more certain with each passing year. I am more interested in the small relationship than its statistical significance.
  • Certainty rises with more education. At least if you put the whole sample together, it seems that people who have more education don’t feel greater uncertainty because their options are expanded. Rather, they feel more certain, perhaps because they are more secure or feel more control over their lives.
  • Certainty falls with civic efficacy. Apparently, if you think you can make a difference in the world around you, you are less confident that you know the whole story of your life. I hope this is because you believe that unexpected good options might open up.
  • Certainty is lower for people who see their own families on a positive economic trajectory. Maybe perceiving that you are getting wealthier makes you hope for unexpected futures. I find it interesting that economic optimism and education have the opposite relationship to this outcome.
  • The demographic measures, stability at work, and climate stress are not related to this outcome.

As always, I would welcome any thoughts about these very preliminary findings.

See also: youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; to what extent do you already know the story of your life?; the aspiration curve from youth to old age

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.