The five-year plan is an invisible timeline that you can either craft for yourself, or have written for you by others. It dictates the big steps that a young professional can take to reach their dreams and goals; the extra-curriculars, the internships, the degree classification, the first job out of university.
You can basically fall into two camps; someone who has one – the career plan, the dream firm, and an actual LinkedIn account – and someone who’s still working it out. The universal, I think, is that we’ve all felt the twinge of anxiety that comes from meeting someone who seems to have it all figured out, who knows where they have been and seems to know exactly where they are going.
Though different for each person, the five-year plan seems to end its maker at one of three end goals: finance, consultancy, or law. Politics or journalism, if you’re feeling adventurous. This isn’t to say, of course, that going into a career in any of these sectors is necessarily a bad thing. There are obviously worse things in life than working diligently at your degree, building a marketable CV and going into a well-paid job in a competitive field. But it’s worth asking where the five-year plan comes from, and why it’s so insidious here in particular.
It makes sense that the five-year plan is so attractive for Oxbridge students, particularly those for whom “getting into Oxford” has been a goal for so long. If you have spent a year or longer frantically working at the ever-more competitive application process then you have already trained to compete with your peers in a familiar, regulated way. You have already achieved a marker of societally-approved, parentally-sanctioned, institutional success and it can feel difficult to know exactly where to go from there.
The straight path from a place like Oxford to a place like Deutsche Bank, or McKinsey, or the Magic Circle can feel as familiar as the path you took to get here. The undergraduate who has their second-year internship planned out, who is lining their CV from the first term they get here, is only going to feel the same safety and warmth of validation they got from their acceptance email.
This isn’t to say that it’s something to be criticised, but it is something to be questioned. Oxford is a place that often attracts a certain personality type; the dedicated, the ambitious, and the person who has grown so used to working under pressure that it can feel uncomfortable not having a goal to aim at. Ambiguity about what you want the rest of your life to look like is, after all, completely terrifying.
Oxford is not a place that leaves a great deal of time for self-reflection. We should all think about asking the critical questions, even if it is only for a moment. Have you decided what the you of your late twenties is going to look like, or have you just chosen from a list of options offered to you? Have you decided what success for you actually looks like, or do you just want to be successful, whatever that means? Do you know what you want to do, or are you just afraid of not knowing?