Where do you see yourself in five years?
Many people answer this question without too much thought. “I see myself as the top manager in our division.” “I see myself selling my first startup company and launching my second.” “I see myself looking for a publisher for my first novel.”
Here’s the next question. Who do you see yourself with in five years?
The truth is that lives aren’t lived alone; statistically, you are more likely to share your life with other people than the contrary. Despite declining marriage rates, people are still forming long-term relationships, cohabitating, marrying and having children. According to the Washington Post: by age 25, 44 percent of American women have had a child, and 54 percent are either married or cohabiting with a partner. The older you get, the more likely you are to cross these life milestones.
The number of people in your circle of responsibility also increases as you get older. Divorces and remarriages, for example, expand your shared life from a single nuclear family to a network of former spouses, step-parents, and additional children. As families age, you join the “Sandwich Generation,” becoming responsible for eldercare and older relatives while simultaneously helping children prepare for the demands of college and adult lives.
To be successful at your chosen career, you have to consider not only where you see yourself in the future, but also with whom you see yourself sharing your life.
This fact is true for both men and women, although women continue to bear the brunt of this shared responsibility. Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In urges women to put the “where do you see yourself” question ahead of the “and with whom” question, but women and men alike push back, noting that despite the best-developed career goals, someone in the household still needs to provide care for the children, the step-siblings, the aging relatives and all of the other people who pass through a typical life.
The Atlantic notes that in China, it’s often the grandparents who take on this caretaking responsibility; other couples across the world solve this problem by downshifting or changing careers, or by hiring outside help.
The trick to managing both the “where” and “with whom” questions is to plan in advance. Downshifting is neither a career nor a financial setback if you begin to prepare five years ahead of time. Understanding that children and parents are both likely to need additional care when you are in your late 40s and early 50s helps you plan a career that allows you to switch from a successful full-time role to a successful self-employed consultant role, for example.
Professionals like Sophie Florinetti understand the importance of managing career shifts throughout different life stages; she worked her way up to project leader at the Battelle International Research Centers, then switched to a consulting role to spend more time with her family, then jumped back into full-time work as Secretary General of the Geneva Constituent Assembly.
Taking time to consider when you are likely to need more time at home, versus when you are likely to be able to focus full-time on work, helps you effectively plan your career to achieve the best possible work-life balance. Like the popular human-resources question suggests, think of your career in five-year chunks: In the next five years, are you likely to get married? Have a child? Take on eldercare responsibilities? Send children off to college? Plan your career strategies with those responsibilities in mind.
One final example: The startup entrepreneur knows that selling your first startup before having a child is a good option; starting your second startup while caring for a newborn is not. That means that a savvy entrepreneur needs to prepare for those crucial early years in advance; as you work to sell your first startup, consider how to switch to consulting or freelance tech work. Figure out a similar path for your own career, that allows for ebbs and flows in work-life responsibilities, and you’ll know where you truly want to see yourself in five years.