When journalist Jennifer Wallace learned about the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, in which fancy, well-to-do parents paid a sketchy consultant to cheat their children into elite colleges, she didn’t buy the conventional wisdom about the story. Were they all just shallow snobs desperate to preserve their flimsy status? A mother herself, living in a community where nearly everyone, parent and child alike, fretted about college admissions — and flogged themselves to secure a spot at a top school — she believed something deeper was at work. Somehow, families had absorbed the message that a kid’s only hope for a decent life was to grind it out as a child and pray that the gods of higher education would bless their applications.
Wallace explores the roots and effects of this problem in her new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About It. Pressure isn’t limited to children of the well-off, Wallace explains. She reports that as many as one-third of high school students feel the compulsion to achieve, a function of widespread social and economic transformations that have altered American society and rattled parents.
“I’m not anti-ambition or anti-achievement,” Wallace told me. She is a striver herself, and cheers the pursuit of excellence. But something has gone off the rails when one in four kids believe that they matter to their parents for what they can do rather than who they are, which Wallace found in her research. Or when 70% of young adults sense that they’re more loved when they perform well in school or work. Or when 42% of teenagers feel “consistently sad or hopeless,” as the CDC discovered, and nearly three-quarters of high school students report feeling often or always worried about getting into their preferred college, as Challenge Success researchers recently found.
Parents have long worried about their kids losing ground vis-à-vis them; this “status safeguarding” is understandable. Fearful that their children’s margin for error has disappeared, contemporary parents feel compelled to get their kids on the path to success early, and never to waver from it. Admission to a top college seems like the best hedge against the unpredictability of modern life.
“To protect our kids, we want to strap a life vest on them, and we call that ‘college,’” Wallace told me. “But that very life vest is drowning too many of them.”