A generational look at what defines success

Expectations for today's young people are vastly different compared to years past


The need to succeed is different for everyone, especially generationally. Pressures from parents and expectations academically and socially are very different for today’s Millennials and Generation Zs compared to what was expected of those during the World War II era and the Baby Boomer age.

Audrey Pappenbrook, 83, belongs to the Silent Generation, which includes those born between 1925 and 1945. Pappenbrook grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and now lives in Golden. According to Pappenbrook, females of her generation were not expected to go to college — they were barely required to finish high school.

Pappenbrook said her father told her she needed to get married and raise a family.

“Women weren't expected to go to college in my generation. My dad said, ‘You’re just going to grow up and get married and take care of babies, you don’t need to go to college.’ It was definitely not an expectation for women,” Pappenbrook said.

Pappenbrook still wanted to work as a young woman just out of high school, getting a job she liked as a bank teller.

“I wanted to be a teacher when I was young,” she said. “Women's occupations were teaching and nursing. There wasn't a whole lot of anything available. I worked at a bank for a long time.”

However, once she became pregnant, the social norms required her to quit because you could not work and have a baby.

“The need to be proper was more important than the need to be educated,” Pappenbrook said.

Due to the way Pappenbrook was raised, and the expectations held of women in the 1940s, she planned to raise her children much differently. Pappenbrook and her husband wanted them to go to college.

Pappenbrook’s daughter, Audrey Brooks, 62, is a baby boomer. As the expectation for females to get married and have children was still very prevalent while Brooks was growing up, she had been given the choice of pursuing higher education.

“I will always remember the night that my mother and father sat me down,” Brooks said. “I was in high school, either sophomore or junior year, and they told me that they had been saving up since the day I was born, putting money away every month to go towards a wedding. But they would be happy to use that instead towards going to college. If I wanted to go to college.”

The expectation of going to college while Brooks was growing up simply wasn't there.

“I certainly did think about what I wanted to be, but the reality of potentially going to college, I didn’t know,” she said. “None of my friends or anybody that I knew, (women) went to college. They met their husbands if they did go and quit immediately and supported their husbands in college.”

For Generation X, people born between 1965 and 1980, things started to change, according to Jordi Owens, of Castle Rock.

Owens, 52, had far more opportunity. What was expected of Owens was much different than for women in previous generations.

“I think I fell into line with most expectations, but they certainly did not define me,” Owens said. “I was raised by a strong independent mother, and I suppose I was much the same as she was. So, perhaps in that regard, I didn’t comply, but I also think many things in regard to society's expectations for women were already evolving by the time I was a teen. I definitely had more opportunities than my mother’s generation.”

Parental pressure to succeed wasn’t very common in Owens’ childhood.

“I’m not sure I can recall feeling that, other than what I imagine is typical,” she said. “Do my chores and make good choices. But generally, I put a lot of pressure on myself, so I guess my parents didn’t really have to.”

Now raising her own children, Owens said she believes the choice regarding further education is fully their own.

“I expect my kids to be able to live an independent life and support and care for themselves,” she said. “Of course, we will help them achieve this, but I think the goal for them to be fully realized adults is independence. I want them to be happy and if college is the path that allows that, great, but if a trade is what does it, we would certainly support that as well.”

Owens said college has become more expensive today, and she does not want her children to go into debt for a higher education unless they know it’s what they want to do.

Millennial Leah Neu, a resident of north Denver, faced a lot of pressures to succeed while growing up.

“I tried to balance between healthy and unhealthy,” she said. “I think a lot of the times I would pull all-nighters to get my work done and make sure it was good. I went to class with a messy bun and having not slept. Other times I felt like it's really essential to step back and take some time for yourself.

Having grown up with parents in the medical field, Neu felt the need to live up to higher expectations.

“Just picking up graphic design in my sophomore year and realizing that that is what I want and going away from what they wanted I really do think did wonders for my self-esteem and my emotional stability,” Neu said. “I was starting to figure out who I was and not faking for someone else.”

With times changing and different expectations being held to teens now as Generation Z enters high school and college ages, there may even be less pressure with the evolving paths one may take.

Grayson Owens, who recently graduated from Castle View High School, says he views success as someone who attends college, although Owens doesn’t let this cause stress or uncertainty.

“In school, I was expected to show up to all my classes and get good grades,” he said. “I think that in society people are expected to have all As and Bs, and that to succeed in life, you have to go to college.”

While others struggle to meet expectations in current generations, Owens described a lifestyle in high school that was “pretty basic.”

“I went to school, would hang out with my friends after school or on weekends, play video games, and work on school or homework,” he said. “The most important thing for me was trying to balance hanging out with friends and doing my schoolwork. While growing up, I think the most parental pressure was just to focus on school and to get good grades.”

As times are changing and the world continues to evolve, teenagers and young adults find themselves facing higher standards than generations dating back to the 1920s. While the need to succeed has always been there, what defines success has been what has changed by generation.


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