What is the “Real World?”

As a senior approaching graduation day at Shepherd, I have heard quite a bit about this notion of the “real world” lately. Many of us are aware of this notion; it typically comes up when we are discussing an imminent transition in our lives with a friend, coworker, or relative and they say something like, “So, you’re getting ready to enter the real world!” The reappearance of this cliché in conversations with my peers got me thinking, what exactly is the “real world”?

One odd thing about the real world cliché is that it implies one of us does not occupy the world as it really is. Somehow and for some reason, reality for one of us is deficient. It is almost as though the interests and concerns that have been relevant to us thus far are devalued or dismissed. If you think you have problems, just wait until you’re in the real world!

Another odd thing about the cliché is that it seems to appear and reappear at different moments in life. For example, I can recall teachers in high school who would routinely remind us that the lessons we were learning in class would help prepare us for the real world (presumably college and a job).

Now, as an undergraduate in my senior year, I am hearing once again that I will soon enter the real world (presumably a career and marriage). The pattern here suggests that once I establish a career and find a wife, there will be yet another set of tasks that will take me deeper into the “real world.”

So is the real world cliché simply a reference to the degree of responsibility one has at a moment in life? Is my world more “real” than the unemployed 30-year-old crashing in his parent’s basement?

To me, the real world cliché has everything to do with our society’s fixation on accomplishment and conventionalism. The societal expectation for many Americans is to graduate high school, get a degree, establish a career, marry and have kids, retire and die.

As we grow up, assume more responsibility, and satisfy each of these expectations, our world apparently becomes more “real.” If we fail or delay meeting these expectations we are living in a somewhat less “real” world, occupying a “non-traditional” space.

I do not wish to debate whether these societal expectations are an inherently good or bad thing in this article; it is my opinion that they are merely a natural outcome of American culture and society.

If anything, this article is a condemnation of the real world cliché. Like most clichés, the notion of the “real world” is a gross simplification of things. There should be something more meaningful to say to someone transitioning from one episode of life to another (how about some advice?!).

Furthermore, the recurring use of the cliché is irksome; it is quite frustrating to progress from one act of life to another only to be told there is a still “realer” world to know.

Responsibility does not make your world real. The people you know, the things you have seen, and the perspectives in your head make your world real. The next time someone tells you, “You’re getting ready to enter the real world,” tell them that you are already there.

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