The life prospects of a young person in today’s world are far from certain. Only a few decades ago, almost all young people knew by the end of adolescence where they would live, what their occupation would be, and whom they were going to marry. Today, most young people have no answers to these questions well into adulthood. The global economy has increased the opportunities, and pressures, for young people to move far from the communities they grew up in. Even many of the best educated will spend years in casual jobs without settling into a permanent line of work—and, indeed, the whole notion of a permanent line of work has come into question, as many careers are evolving into a succession of relatively short-term, disconnected jobs. Moreover, young adults all over the world are deferring or declining marriage. If trends continue, an increasing share of the youth population will never marry or may wait until their childbearing years are almost past.
Some of today’s young welcome these changes and the opportunities they offer. These young people have clear aspirations for their future. They are strongly motivated, full of energy, and optimistic, and they have created realistic plans to accomplish their ambitions. They enjoy exploring the world and testing the limits of their potential. They almost can’t be held back.
At the same time, many of their peers are floundering. In the face of the serious choices ahead of them as they move toward adulthood, they feel as though they are stalled in their personal and social development. Many of today’s young people hesitate to make commitments to any of the roles that define adult life: parent, worker, spouse, citizen.
This delayed commitment among the young is taking place all over the industrial world, including the United States, Japan, and Europe. In Italy, to cite one extreme case, it has been reported that the majority of 30-yearolds still live at home with their parents and are neither married nor fully employed. In the United States, a study of youth in their late teens and early twenties concluded that “marriage, home, and children are seen by most of them not as achievements to be pursued but as perils to be avoided.”
The economy that includes Europe, Asia, the United States, and other parts of the industrial world has been growing rapidly enough to offer plentiful jobs for the young. But many are holding back. Perhaps they are daunted by the uncertainties they face, perhaps they are fearful of perils they perceive in the choices they might make, or perhaps they consider the available prospects uninspiring and meaningless. The reasons behind their hesitation often seem mysterious to parents and educators.
Many parents are also voicing the concern—often humorously at first, but less so over time—that their progeny may become “boomerangers,” returning to their home nests long after they were to have flown away on their own wings. I’ve come to call this the “how can I get my wonderful daughter to move out of our basement?” question. Of course, not all parents are troubled by seeing their children take extra time to strike out on their own, and there is a positive side to the story: it does indicate a closeness that eluded many families in prior decades. These days, grown children feel comfortable staying in their family homes, and they do actually seem to enjoy hanging around their parents and communicating with them much more openly than did the baby boomers when they were young.
Parental love is one of the world’s great blessings, and it is true, fortunately, that most parents would gladly do anything to help their children get along. Also, it is unambiguously a good thing that most children feel secure in their expectations that parents will provide for their needs. But I am not convinced that most parents hope to spend their golden years providing basic needs for their children, nor do I believe that this would be in the best interests of the children themselves. What is in children’s best interests is to find ways to make their own contributions to their families and eventually the world.
The ultimate problem is not the parents’ role in the child’s life but rather the child’s own personal fulfillment. During the adolescent years, a certain amount of soul-searching and experimentation is healthy. Adolescence is a transitory period, a kind of way station on the road to a mature self-identity. This formative period is said to begin with the onset of puberty and end with a firm commitment to adult social roles, such as parent, spouse, worker, and citizen. During this key time of transition, it is sensible for young people to spend time examining themselves, considering their futures, and looking around for the opportunities that best suit their own ambitions and interests. For many young people, an extended period of exploration and reflection during adolescence may be necessary to establish a fulfilling self-identity and a positive direction. This is what the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson once described as a constructive “moratorium” from reality. And yes, this identity formation task in some cases can involve years of postponing choices.
Yet the postponements of many young people today have taken on a troubling set of characteristics, chief among them that so many youth do not seem to be moving toward any resolution. Their delay is characterized more by indecision than by motivated reflection, more by confusion than by the pursuit of clear goals, more by ambivalence than by determination. Directionless drift is not a constructive moratorium in either a developmental or a societal sense. Without a sense of direction, opportunities are lost, and doubt and self-absorption can set in. Maladaptive habits are established and adaptive ones are not built. Excessive delay beyond the period of readiness creates the serious risk that the young person may give up altogether on the tasks of finding a positive direction, sustaining that direction, and acquiring the skills needed to achieve the directional goals.
Today’s young people are well aware that they will need to make a transition from adolescence to adulthood at some point; but for too many of them, this awareness—which can be a source of keen anticipation for those who look to their futures with hope—triggers a sense of vague foreboding, or worse, a debilitating anxiety that can lead to further developmental paralysis. Indeed, extended disengagement from adult social roles is a prescription for anxiety and depression. To remain uncommitted to career, family, and other serious community responsibilities is an untenable position for a young person. It cannot continue indefinitely without psychological costs.
Some young people only appear to be doing well; far too many seem stuck, rudderless, and lacking a sense of what they want to do with their lives. They may be keeping out of trouble and achieving what we ask of them. But many are aware that something is missing from their lives, although often they can articulate their awareness only indirectly, through expressions of anxiety (“so stressed out!”), cynicism (“like I should care?”), or apathy (“whatever!”). Few people around them know what is bothering these youngsters, except in extreme cases, where a failure to thrive of crisis proportions brings the aimlessness to light.
What is too often missing is the kind of wholehearted dedication to an activity or interest that stems from a serious purpose—a purpose that can give meaning and direction to life.
YOUTH PURPOSE—HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM?
Some seven years ago, I began investigating what happens when a young person finds (or does not find) purpose in life. From my earlier observations of adolescents and young adults making their way through today’s world, I had come to suspect that much of the difference between young people who were thriving and those who were floundering could be explained by whether or not they had found a compelling purpose: in a career, in building a family of their own, or in some other way of making a difference in the world. I also suspected that the discontent or anxiety that so many young people were feeling was connected to such purposelessness.
In my investigation into the role of purpose in young lives, I and my team of researchers have conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with adolescents and young adults in several parts of the United States. We have also developed case studies of some young people who have demonstrated truly extraordinary commitments to purpose, many of whom discovered such purpose at an early age. Our initial findings reveal a society in which purposefulness among young people is the exception rather than the rule.
In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12–22 age range are able to express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. The largest portion of those we interviewed—almost 60 percent—may have engaged in some potentially purposeful activities or may have developed some vague aspirations, but they do not have any real commitment to such activities or any realistic plans for pursuing their aspirations. The remaining portion of today’s youth population—almost a quarter of those we interviewed in the first of our studies—express no aspirations at all. In some cases, they claim to see no point in acquiring any.
They often claim to feel happy enough. But can purposelessness provide a route to happiness in the way they seem to assume? Certainly purposelessness can be compatible with hedonism, and many disengaged youngsters do report that they are having a good time. But, as psychologists who have studied happiness in recent years have found, the moments of hedonistic pleasure that disengaged people may experience are short-lived and ultimately empty, especially in comparison with the more enduring and fulfilling types of satisfaction that the psychologist Martin Seligman has called “authentic” happiness. And many disengaged youngsters are far from happy, even in the hedonistic sense.
Many disengaged youth report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them. They despair at the emptiness and meaninglessness of their daily activities.
Even among the highest-achieving adolescents, observers have noticed a puzzling lack of sustained commitment to the activities that have led to their early success. In a recent New York Times article, education writer Laura Pappano chronicled a group of top students she calls “the incredibles.” They have accomplished so much in secondary school that they find college a letdown, with little challenge left to sustain their interest. One MIT student responds by spending time on water polo, Frisbee, surfing, and TV.
The reporter’s point was that expectations for students have ratcheted up to such an extent that the brightest students may be achieving too much too soon for their own long-term interests—and, what’s more, that such students eventually pose problems for an educational system that doesn’t keep up the pressure once the student reaches the university.
But I would make a different point: these brilliant students would not be losing their motivation in college if they had brought with them a better understanding of what they wanted to accomplish and why. If, during the early years of strenuous effort and high achievement, they had found purposes that went deeper than grades and awards, they would have hit the ground running when they entered college. They would then have been eager to gain more knowledge and skills to help them accomplish their chosen purposes.
In our colleges and universities, legions of high-performing students attempt suicide each year. Far too many succeed. Within the halls of higher education, there has been growing concern about suicide risks in recent years. Almost invariably, college counselors chalk up the problem to stress caused by the heavy burdens of schoolwork and competition. I am in full sympathy with the concern over desperately unhappy students, but I am unconvinced by the stress explanation. Hard work and competition have never broken the spirits of young people, as long as they believed in what they were doing.
In a study that followed 7,000 American teenagers from eighth grade through high school, Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson came to a surprising conclusion: contrary to popular images of hedonistic, fun-crazed youth, most of today’s young do have ambitions they would like to achieve. Yet few have any real prospect of realizing them. “Most high school students . . . have high ambitions but no clear life plans for reaching them,” the authors write. They are, in the authors’ phrase, “motivated but directionless.” As a consequence, they become increasingly frustrated, depressed, and alienated. The authors also point out that “many parents do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their adolescents form plans for their futures.”
Certainly, something is missing. In the past, some educators have called this missing element “motivation,” and I agree that sufficient motivation is indeed lacking. But I would also argue that the core problem is the lack of a source of motivation, the lack of a sense of purpose. In the long run, that lack of purpose can destroy the foundations of a happy and fulfilled life.
THE WELL-BEING OF YOUTH AND SOCIETY
Of course, every generation has had young people who have resisted the conventions of adulthood. But the lack of commitment among the young today has none of the sharp ideological edges that the alienated youth of midcentury America expressed. Today’s noncommitment has no personal, social, or political point; it has no focus or objective. In an unintended way, this makes it a purer form of noncommitment, a noncommitment even to noncommitment. It is a kind of empty space in a panorama that, in other times and places, has been filled with dynamic activity.
The phenomenon of purposelessness is not widely enough recognized by those to whom young people look for guidance. Indeed, it is not even on the radar screens of the agents of culture that influence young people— the mass media, schools, civic and religious organizations. It is time to focus on how we can help young people discover the life purposes they are searching for.
Why does a sense of purpose matter? What does it do for young people to approach their futures with a sense of inspiration and noble aspiration? Of course, the benefits for society are not hard to see. Without a younger generation dedicated to taking up the challenges of a world that needs a lot of repairing, it is hard to imagine how a decent future can be achieved. But my primary concern is not with society; it is with young people themselves. Finding a clear purpose in life is essential for their achievement of happiness and satisfaction in life, and doing so is a good deal harder than it should be in our present-day cultural environment.
What exactly do I mean by a “life purpose”? A purpose is an ultimate concern. It is the final answer to the question “why?” Why are you doing this? Why does it matter to you? Why is it important? A purpose is a deeper reason for the immediate goals and motives that drive most daily behavior.
Short-term desires come and go. A young person may desire a good grade on a test, a date to the prom, a cutting-edge electronic game station, a starting slot on the basketball team, or admission to a prestigious college. These are desires; they reflect immediate aims that may or may not have longer-term significance. A purpose, by contrast, is an end in itself. A person can change purposes or add new ones over the years, but it is in the nature of purposes to endure at least long enough that a serious commitment is made and some progress toward that aim is achieved. A purpose can organize an entire life, imparting not only meaning but also inspiration and motivation for ongoing learning and achievement.
How do we help young people find a path to purpose? We now know enough about the value of purpose in a young person’s life, as well as about how young people can develop a sense of purpose, that we can take active steps to help steer youngsters effectively onto the path. The good news is that those who wish to help young people find positive purposes can play a constructive—perhaps decisive—role in getting them on their way.