Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Understanding the 'Emerging Adult'

Recently I have had more than a few discussions with friends and colleagues about teenagers and their focus, or lack thereof in some cases, when it comes to the future and what they want to do with their lives.

These conversations have been  - for the most part - with those who have children leaving high school and trying to figure out next steps. Will they head to University? College? Take a year off and travel or work? All of these options seem like the natural next progression based on what we - the parents, guardians or advisors - experienced 20 or more years ago.

But what many of my friends and colleagues are not prepared for, and what I'm seeing quite a bit of in my own post-secondary profession, is the young adults 'giving it a go' - only to drop out of post-secondary for a while, then  'give it a go' a few more times - living in the basement, before realizing what it is they truly want to do with the rest of their lives.

This is taking many people by surprise and casting huge amounts of stress on both the parent and the young adult. From the parent/guardian perspective - I hear What's wrong with them?" "Where did I go wrong". From the young adult perspective, I hear 'I'm not ready for this"  "I need more time to figure things out'.

This discussion throws me back to a research paper I wrote for my Masters Degree. It centered on understanding today's young adults, why they are hesitant or ill equipped to make plans for the future, and addresses the challenges and fears they face in today's world which - as we know - is drastically different than what their parents faced. Right or wrong - coddling or not - the excerpt below may offer some insight into what the 'emerging adult' is up against, and the need to help these young people figure things out long before they hit the age where they are forced to do so.

...While appearing to appreciate the importance of goal planning, the students found the assignment challenging in part. This reinforced to me that a goal planning exercise should continue to be part of my curriculum but that it required changes.

Prior to pursuing an action research cycle, I also reviewed literature on young adults to appreciate other factors that may impact the students’ performance on the goal planning exercise. I found two authors who provided me with particular insight on the 18 to 25 demographic.

One author is Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor from the Clark University department of psychology. Arnett notes that the lack of direction among post high-school students may be attributed to their delayed entry into traditional roles of adulthood as defined by prior generations (J Jenson Arnett, 2010). He observes the period beyond high school has dramatically changed over the past thirty years, and to expect today’s young adults, aged 18 to 25, to assume roles that young adults aged 18 to 25 assumed in 1972 would be unreasonable. These roles include such things as marriage, parenthood and stable work.  Arnett believes today’s post secondary students wait until at least their late twenties to make these transitions, and has attributed this transition time to a new life stage he identifies as ‘emerging adulthood’. Arnett believes members of this new life stage club are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. Contrary to criticisms voiced by some members of the older generations, Arnett defends the emerging adult group. He believes that their reluctance to jump into adult roles identified by today’s older adults should not be viewed as selfish, slacking or grandiosity, but rather reflects a need for time to build skills to be a grown up.

In the context of goal planning, Arnett’s observations of this age group appear to me to equally describe young adults who are in a kind of limbo when it comes to life direction, unable to adequately plan for the future, because they are not ready for it.  In my view, Arnett’s observations support a need for goal planning as a tool to assist this age group to better focus and prepare for their tomorrow.  

The importance of goal planning is also supported by the observations of Doctor Oliver Robinson on the next supposed life stage, referred to as the ‘quarter life crisis’. Doctor Robinson presented his findings on the ‘quarter life crisis” to the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Glasgow in May of 2011. Dr. Robinson claimed this project to be the first to look at the quarter life crisis from a "solid, empirical angle based on data rather than speculation” (Robinson, 2011). Robinson found that, out of 1100 young people (aged 25 to 35) surveyed, 86% admitted feeling pressure to succeed in their relationships, finances and jobs before reaching the age of 30.

If one accepts both Jensen Arnett’s observations that emerging adults delay assuming traditional roles of adulthood, and Dr. Robinson’s findings on the quarter life crisis, then when emerging adults are ready to assume these traditional roles, they enter a very stressful, anxiety ridden, stage, in which they feel the need to accomplish goals they had been putting off until age 30! My conclusion? Goal planning by young adults is more crucial than ever! If we do nothing, are we not enabling an entire generation of young adults to lack the drive and focus to prepare for their future, only to then find their backs up against a wall because the realities of adulthood are suddenly sprung on them?

Another aspect I examined prior to undertaking the action research cycles was the economic reality facing young adults. This was explored in a further attempt to understand the challenge of goal planning. The Canadian Council of Learning estimates that 57 percent of students leave post-secondary institutions with student loan debt averaging $13,600 (Canadian Council of Learning, 2010; Stats Canada 2010). Students are required to start paying this debt back within six months of graduating. If a student carrying this debt secures an entry level position in radio broadcasting in Ontario within that six month time frame, he or she can expect to be making an entry level salary of $24,407 before taxes (Loyalist College, 2009). The median after-tax income for an unattached Ontarian is $25,600 (HRSDC, 2007). Assuming these figures are still accurate today, this means that a radio graduate who secures full time employment is a low income earner, and may be facing financial struggles to not only support themselves, but also to pay off their student loan. The future, to this graduate, may be bleak and scary.  However, if that same graduate had a goal plan which included a more prosperous future, would they not be better armed to deal with that challenge?

And then there’s the pedagogical approach. Because I assumed that the poor results on the goal planning assignment were attributable at least in part to the structure and delivery of the assignment itself, I also looked at various pedagogical approaches. Recent findings from a symposium on teaching and learning in  Ontario suggests a non-traditional, learning centred, or learner/student centred approach results in greater retention and understanding of learning (Christensen Hughes, 2011). These findings take into consideration such things as collaborative learning, individual student differences and self-directed learning capabilities, and led me to consider different pedagogical approaches when delivering my goal planning assignment. Would the students achieve better results in having a round table discussion about what goals are possible? This would allow me to step back into a more observer role and allow them to collectively idea build.

The final factor I considered prior to undertaking the action research cycle was something brought to my attention at an internal workshop I attended at Humber College. The workshop, called Promoting Synergy between Motivation and Active Learning (D. Gardner, 2012), drew attention to the college’s multi-cultural student backgrounds. Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world (City of Toronto demographic facts, 2007).  This workshop emphasized the importance and need of educators to take into consideration the cultural background of students, which may offer additional challenges when it comes to planning for their future.  

Taken from 'The Goal from here? Simplifying goal planning", by Sheila Walsh, Bournemouth University - June 2012