Proceed at Your Own Risk

Becoming an adult in today's society

Agency: A Way Forward in a Difficult and Complex World

How can today's young adults get around the many obstacles they face?

The world is becoming a smaller, more difficult, and more complex place all the time.  As I noted in my last post, many entry-level jobs have disappeared over the last 50 years, leaving young people with an uncertain path from the end of formal schooling to (hopefully) their entry into the workforce.  The sagging economy, government sequestration, and constant outsourcing are not making things any easier for the generation that is coming of age today.

So what can young people do about this?

Well, there isn’t much that they can do at the larger social-structural level.  They can’t make employers start hiring, make the government behave in a fiscally responsible way, or stop jobs from being shipped overseas.  But there is something that they can do, and it is easily described – but perhaps more difficult to put into practice.

The answer is agency.

What does that mean, you ask?  Well, in psychology and related fields, the concept of agency has been defined in many ways – but I draw on only two of those in my own work.  The two definitions of agency that I use complement each other: one is a set of personality traits, and the other is a set of steps that one can follow.

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My colleague Jim Côté at the University of Western Ontario has been studying what he calls “agentic personality.”  In a series of papers and books, Jim defined agency in terms of four interrelated traits – self-esteem, a sense of life purpose, an internal locus of control, and resilience.  That is, people with agentic personalities believe in themselves, have a sense of where they want to take their lives, assume responsibility for their decisions (and for the consequences of those decisions), and are able to bounce back from setbacks and difficult experiences.  In a 10-year longitudinal study, Jim found that people with more agentic personalities in their 20s were more likely to hold satisfying jobs 10 years later.

Using concepts borrowed from the aging literature, my colleague Rich Lerner at Tufts University and his collaborators defined agency as a series of steps that young people can take to set and achieve realistic goals.  He calls this the Selection, Optimization, and Compensation (SOC) model.  Selection refers to choosing goals that “fit” with one’s sense of self; optimization refers to adjusting these goals as necessary to keep them aligned with one’s sense of self; and compensation refers to coming up with a new way to reach one’s goal when one’s initial attempts have been thwarted.  Rich and his colleagues later used the term “loss-based selection” to refer to the process of coming up with new, but similar, goals when one’s original set of goals are no longer possible.

Put together, Jim’s and Rich’s models seem well-suited for today’s generation of young people.  Know who you are and where you are looking to go, and if you are blocked in pursuit of a goal, find another way.  There is always a back door.  Once you’re in, few people will care how you got there.  Remember, Albert Einstein dropped out of high school, and Bill Gates dropped out of college.

Let me give you a personal example.  In the spring of 1993, I was rejected from all 13 of the Ph.D. programs that I had applied to.  Worse yet, the rejection letters were sent to my family’s home – so I was not only crushed but also embarrassed and humiliated.  My goal of becoming a clinical psychologist, which I had held since I was a kid, was gone.  I had many suicidal thoughts and very nearly carried them out.

So I went back to the drawing board.  I spent the summer licking my wounds, and when the fall came, I applied to a master’s degree program and was admitted.  A mentor of mine told me that I would never finish a Ph.D. degree because I wasn’t serious enough about what I was doing, but his words only motivated me more.  I started working harder than ever, often putting in 60-70 hours per week during graduate school.  When I finished my master’s degree, I applied for a Ph.D. and was one of the top applicants.  I finished the Ph.D. in four years, and the person who had told me I would never finish was in the audience when I walked across the stage and received my degree.

But I never did become a clinical psychologist.  While in my master’s program, I fell in love with academic research and found that clinical work wasn’t really for me.  When I finished my doctorate, I got a job at the University of Miami, where I have now been faculty for 13 years.

What’s the lesson here?  If you know the song by the 1990s British band Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again … never gonna keep me down.”  That has become my life’s motto.  If the members of Chumbawamba were psychologists, they might have titled their song “Agency.”

So please remember … setbacks are not failures unless you give up.  You haven’t failed until you stop trying.  And if I can do it, so can anyone else.  You may have to modify your goal, or change the way you’re trying to get there, or keep being knocked down and getting up again, but as long as you have agency, you’re never out of the game.

 

REFERENCES

Côté, J. E. (2002). The role of identity capital in the transition to adulthood: The individualization thesis examined. Journal of Youth Studies, 5(2), 117-134.

Côté, J. E., & Bynner, J. M. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UKand Canada: The role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11, 251-268.

Côté, J. E., & Levine, C. G. (2002). Identity formation, agency, and culture: A social psychological synthesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Gestsdóttir, S., Bowers, E., von Eye, A., Napolitano, C. M., & Lerner, R. M. (2010). Intentional self-regulation in middle adolescence: The emerging role of loss-based selection in positive youth development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 764-782.

Lerner, R. M., Freund, A. M., De Stefanis, I., & Habermas, T. (2001). Understanding developmental regulation in adolescence: The use of the Selection, Optimization, and Compensation model. Human Development, 44, 29-50.

Seth Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Miami. He researches identity, immigration, and acculturation.
 
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