How Boredom Can Afflict the End of Adolescence

Compared to the freedom and excitement of adolescence, adulthood can feel dull.

Posted Sep 21, 2015

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Developmental boredom is not only to be expected at the outset of adolescence around ages 9 to 13 (see previous blog) as the loss of childhood interests and attachments drain traditional meaning and purpose from life.  It is also very common at the last stage of adolescence (ages 18 – 23), what I call Trial Independence.

As the daunting challenge of charting an independent and self-supporting path through life begins, now boredom can afflict many young people in some painful ways.

As in early adolescence, boredom at the end of adolescence is made up of the same two types. There can be Type One Boredom, from emptiness of purpose and not knowing what one would like to do with oneself. And there can be Type Two Boredom, from entrapment in disliked or disinteresting activities that one is obliged to do.  

As at the earlier age, boredom can be a serious emotional business when it becomes too protracted and intense. At the extreme, I believe boredom can be a disabling or a destructive condition. 

It can be disabling when the young person can't find the motivation or direction to do anything. The experience can feel depressing.  It can be destructive when the young person feels impelled to do something—anything—for relief. The experience can feel desperate.

Because of increased access to recreational and street drugs at this older age, seeking chemical sedation or stimulation can offer tempting ways to cope with protracted boredom. And of course, there are always the marvelous electronic alternatives, television and the Internet that, in addition to valuable services they provide, can offer entertaining distraction and escape when interest is hard to find, or disinterest is hard to bear. 

Consider how each type of boredom might impact last stage adolescents.

Type One Boredom: Emptiness of Interest.

At the outset of Trial Independence, poet Mary Oliver’s question can feel painfully telling:

“Tell me what it is you plan to do

 with your one wild and precious life?”

Often the last stage adolescent’s answer is: “I don’t know!” What a cruel coincidence. At an age when one is given more freedom of operation than ever before and is expected to start leading one’s life, many young people have no idea what meaningful direction to follow or what personal purpose to embrace. “I’m 18 years old and I don’t know what I want to do with my life!”

It’s no sin or sign of something psychologically wrong to enter Trial Independence with no earthly idea of how to define and dedicate one’s working life. At this age, boredom from emptiness of interest is not a special problem to be corrected, but a normal challenge to be met.

Yes, there are a few people who from their youth have a chosen interest that defines their later direction. Maybe an early fascination with computers presages a high tech future, or love of tinkering with cars leads to later mechanic work, or fascination with movie making leads to a film industry niche, or joy of cooking leads to a restaurant career. In a minority of cases, the child’s passion can lead to the adult’s livelihood.  However, having an early calling that leads to career employment is a luxury given to relatively few. The vast majority of us have some occupational looking around to do at the end of adolescence, and that is okay. We begin honorably empty.

Occasionally, parents become concerned about how their older adolescent seems to be floundering when it comes to occupational path. “She’s just drifting from one job to another, sticking at nothing. She can’t make up her mind!” That when I ask them if they’ve ever talked about their adult employment histories with her. “Do this,” I suggest. “List out every job you’ve ever had, how you found it, how long you held it, how you liked it, what you learned from it, and why you left it, from after high school to the present. Then share this with her.” The information can be instructive for everyone.

Reviewing these journeys of serial employment tend to illustrate for all concerned how the search for livelihood and employment satisfaction is a process of experimentation, approximation, and discovery in which happenstance usually plays a leading role. “How did you find work you like?” the older adolescent asks. In many cases, the parental answer is “I met this person.” “I answered this ad.” “I heard about this opportunity,” “I lost my job.” “I was restless for something new.”

Boredom from feeling empty of interest to define one’s life can be treated as a positive. “To feel empty of interest, purpose, and direction in life can mean you are full of opportunity to create this definition. Use boredom as an incentive to explore possibilities.  Engage yourself in some activity and the way will open up before you – either because you like what you are getting to do and want to do more of it, or because you don’t like what you are doing and are ready to move on and try something else.”     

Type Two Boredom: Entrapped in Disinterest

Consider two venues of common disinterest at this late adolescent age – occupational and educational.

The last stage adolescent runs up against a hard reality. Obliged to enter the vast workplace after high school or college to begin a life of self-support, the young person discovers how significant boredom can be a part of most any job. This is apparently a self-reported condition of most people’s occupational lives. “An alarming 70% of those surveyed in a recent Gallup poll either hate their jobs or are completely disengaged.” (NY Daily News, 6/24/13.)

For a young person with hopes or dreams of a meaningful job experience, this reality of entry level and ongoing employment can be sobering. It can take a lot of meaningless work to earn a modest amount of money, the hardest part of work being the boredom one can feel. It’s difficult. The relative freedoms of adolescence can make the dreary yoke of daily demands that come with supporting young adulthood appear comparatively boring and dull.

This said, it’s still possible to enliven a dull job by finding ways to take interest in it. How you do the job, how well you want to do it, how you relate to those you work with, how you develop self-discipline to get the job done, how you observe the ways of organizational life, how you gain experience and skills that can sell you into a better position, how you appreciate the good fortune of simply having a job to make a living: these are all interest-bearing choices a young person can take responsibility for making.

To make a boring job less boring, take an interest in it. Perhaps last stage adolescents who feel mired in boredom at this juncture might consider the challenge of responsibility that writer G K Chesterton suggested: “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”  

Then there is the reality of college education after high school. “In spite of all the programs and services to help retain students, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 50% of those who enter higher education actually earn a bachelor’s degree.” (See website for The Journal for College Retention) Of course, there are many contributing factors to the problem of college retention, but I believe the last stage adolescent boredom from disinterest in doing obligatory classwork is one.

Why might an entering undergraduate be bored? Maybe they are just tired of sitting in class for more instruction after 12 years of doing so. Or maybe, compared with the exciting freedoms of living away from home and of college life, classroom learning feels more like drudgery. Or maybe there is simply insufficient self-discipline and ample procrastination that make accomplishing coursework very difficult to do, and academic standing hard to maintain. Some statements are telling. “College is just like high school, except with freedom to skip classes.”

Lack of motivation, low class participation, turning work in late or not at all, spotty class attendance, and general inconsistency of academic effort can all conspire to make these bored young people hard to teach. For many students, the challenge of college is not so much the increased difficulty of coursework as their difficulty in taking active interest in what is being taught. A bored student can be resistant to involvement and instruction because she or he has chosen to be inattentive, unreceptive, and disengaged.

At best, the instructor can declare the basics of student responsibility.  “If you want to use college to grow yourself up: show up, keep up, speak up, don’t give up, and complete your work on time. And remember, being a 'good student' is not simply a matter of working hard to achieve a high grade; it is much more than that. A 'good student' is someone who chooses to bring a high degree of personal interest to class."    

It’s difficult. For many young people, after the impulsive freedoms and excitements of earlier adolescence, the dreary routine of daily tasks that come with approaching adulthood can by comparison seem pretty boring and dull. Sometimes working with young people (and adults) I feel that boredom is an invisible ailment of our time. Unacknowledged, it can exert a lot of unhappy power. It certainly can for older adolescents.

In Trial Independence, the antidote to Type One Boredom (that arises when feeling empty of interest for what to do with one’s life) is being willing to take initiative and experiment to discover activity that holds some present meaning and future purpose. The antidote to Type Two Boredom (from feeling entrapped by necessity or obligation in disinteresting activities) is to find ways to take an interest in doing what one does not readily or naturally like.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2015.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: “Is Adolescence Really Necessary?”