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Identity Development in Adolescents and Emerging Adults: Challenges and Sources of Creating an Identity in the Contemporary World

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Kat Torrago

Developmental Psychology

Fall 2018

Identity Development in Adolescents and Emerging Adults: Challenges and Sources of Creating an Identity in the Contemporary World

The formation of identity is the central challenge for young adults, and this journey of self-discovery is impacted and shifted by a myriad of external stimuli, in both positive and negative ways. In the course of a young adults search for their identity, experiences and life circumstances dictate much of their evolution. In “Now I Know I Can Make A Difference: Generativity and Activity Engagement as Predictors of Meaning Making in Adolescents and Emerging Adults,” authors Heather L. Lawford and Heather L. Ramey study and assess how the concern for future generations in young adults is influenced by significant stories that resulted in a deeper understanding of the self, or insight about their own personality. The creation of one’s self-identity in early adulthood can also be directly impacted by stressful major life events that precipitate depressive symptoms. “The Role of Identity Commitments in Depressive Symptoms and Stressful Life Events in Adolescence and Young Adulthood” by authors Lotte van Doeselaar, Theo A. Klimstra, and Jaap J. A. Denissen identities young adults suffering from depressive symptoms and examines links between having a strong sense of self and what kinds of crises the young adult may have faced in childhood.

Based on the background of the two articles summarized in this paper as well as other sources pertaining to the young adult and development of identity, it seems that historically, concerns with questions of identity are relatively recent. Changes in Western society, specifically the extent to which society has dictated one’s adult roles, have varied enormously over time and especially within the last century. The loosening of social guidelines, restrictions, and constraints, meant adolescents now experience more freedom of choice in their assumption of adult roles and values. A more liberal educational system, however, eventually made possible occupational choices that are in line with one’s own interests and capacities, allowing for more control over what career young adults pursue but also potentially more confusion. Thus, the task of creating an adult identity was now falling largely on the shoulders of late adolescents themselves.

The two papers make an interesting point of comparison as both evaluate the role that life events play in the formation of identity for adolescents and emerging adults, although one analyzes positive events and how they help young adults to gain insight about themselves, and the other addresses negative or stressful events and how they can hinder or shift identity development.

The first research article examined the relationship between depressive symptoms and stress and development in young adulthood. The primary developmental task of adolescents and young adults is to form a stable identity, which the contributors to the study state is created by the young adult creating a strong set of commitments. By not resolving this task, emerging adults lack strong identity commitments and this is linked to depressive symptoms and stressful life events. In the study, researchers looked to find the exact role that identity commitments play in stressful or negative experiences. In two studies, based in the Netherlands, the study examined the associations between depressive symptoms and commitments in the careers and personal lives of adolescents and young adults over time. The first study examined over 600 adolescents and about 300 young adults and the second study included over 900 adolescents and almost 1,000 young adults. Both of the studies yielded results that indicated stronger identity commitments predicted a decrease in negative and stressful experiences. The second study showed that having strong interpersonal commitments predicted a decrease in depressive symptoms. The studies also indicated that having a strong commitment to one’s career also predicted a decrease in depressive symptoms both in adolescents and in emerging adults. The studies reported that after having a stressful experience, career commitments weakened, although interpersonal commitments did not, which the study concluded was because of the  importance of relationships in one’s life after experiencing something stressful or traumatic. The researcher’s findings in the study highlight the significance of having strong identity commitments as young adults develop their identities, although it also found critical nuance in the role of those commitments in different aspects of the young adult’s life.

This study was fairly balanced and diverse in the sample pool that the researchers drew from, taking participants from a range of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, one of the limitations of the study that the researchers acknowledged in the paper was that the commitments that were analyzed were drawn from two specific sources, commitment to education and commitment to a best friend or romantic partner.  Given the disparity in the rate of development of emerging adults, education may be relevant to one participant while another participant of the same age may already be engaged in full-time work with education no longer a factor  in their life. Although the sample of participants were all in the same age group, it does not inherently mean that everyone involved in the study is facing making commitments to education and to relationships; some involved may have already made those commitments and so it would have no bearing on their level of depressive symptoms or their experiences with stress. Associations with depressive symptoms and stressful life events, could potentially differ given the focus of the individual participant and what types of things they are making commitments to in their life.

The second study focused on generativity, defined in the paper as one’s capacity for concern with future generations. The study overviewed engagement in activities as predictors of creating meaning in young adults accounts of significant experiences in their lives. Researchers in the study asked participants to recount stories that they felt was significant to them that occured in the context of the most engaging activity they participated in, and asked them to report on their generativity and the level of psychological engagement they felt with their given activity in order to analyze a relationship between meaning-making and level of engagement with activities. The research took samples from adolescents and young adults, like the first study. The study quantified the amount of meaning imbued in the story by creating a scale of 1-4, which they used to rate the stories by the participants and rate the level of meaning making. Meaning making in this study was defined by the researchers as the degree of insight the participants had in their understanding of themselves and the world around them. The study found that having a high level of psychological engagement with their activity was related with meaning making, although only participation was not necessarily associated with meaning making or gaining insight. High levels of psychological engagement was also found to have a positive correlation with generativity while again, only behavorital participation was not linked to a significant level of generativity within the participants. The findings of the study concluded that being involved in certain types of activities, and in particular involvement in athletic activities, can serve to foster meaning making and increase generativity in adolescents and emerging adults, and that in both adolescents and young adults the development of insight is linked to generativity. The study also found that adolescents had a higher level of generative concern than young adults did.

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