Ask this question to a young adult, and you will likely get “the deer in the headlights” look! Although 87% of teens believe life has a purpose, only one in five knows their purpose. Beware, they may ask you the same question, and according to this same study, only one in three adults know their purpose. This question is relevant to all stages of development, particularly young adults. The most critical time to define a sense of purpose is in the young adult years since this provides a direction, if not a roadmap, to your actions throughout life. In Can You Speak Millennial” ese?’ I describe the four developmental “I’s” of young adulthood. These include identity, independence, intimacy, and intention. Intention overlaps somewhat with identity but is not synonymous. Synonyms for intention include aim, purpose, objective, plan, meaning, and wish.
William Damon is a preeminent researcher and writer on purpose and young people. He defines purpose as “a stable generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world.” He also adds that the biggest problem with youth today is not stress but “meaninglessness.” Richard Leider, a life coach, writer, and local colleague, believes that purpose is the key ingredient to the “good life.” As I was pursuing a degree in counseling psychology in my young adult years, I ran a one-day workshop on life planning. One assignment was to have participants, all young adults, write down their three-lifetime goals. My three were: get married and have a family, become a psychologist, and find peace in my life. Peace continues to be challenging, but meeting two out of three goals isn’t bad. Although I stashed these goals somewhere, they remained in my mind and have guided my actions. Over time and as I reflect on my life, my purpose has become clear: helping people find meaning, happiness, and success. This purpose has become more apparent to me in my later years and has led me to work with autistic and delinquent children to high-powered executives. Steve Jobs and others have said that you often only understand your purpose in life as you look back. If this is true, how can young people be challenged to define meaning in their lives?
4 Actions Parents Can Take
Some young people may have decided early on that they know what they want to do in life. Pursuing medicine as an occupation is often decided early in life. But for the majority of young adults, particularly millennials and Gen Z’s, the young adult years are a time for exploration and experimentation. There are ways parents can help young adults begin the journey of discovery, leading to a sense of purpose without expecting an explicit commitment. As parents, we ought to foster our adult children’s idealism, passion, and search for a purposeful life. Four actions parents can take come to mind:
- First, engage our young adults with questions that will help them begin to think about a meaningful future. For instance, we can start by asking what they like to do. What makes them happy? What do they find meaningful? What are they passionate about? You could also challenge them with an assignment of coming up with their three lifetime goals as I did in my workshops. For more questions to ask, see NBC Today.
- Second, encourage young adults to pursue experiences outside of the home to help them tap into energy, interest, or passion. These could be wilderness retreats, travel abroad, service projects, contemplative retreats, etc. See Greater Good Magazine. One of my clients, a twenty-five-year-old female, found an opportunity to work on a farm in the Southeast and packed her dog up, drove to the farm, and spent several months there. One of my colleagues, whose son was lying around home and failing to pursue work, was sent to a third-world country to work on a service project for a year. It turned out to be a great experience. After college, my son spent a year in South Korea teaching English. This experience was eye-opening to a world beyond his comfortable suburban upbringing that he has never regretted.
- Third, help them become more aware of their strengths, positive qualities, and interests that can help them begin a journey from who they are and what they like to envision a direction to their life. There are some useful free self-assessments that I use with young adults and you can as well. A list of these resources can be found here: 7 Strength Finding Tests and Questionnaires You Can Do Today.
- Fourth, and this is more of an overall strategy, engage your young adult as a fellow traveler in the quest for purpose and meaning. This action may take some courage if you are one of the two out of three adults who do not have a clear sense of purpose. Offer to give your answers to these questions, and take the tests that you and your young adult choose and discuss your results.
In my sixth short book on parents letting go, I raise the concern that some parents in their forties and beyond may be struggling with identity and purpose questions themselves – often characterized as a midlife crisis. We can likely look back, as I have, and see some thread of purpose or meaning that we can draw upon for our next stage of life. More importantly, the dialogue between our young adults and us around such profound questions will expand our understanding of them and theirs of us and deepen our emotional connection. Be brave. Give it a try and let me know your experience.