"Finding that purpose is a bigger job today than 30, 40, even 20 years ago. There is so much more out there to bombard and overwhelm," said Jim Montoya, College Board senior vice-president and former Stanford University dean of students and admissions. At the same time, as "a matter of self-preservation" young people need that internal "rudder" to filter through the complications of modern life, according to Montoya.
Gunn High School graduate Miranda Chatfield agrees.
"It may be the combination of being a young person in today's age. It's hard; it's not like how it used to be, when my parents went to college, definitely different," she said.
William Damon, Stanford University School of Education professor, psychologist and a former Gunn parent, believes there is good evidence for this conclusion. For one thing, certain historical events, like the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights movement, provided "ready-made purposes that made it a lot easier for young people to find a sense of direction." Families, the nation and victims of discrimination needed their help; and young people saw their purpose in rising to meet those challenges.
"These historical epochs gave young people a chance to throw themselves into something that was meaningful, consequential and purposeful," he said.
Also, in past years, young people were more constrained by traditional roles and values, and also geography. There were fewer choices within familiar communities. For many young people, this made it easier to find direction and meaning. In the modern era, these traditions have broken down, creating greater freedom and more choices. This can make it tougher to develop a sense of self and purpose.
"When things break down, even when it's for good reasons, they don't always break down in ways that make everything rosy," Damon said.
In addition to a huge range of choices for young people, the economy is "changing like crazy" and the rates of marriage are going way down, creating greater uncertainties in areas of work and family, Damon said. "That makes it harder for many young people to focus on something they're going to dedicate themselves to in a purposeful way."