How to Help Young People Transition Into Adulthood
With so much rapid-fire change in the world, the job of preparing our young people for the future has become increasingly daunting. The Institute of the Future issued a report in 2017 that declared that 85 percent of the jobs in 2030—when today’s second-graders will graduate high school—have not been invented yet. On top of that, we’re facing an unfolding crisis in the environment; rampant racial, ethnic, and gender inequities; the impending confluence of bioengineering and artificial intelligence; and escalating craziness on the geopolitical stage.
Over the past decade, I talked to thousands of educators grappling with the question of how to best prepare young people for the uncertain future. The vast majority agree that skills like critical thinking, resilience, creativity, systems thinking, and empathy are crucial and must be prioritized over compliance and standardized test scores. But, more recently, there’s a sense that young people need to gain real-world experience in navigating the unknown through some kind of authentic rite of passage—and more and more research is exploring what that might look like.
For millennia, elders have led youth through scaffolded rites of passage. French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep analyzed rites of passage across cultures in history and found that they have a universal three-part structure—separation, liminality, and reincorporation—to help people make sense of great transition. A young person undergoing a coming-of-age rite of passage must leave her “normal world” (separation) and enter into a situation where she experiences the free-fall of being no longer a child but not yet an adult (liminality). Once the initiate has successfully mastered the liminal phase, she returns to the normal world as an adult (reincorporation), having “leveled up” with skills that are needed to function as a healthy member of the community.
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But meaningful rites of passage are not as common today. In fact, 75 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 25 lack a clear sense of purpose and many young adults are intimidated by “adulting.” This led me to wonder: How might we combine what we know from psychology and education research with traditional rite-of-passage rituals to help youth practice dwelling in the unknown, while building up critical skills for the future?
Over the past two years, I have worked with individuals and small groups of graduate students and educators to prototype a more contemporary approach to rites of passage. The updated three steps we designed—now preparation, threshold, and reflection—revolve around a student-centered project that allows youth to deepen their self-knowledge while learning to be comfortable in the unknown. Dozens of young people have gone through this process, and I hope teachers, community leaders, and others can use this model to facilitate meaningful and impactful rites of passage to support the development of the youth in their communities.
1. Preparation: Student-centered project design
Rites of passage provide a safe and structured container for young people to undergo a metamorphic shift in identity from youth to adult. The goal of the first phase is for you (as a teacher, leader, or parent) and the initiates to develop a deeper understanding of themselves: their character strengths, interests, skills, and passions.
Student inventory. Ask students the following questions (inspired by Project Wayfinder and Angela Maiers):
What are your strengths? This can be skills such as math, drawing, or swimming, or dispositions such as patience, leadership, or the ability to focus. You can also have them take the free VIA Character Strengths Survey for Youth.
What do you love to do? Note that many teens’ first answer will be something to do with video games or social media. Capture these ideas, but dig a little deeper to see what else is under there. Do they enjoy strategizing with friends in Fortnite? Or creating beautiful images for Instagram? Once you’ve captured the digital stuff, be sure to find out what else they love in the “offline” world, just for balance.
Is there anything that you wish you knew how to do? A skill or disposition that you want to develop? Again, see if you can find both digital and offline answers here.
What issue or cause out in the world do you care about the most? Climate? Gun violence? Homelessness? Animal welfare? Government corruption? Talk to them about a few specific issues.
Brainstorm projects. Using the student’s answers to each question, begin to brainstorm project ideas that would be meaningful. Projects should be designed to use the initiate’s skills to help solve a community problem that he deeply cares about.
For instance, say you are working with a 19-year-old named Sam who loves to draw, write fiction, and make short videos with her friends. The VIA Character Strengths Survey shows she’s strong in social intelligence (which she knew) but also in bravery (which she didn’t!). She wants to learn business skills and how to make better videos. The daughter of immigrants, Sam is deeply troubled by the racist attacks to which she and her friends are increasingly subjected.
Sam and her mentor brainstorm some ideas for projects. For instance, she might make a short video interviewing three immigrants in her community about their experiences with racism. Or maybe she could illustrate t-shirts with messages of equity and inclusion, and set up a pop-up shop. A third idea might be to write, illustrate, self-publish, and sell a book of short stories about a teenage immigrant.
Discuss viability of project. Have your student review the projects and select a couple of favorites to evaluate what it will take to pull each off successfully. Will it require a lot of money or volunteers? What about location? What is the scope? Are there a lot of interdependencies? Involve the initiate in brainstorming solutions. Ultimately, as in the real world, the final project scope will be determined by a combination of will and resources.
Because it will be a ton of work to fill up an entire shop, and then organize a pop-up, Sam settles on the video project, which seems very doable within her three-month summer break.
Write a project plan. Written as much as possible by the student with support as needed from their mentor, a project plan should include real-world skills like calling venues, organizing volunteers, setting up a Kickstarter campaign, writing a basic budget, using social media for promotion, gathering sponsors, writing, and performing speeches.
Sam’s project plan outlines in detail the content, production process, budget, and timeline for her documentary short. Using her mentor’s connections, Sam reaches out to a local nonprofit that has a video editing suite and asks if she can use it after-hours.