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Resilient Youth: Using Psychology to Prevent a Lost Generation

06/04/2013 05:48 pm 17:48:04 | Updated 04 August 2013
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Switching on the news last night, I heard a young graduate telling a reporter, "I've done everything that society told me to do, and I'm still not finding employment." As his words trailed off, the despair in his voice seemed to capture a generation that's feeling let down and unsure where to turn. Increasingly, recent surveys from NUS and The Prince's Trust suggest, the blame seems to be turning inwards.

There is research showing that in previous periods of high youth unemployment, those affected continued to be hampered professionally and socially long after the recession ended - a phenomenon that has been described as the 'scarring effect'. It's data like this that gives some weight to the otherwise melodramatic claim that today's young people may go down in history as a 'lost generation'.

One explanation for the 'scarring effect' is the psychological impact of unemployment. Research links unemployment with a perceived loss of control, and with what some psychologists call 'learned helplessness', which is a strong predictor of depression. Perceived loss of control is also linked to decreased performance and wellbeing at work - a correlation that exists not just in the western world, but globally.

There might be good reason for young people to feel helpless. 75 million young people around the world are out of work, the value of a degree has tumbled, and the so-called 'scarring effect' suggests that history isn't on their side. But in the last recession psychological research and interventions were less developed. And what the latest research tells us is that helplessness is not inevitable and it can be reversed.

When a young american psychologist called Martin Seligman was researching depression in the late 1960s, he found that if people were subjected to repeated and uncontrollable stressors then they would often come to resign themselves to their plight, remaining inactive even when opportunities to change their circumstances arose - a condition which he called 'learned helplessness'. What he also found was that whilst some acquired this condition, others seemed to be more resistant. When he looked for distinctions between the two groups, he discovered that they had different ways of explaining the source of stress; those that were more resistant tended to see the stressor as confined and temporary.

The findings were consistent with assumptions underlying the then emerging field of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and Seligman hypothesised that if he could help people change their 'explanatory style' using ideas from CBT then he could teach them to be more resilient to stress. His ideas gained support and helped establish a new field of research known as positive psychology, which argued that wellbeing is a legitimate focus for researchers and policymakers. The 'wellbeing movement', as it's been called, now spans psychology, economics, and politics, led by organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation.

Governments and businesses have picked up on the science and are transforming it into policy and interventions. Wellbeing programs have been introduced in certain schools - Wellington College, for instance, holds wellbeing classes for its students - and school PSHE programs are teaching emotional skills. But despite graduate employers criticising a lack of soft skills, wellbeing programs have not (as Anthony Seldon of Wellington College notes) been rolled out for students in higher education.

Given that educational institutions are supposed to be at the cutting edge of science, it's surprising that most seem to be so far behind the curve, with some members of academia (such as this vice chancellor) apparently not believing that learning has much to do with psychology at all.

A number of innovative counselling services have taken it upon themselves to offer group sessions on topics such as mindfulness and stress management, but these are limited by the narrow financial and political confines of 'student support'. Research links a perceived sense of control with job searching strategies, motivation at work, and entrepreneurial potential. As employability and enterprise agendas continue to grow, it's time that applied psychology was recognised as being crucial not just to student support but to student development.

So how we do this? For starters, universities can work to strengthen ties between support services and careers centres, bringing together mutually-compatible expertise; careers centres can look to offer students psychological training, and the growing number of university programs encouraging extra-curricular personal development can promote and accredit initiatives that help build resilience. The evidence base is out there; let's apply it.

I'm not suggesting that a focus on applied psychology is a substitute for social action; it won't solve the issues of inflated tuition fees and struggling jobs markets. But if psychology can help young people to gain an advantage over the problems they are facing then for some of them that might be enough. And if we act now, just maybe when we look back in ten or twenty years the young people of today will be known not as a 'lost' generation but as a resilient one.

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Note: If you're a student or graduate finding things tough, you may like to read a book on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or positive psychology, or speak with your doctor about whether you can access CBT through the National Health Service. You can find some links to resources on my website. If you need more urgent assistance, please visit the Mind website for advice. (I will post the academic references related to this article to my website in a few days.)