The transition to adulthood is an important and often scary time in a young person’s life. Not only does it involve the assumption of new social roles and responsibilities, such as moving out of the family home, entering the job market, completing education and starting a family, it has far-reaching consequences regarding later life outcomes. The related uncertainties are deepened during times of rapid social change.
We know that social structures, such as the education system, class divisions and economic inequality, continue to channel young people into different tracks. However, as a society, we still have too little understanding of the intricate interplay between institutional forces and individuals’ own ability to adapt, adjust and thrive. It is now clear that early interventions, important as they are, are not sufficient to overcome these embedded inequalities. We need programmes throughout childhood and early adulthood.
‘Pathways to Adulthood’, the new book I have edited in collaboration with Rainer Silbereisen from the University of Jena in Germany, explores how to reduce social inequality in educational opportunities and to improve achievement for all.
The book showcases the work resulting from an international post-doctoral Fellowship program ‘Pathways to Adulthood’, which was established at the IOE in 2008 and runs until 2018. The program fosteres international collaboration and exchange between researchers at different institutions, encouraging the investigation of social inequalities across different cultural settings and inquiry of underlying processes in the transmission of intergenerational disadvantage.
Drawing on evidence from large scale longitudinal and international panel studies, the reported research suggests that early interventions are not sufficient to ensure that children growing up in disadvantaged families are able to realise their full potential. The collated studies emphasize the significant role that institutional structures play in granting access to and progression through pre- and elementary school, secondary school, higher education and beyond. Without attention to structural constraints at different stages of the educational process and beyond the effectiveness of early interventions will remain limited.
For example, in their chapter, Jake Anders and John Jerrim argue for a series of investments for disadvantaged students to start at birth and continue through university graduation and beyond. Based on evidence from four Anglophone countries (the UK, USA, Canada and Australia) they show that social inequalities in educational opportunities vary by country and continue into adulthood. In particular parental education is identified as an important driver of intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. Yet, given the big differences in social inequality in culturally similar countries, their findings show how institutions such as schools and transition systems (in particular regarding school-to-work) can exert considerable leverage in reducing the gap in attainment between children from advantaged and disadvantaged homes.
In addition, we know that individual ‘agency’ – motivation, confidence, self-belief, determination and often support from important adults – can help young people overcome adversity. This is particularly important during the transition from school to work. The book introduces different interventions that have been shown to be effective in raising students’ engagement, motivation and effort. For example, in her contribution Anna-Lena Dicke describes the effectiveness of a new class of interventions – so-called relevance interventions which highlight the relevance of the instructional content (such as studying mathematics) for everyday life experiences. Such cost-effective, school-based interventions hold a lot of promise since they are cost-effective and can be applied to different subjects and topics, with the objective of raising academic performance and achieving future career goals. Moreover, the authors explore the role of specific learning situations to study how and why engagement varies across different formal and informal learning situations to get a better understanding of situation- and context-specific aspects in supporting engagement.
It is important to study how institutional structures can be changed to open up opportunities and to encourage engagement and motivation. Taking into account experiences beyond the school context, in Pathways to Adulthood we examine the ways in which young people deal with the uncertainties of changing career opportunities in times of rapid social and economic transformation. Examples include the response of young people to changes in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, German unification, and the 2008 Great Recession. Different coping mechanisms are discussed that enable individuals to maintain a sense of control over their lives, including engagement versus disengagement from demands, postponement of major decisions, religiosity, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement, taking an active stance in the world.
The book opens up new research avenues on the transition to adulthood, providing evidence from different countries and contributing towards a better understanding of general versus country-specific patterns linking socio-economic inequality, motivation and academic- and career attainment in times of social change.