From Being to Becoming – Young people and the project of the ‘self’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Much research conducted with young people shows us that they place a high value on maintaining ‘balance’ in their lives. This generation, perhaps more than any other, has to live with the almost continual pressure to ‘achieve’ – to endlessly pursue self-development in order to stay ahead of the pack. In the past the process of ‘becoming’ is (was) largely seen as a temporary stage, before adulthood was ‘achieved’ with stable employment, a house of one’s own and, in the main, a family of one’s own, too.

Now, of course, such traditional markers are far more tenuous. Young people now recognise that stable employment is largely a thing of the past and most recognise that they will have many jobs and perhaps many different occupations during their working lives. As such, young people are forced to tackle the increasing precariousness of work by constantly updating their ‘skillset’ and remaining flexible in a constantly demanding and changing global economy.

But research shows that young people also value the time to simply ‘be’. Dan Woodman, the noted youth sociologist, terms this balancing temporalities – contrasting activities which are ‘present-centred’ against ‘future-oriented’ – or ‘being Vs becoming.’ There is substantial evidence now to suggest that young people embrace the responsibility of ‘the project of the self’ – accepting that self-reliance is a necessary quality in order to succeed today – but they also value the time to simply be. As Johanna Wyn and Dan Woodman note: Computer games, physical activities and music (for example) are ways to disengage from building a life for comparatively present-centred engagement with the world. Young people prized the concept of autonomy and felt that building their own life was important and managing this process was considered important to well-being, while conversely suggesting that maintaining well-being also meant finding time to stop planning, to engage themselves as embodied people just being (living) in the present moment.

Recognition of this is important. Space to simply be and escape the constant demands of ‘busyness’ is fundamental to healthy well-being, both physical and mental. The demands of twenty-first century capitalism can be almost suffocating at times, particularly for the generation now, exiting education at a time of austerity, where opportunities are perhaps scarcer than at any time before. Connected to this is also the consumerist aspect of leisure. Not only is there pressure in the pursuit of employment but also in the pursuit of activities which provide pleasure. Partaking in activities with friends is seen as an integral part of identity-formation and a way of building cultural capital. Having the resources to undertake the sorts of activities that can help grow one’s self is seen as integral to having (and enjoying) a life. As such, there is pressure in both spheres to have the resources available to pursue a ‘worthwhile’ life – particularly in the face of the rampant advertising that permeates so much of young people’s lives today. As Dan Woodman suggests, our social milieu ‘requires young people put more and more resources both into building a (future) life and also put time and resources into engaging in experiential and embodied experience in the present.’

You’re not leading the kind of life worthy of Instagram and Facebook? Failure.

Of course, one of the primary ways that this generation of young people can escape the hurly-burly of the rat race and be is by travelling abroad for extended periods. Such opportunities have never been more open as they are now, but as with all things it must be remembered that such opportunities are still mediated by factors such as gender, class, race and (dis)ability (amongst others). As Wyn and Woodman note, ‘in an age of uncertainty, in order to survive young people need the capacity to understand the options that they have before them, the skills to make choices, and the basis for being flexible.’


Such qualities, I would argue, are more important for young people growing up without the resources that offer even a modicum of control in today’s world. And part of this is ensuring that young people on the margins have the capacity and opportunities to simply be – to escape the pressures and demands of the modern world. But this is often forgotten in the race to achieve. As studies have shown, precariousness in the employment market translates into stress, distress and a sense of vulnerability. Cuervo and colleagues note that:

…individuals working in jobs with ‘low control, strain, low security, low marketability, dissatisfaction with their employment opportunities and unfair pay’ report poorer mental health than those working without these conditions. In sum, the precarity and uncertainty of the modern context of labour has significant implication on young people’s lives that go beyond security at work to impact on their well-being.

Unquestionably, having the resources available to negotiate such uncertainties and lead the kind of life desired undoubtedly helps – and this means both in and out of work and looking beyond the ‘future-oriented’ selves encouraged (demanded?) by modern capitalism and enjoying life in the here-and-now. And as well as the financial aspect, personal qualities such as resourcefulness and self-management take on added importance – for both being and becoming. With stress and other mental health issues an increasing problem for this generation of young people, having the opportunity to simply be is fundamental not only to well-being, but also to identity formation and a sense of self. Life isn’t just about work – it’s important we all remember that.

Categories: Youth Studies

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2 replies

  1. Can you tell us more about this? I’d love to find out some additional information.



  1. The Importance of Place when thinking about Youth | Exploring Youth Issues

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