"Exploring the Nature and Development of Purpose in Youth
Life-course plans and commitments begin to take shape in youth; yet little is known about
these commitments, or purposes. While research suggests having a purpose in one's life
benefits young people, few researchers have investigated what purpose looks like, how it
develops, or how it helps guide youth in positive directions. A conference, which brought
together people from different disciplines and backgrounds with unique perspectives on
purpose, was held in March 2003. The goal was to explore the concept of purpose from a
variety of academic viewpoints, all in some way relevant to the topic. We defined purpose
as a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful
to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.
Each presenter was given 1 of the following 4 questions and asked to address it in a
15-minute presentation at the working conference. These questions were pertinent because
they lie at the heart of what purpose is and provide a starting point for studying it:
- What kinds of purposes tend to inspire young people, either here and now (21st
Century USA), or in any other historical and cultural contexts?
- What role does purpose play in human development (during youth, adulthood, any and
all segments of the life-span)?
- How (and through what kinds of biological, cultural, educational, familial, spiritual,
or any other kinds of influences) do young people discover purposes?
- Are noble purposes acquired in the same manner as ignoble ones - and, indeed, is this
a distinction that is important, and possible, to make?
The first question, about different kinds of purpose, spawned discussion around
rites of passage, divine plans, callings, and the difference between purpose in traditional
and more modern cultures. Responses to question two, what role does purpose play in
human development, generated conversation around the likeness between purpose and
generativity, disillusionment as a result of not achieving one's purpose, and purpose as an
indicator of positive youth development. Themes and concerns emerging from a discussion of
the third question, how do young people discover purposes, clustered around what
sources and supports, both internal external, sustain purpose across individual and community
experiences, and how the absence of these supports might thwart purpose. A fourth theme
emerged around distinctions between noble and ignoble purposes and how they are
acquired. A final theme that emerged across questions was the importance of and challenges
inherent in teaching purpose.