Sunday, February 1, 2009

Young People's "Sense of Possibility" Constrained by Structural Factors

One part of Jeffrey Arnett's conceptualization of emerging adulthood is that it is a time of life that carries a sense of possibility. Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, suggests that the possibilities open to someone can be greatly enhanced or curtailed by some quite arbitrary factors.

Among other examples, Gladwell discusses the Canadian youth hockey policy of placing players on purportedly uniform-age teams based on how old they are as of January 1. If a player's birthday happens to be January 2, he (or perhaps she) will immediately be older than the rest of the team, especially relative to someone whose birthday is in December. As a result of being older -- and potentially also physically stronger and larger -- than most other players, those players born early in the year will get to play more, develop better skills, get selected for all-star teams that expose them to better coaching and provide more practice opportunity, etc. As Gladwell documents, the apparent upshot of using the arbitrary marker of someone's birth month as an organizing principle for youth hockey is that, across various levels of competitive hockey in Canada, team rosters are comprised disproportionately of players born in January, February, and March.

Likewise, Gladwell suggests that there were optimal historical times (usually in years, not months) and places to grow up if one wanted to be a success at computer software development, corporate takeover law, garment manufacturing and sales, and other endeavors. Tying all of this back to emerging adulthood, Gladwell writes the following:

The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with (p. 137).

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