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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 13/06/2006

I had a conversation the other day with someone who had run a variety of focus groups with young people. He wanted to consult them on their aspirations and to find out who they saw as ‘heroes’. What emerged from these discussions is fascinating. Predictably, they are creatures of their times and obsessed with celebrities. But they have a fatalistic attitude to life. According to these young people the world is divided into ‘big people’ – the celebs with their fame, fortune and power – and ‘small people’ like them. Apparently it isn’t really possible for ‘small people’ to become ‘big people’ by working hard or trying to fulfill a dream as they believe ‘big people’ are destined to achieve their good fortune. In other words, whether you become a successful celeb is pre-determined – it is fated – it isn’t in your control.

Now the man who had undertaken these discussions with the young folk was taken aback by these views and somewhat negative. He thought it meant that they had little aspiration and were very down on themselves. But I argued that it was possible to see these attitudes as protective and part of a bigger social trend.

An American academic, J. M. Twenge, has undertaken extensive psychological research which shows that there has been a series of big attitude shifts in the U.S., and no doubt other western societies. Twenge’s research particularly focuses on ‘locus of control’ – a key psychological concept which distinguishes between whether people believe they have control much of what happens to them in life (internal locus of control) or whether they think life is controlled by others (external locus of control). Twenge’s extensive research shows that the average college student in the U.S. in 2002 felt less control over their lives than 80-90% of college students in 1962. Since external locus of control is associated with lower well-being, including depression and feelings of helplessness, this is a worrying trend. It may also account for the fact that people in the U.S. are more increasingly prone to blame others for their misfortunes and start legal cases rather than acknowledging any personal responsibility for problems.

There is a great paradox at the heart of Twenge’s research. From the 1960s on there has been a huge rise in individualism in the U.S. and elsewhere. Individualism emphasizes the self and encourages a strong sense of personal responsibility and freedom. Yet, in reality, individualism is leading to a diminished sense of personal control. Why? We are living in a world which is now all about ‘making it’ and becoming a success. Young people are repeatedly told that they have lots of choices and opportunities. If they don’t make it they have no-one to blame but themselves. That isn’t a comfortable way to think about yourself. Much better to believe that there are big, powerful forces at play which aren’t under your personal control. I don’t know if this is true in America but it certainly seems true here: young people want to feel better about their lives by seizing on the concept of fate. As their grannies would say – what’s for ye, will no go by ye.

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