~ By Colette
All of the social sciences resonate with me as a way to understand what influences and impacts our lives. This is probably one reason why I enjoy being the Associate Editor of The Prevention Researcher so much; since we are a multi-disciplinary journal I am allowed to delve into a variety of social sciences, and then I get to see how that research is applied in a variety of other fields.
Readers of The Prevention Researcher are no doubt familiar with Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory which explains how people are affected by the environments in which they inhabit. When talking about prevention, we are mostly concerned with the microsystems (e.g., family, school, peers) and mesosystems (the interconnections between these microsystems), because they are the areas which we have the most potential to change or influence. However, Bronfrenbrenner’s Ecological Theory also includes the exosystem (the external environment which indirectly affect youth’s lives, such as a parent’s workplace), and the macrosystem, or societal-level interactions. The macrosystem is rarely explored or even mentioned in the prevention literature, probably because we have much less control over it. It includes such factors as the national economy and the political culture.
While working on our just released issue about supporting youth in the transition to adulthood, I was introduced to the work of The Network on Transitions to Adulthood. The Network is interdisciplinary, comprised of professionals in a variety of fields (such as sociology, public policy, and developmental psychology). One aspect of The Network’s research which I found fascinating is how it integrates history into our perspectives of youth. The Network is showing how our lives have changed over time as economic and social conditions—the macrosystem—impact our lives. For example, the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, and WWII all had significant influences on the lives of the people who lived through them and those who came afterwards.
Case in point is our notion of “adolescence.” The term “adolescence” was quickly adopted at the beginning of the 20th century (after the publication of the book Adolescence in 1904) because it seemed to fit well with the needs of youth at the time. At the turn of the last century, public schooling was becoming more universal, and the country was moving away from an economy based on agriculture to one based on industry. Since younger teens were no longer suited for employment they were encouraged to continue with their schooling. These shifts, along with others in our society, worked to create the stage of life we now refer to as adolescence.
Today another shift appears to be occurring. As noted in many of the documents available on The Network’s web site, since we have moved out of the industrial age and into the information age, it is increasingly difficult for young people to attain a family-wage job with just a high school diploma. Thus, young people in their late teens and early twenties are generally either pursuing higher education or are in the workforce striving towards financial independence. At the same time, sex education and access to contraceptives have helped young people delay pregnancy, allowing them to put off marrying and creating a family until they are financially capable of doing so. This new phase of life is being referred to as “emerging adulthood.”
As another more personal example of the influence of macrosystems, let me reach back into my own childhood. As a youngster, living in a tiny, rural Oregon town, there were few sports or athletic opportunities for girls. In fifth grade, we had our first opportunity to be on a sports team: girls’ volleyball. Every girl in my class joined the fifth grade volleyball team. The year was 1975, the first year that Title IX was put into effect, opening up educational and athletic opportunities for an untold number of girls and women.
While this historical perspective of how macrosystems impact our lives is interesting, what does it mean for prevention and for those of us working to support youth in their healthy development? For me, it is an important piece of the puzzle which rarely gets acknowledged or addressed. Understanding how cultural and societal-level factors impact not only those people who live through them, but also those who come after is important. I also believe that understanding where we are going as a society is improved if we understand where we’ve been. And, as I grow older, this historical perspective is helpful in reminding me that the factors which impacted my life and the needs I had growing up are not the same factors which are impacting young people’s lives today.
At the same time, while I cannot change the course of our economy or start or stop wars, I might have an impact on local, state, and national policies. Using Title IX as an example, individual people created that bill with the support or opposition of their constituents, individual people continue to challenge it or protect it, and individual people uphold compliance within the schools. While we may be more aware of our influence on the microsystems and mesosytems which impact adolescents’ lives, we can also reach out further and influence the macrosystems. By advocating and working for national policies, laws, and regulations which you feel will positively impact youth and their families, it is possible to make the societal-level changes that shape future generations.