Once upon a time there was Alice in Wonderland. This is not the first time that the story of Alice has been interpreted as the journey through a young person’s life, and yet again Alice ends up playing the main character in my description of what it is like to grow up in modern society, and particularly what it is like to search for and find answers to the question “who am I?”.
At the beginning of the tale, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and begins an exciting adventure into her own life. After the fall, Alice arrives in a room with a large number of doors. I would say that this kind of room of choices is exactly where the young adults of today find themselves in their lives. When there is a large number of interesting doors, which door should or could we approach? One person would like to check every door, while another feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of doors and choices. Some of the doors might have signs left by parents or older generations which urge: “Choose this one!”. By choosing doors – and setting goals for oneself – a person also builds their identity and self-image.
At the moment it seems like, for at least some in our society, the opportunities to search for and choose goals and identities are open but require active decision-making. Demands for life management and navigating the best route are particularly relevant when building an education and career path.
In the best-case scenario, the young people and young adults manage their lives and negotiate their way into adulthood. This is achieved by setting goals for the future, going through different identity options and by committing to a specific life path. Just like Alice, who tried different doors and chose the most interesting one – the one that she could open with her key – which opened up to the view of a most glorious garden. All these active steps taken by an independent and enterprising young adult will eventually give their life meaning.
Will communities create happy endings?
However, this is not the case every time and for everyone. In the worst-case scenario, the endless number of choices just causes more confusion. The young person or young adult gets stuck in an endless search tinged with worry about what they want to do with their lives. This leads to feelings of hopelessness and lack of control. 40 per cent of 23-year-olds Finns  feel like they do not know which direction their lives are taking. Their plans for the future do not fill them with the kind of confidence that is badly needed to be in charge of one’s own life. In short, many young Finnish adults have a confused identity. Research has shown that this is connected to psychological symptoms, such as depression and exhaustion and low satisfaction with life. The studies also tell us that psychological symptoms among students in higher education have become more common in the 21st century .
Students and all young adults are tomorrow’s employees. At the moment, the transformation of working life and guaranteeing wellbeing at work in the future are some of the main challenges in society. To resolve these challenges the students of today must be of good health and wellbeing, receive support in making choices and learn the mental health skills required for work – and life. The measures and skills of the individual and the community which promote the ability to study also help young people to build their identity and find meaning and sense in their own lives. For the individual, efforts made to achieve personal goals are often rewarded with a clearer view of whether or not this is their thing. The immediate surroundings of a young adult, such as teachers and the higher education community, but also their parents, can support the ability to study and the creation of an identity by showing the young person appreciation, supporting them and giving them opportunities to have an influence.
The Alice in the story fell down the rabbit hole all on her own and was looking for the right door on her own but in the end, she got out of the room of choices with the help or in the company of other creatures. This is also the case when it comes to finding the meaning in one’s own life and building one’s own identity. “We” is always stronger than “I”. That is why it is very important to also try to promote communities, the feeling of being part of a group, a sense of community and mutual support. A sense of community means shared values and goals and an opportunity to discuss and negotiate everyone’s individual goals, but also the goals of the community and other individuals. This requires openness, trust, interaction and participation, as well as sharing time, place, routines and stability. All of these things are particularly important as the wellbeing of the workers of the future is built today.
specialist, PhD (Psych)
 Marttinen, Dietrich & Salmela-Aro (2016) Dark shadows of rumination: Finnish young adults’ identity profiles, personal goals and concerns. Journal of Adolescence, 47, 185-196. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.10.024
 The Finnish Student Health Survey 2016, http://www.yths.fi/en/health_information_and_research/research_and_publications/the_finnish_student_health_survey