How Can We Help Youth Make a Life, Not Just a Living?

By Dr. Christy Olenik, Vice President, Technical Services, Making Cents International

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A comment shared by a young woman at a youth employment workshop I recently attended resonated with me like few comments have before. During a group discussion at the “Getting By: How Will Young People Making a Living?” conference held at the University of Cambridge Murray Edwards College in April this year, this bright young woman said something like, “Really this issue is about helping youth make a life, not just a living”. Upon hearing this, all of us in the room experienced a bit of an ‘aha’ moment. Naturally, everyone agreed that we want young people to have a fulfilling, purposeful life. However, while we all talked about the importance of her statement, I began to think whether we, as development practitioners, really help young people ‘make a life’. I have worked on a number of programs that teach young people how to be entrepreneurs or give them skills to equip them for employment. Yet I have seen little in the way of teaching youth the importance of having a purpose, experiencing fulfillment, or considering how work fits into family and community life. Instead, it seems to me that what we’ve really been doing is just trying to help young people earn an income.

Since helping young people develop a sense of purpose and live a fulfilling life is important to me, I decided to investigate this issue further. I found a number of articles and reports discussing issues such as helping young people find happiness, supporting them in understanding work/life balance, giving them tools and resources to help them discover their passion, and explaining the importance of promoting positive future life expectations. Dr. William Damon and his team at Stanford’s Center for Adolescence have defined purpose as, “a long-term, forward looking intention to accomplish aims that are meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”[1] While a new area of study for developmental psychologists, purpose has been linked to increases in developmental assets, happiness, resiliency, psychological well-being, and other positive outcomes for youth.[2]

When considering USAID’s Positive Youth Development Framework developed by YouthPower Learning, and its connection to the notion of making a life or defining purpose, I reflected on the domain of ‘agency’ used in the Framework. This particular concept is probably the most difficult to explain and understand, because it deals with the inner motivation that catalyzes someone to set goals and take action. It is often challenging to build programs around such abstract concepts, but I was excited to find several tools, resources, and strategies that I believe are promising and could be adapted to a variety of contexts and programs to help youth develop agency and purpose:

  1. The Fostering Purpose Toolkits – Developed by Claremont Graduate University, these online toolkits include various activities that youth can complete in 15-20 minutes on a computer or mobile phone. There are two student toolkits: one that focuses on purpose and gratitude, and the other that explores purpose and goals. Each toolkit incorporates 9-10 activities that include watching videos, considering the meaning of a famous quote, and envisioning your life when you are older. There are also two toolkits for teachers/trainers on the same topics, including a full curriculum and individual activities for youth that could be added to any type of youth development or employment program.[3]
  2. The QUESTion Project Methodology – Open Future Institute bases their methodology for working with low income students from difficult communities in the US on five pillars: choice, purpose, fearlessness, interconnectedness, and a bigger picture. Through a variety of formats, including semester long classes and short half-day presentations, young people are given the opportunity to address some of life’s most essential questions to help them develop direction in their lives. Specific activities include bringing the five pillars to life through dance, poetry, acting or other creative mediums, as well as completing self-reflection exercises.
  3. The Future Project – This organization is building a US-based network that focuses on making schools places where young people can dream up a better future. The model includes embedding a full-time ‘Dream Director’ in a school to serve as a transformational coach. These Directors are trained to develop belonging, belief, purpose, and power in young people. They also support youth in developing ‘future projects’ to help them achieve a dream for themselves, their school or society.
  4. Project WayFinder Toolkit – Designed to be integrated into schools, the Toolkit allows students to address 32 "big life questions" within the topics of self-awareness, world awareness, and purposeful action. Each activity contains experiential activities, personal reflection, group discussion and real world social experiments. WayFinder has been implemented in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, and Poland; however, it could be worth reaching out to developers to see if the Toolkit would adapt well to low- and middle-income country contexts. Otherwise, youth programs could take the idea of the Toolkit and integrate similar types of activities into curricula, events, and other learning opportunities.

While I see these methods for supporting positive youth development as adjacent to career guidance and service learning, they are different in that they intentionally help each young person explore what is meaningful to them in the broader framework of their life. Based on the research it seems clear that if we feel fulfilled, we enjoy our work and feel more connected to ourselves, our families, our community, and the world at large. Shouldn’t we then help young people build not only a prosperous life, but also a meaningful one?



Bronk, K. (2012). A grounded theory of the development of noble youth purpose. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(1), 78-109.

Claremont Graduate University. The Adolescent Moral Development Lab.

Cook-Deegan, P. (2016). Seven Ways to Help High Schoolers Find Purpose. Greater Good Magazine.

Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.

Malin, H., Liauw, I., and Damon, W. (2017). Purpose and character development in early adolescence Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(6), 1200-1215. 

Stoddard, S. A., & Pierce, J. (2015). Promoting positive future expectations during adolescence: The role of assets. American Journal of Community Psychology, 56(3-4), 332–341.

Wallis, C. (2018). Helping teens find their purpose. The Hechinger Report.




[1] Malin, H., Liauw, I., and Damon, W. (2017). Purpose and character development in early adolescence Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(6), 1200-1215. 

[2] Bronk, K. (2012). A grounded theory of the development of noble youth purpose. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(1), 78-109.

[3] If you decide to share and adapt, please note the licensing restrictions.


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