Study Materials for Religious Education

Section B6: Young people's identity: Finding a healthy path through the cultural maze.
What it means to educate young people in personal identity development
A consideration of the issues and difficulties young people have to negotiate in trying to develop a sense of meaningful and healthy identity in a culture, many aspects of which are seducing their authentic individuality.

Who are yours for 2020? Must be updated annually!!!

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Brief overview of content of this section

Young people's self-understanding and self-expression are worked out through complex interactions between their identity needs and the identity resources they find in culture. Their quest for a sense of authentic self is a major developmental task. It is complicated because the culture is saturated with many attractive identity proposals, not all of which turn out to be helpful. At the same time, the traditional family and community identity resources do not appear to have the same cogency and plausibility they seemed to have formerly.

This section will explore some of the identity issues that young people have to negotiate. The better the understanding adults have of the problems young people face while finding their way through the identity maze, the better they will be able to contribute to a critical education in identity for youth – in the home, school and other contexts. Special attention will be given to the cluster of issues related to consumerism, advertising and the media because of the psychological sway these have over the development of youth identity.

Because identity has a prominent place in young people's personal development, and because consumer culture gives special attention to youth's identity vulnerabilities, it is important for educators to have a critical understanding of the dynamics of cultural influence on young people's identity development.

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Youth mindlessly acts its identity quest in the theatre of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them.
Marshall Mcluhan, 1969

The process of identity construction implies a gradual development of a comprehensive self-interpretation which makes it possible for the individual to experience life as a meaningful project.
Leif Gunnar Engedal, 2006

As consumerism reaches increasingly beyond the acquisition of things to the enhancement of the person, the goal of marketing becomes not only to make us dissatisfied with what we have, but also with who we are. As it seeks ever more ways to colonise our consciousness, consumerism both fosters and exploits the restless, insatiable expectation that there has got to be more to life. And in creating this hunger, consumerism offers its own remedy – more consumption.
Richard Eckersley, 2006


The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 44 minutes duration)

Film, television and advertising: The most prominent identity-building resources in the culture
The way in which external cultural aspects and interpersonal identity
Youth identity and consumer culture: Externals, consumerism and young people search for identity
Retail identity and the seduction of individuality
Lifestyle-indexed identity: external identity validation, the conditioning influence of advertising and prolonged adolescence
The conditioning influence of lifestyle advertising
The evaluation of lifestyle as a part of healthy identity development
Resourcing young people's identity self-evaluation
Logos and the clothing of identity: Leaping on the 'brand-wagon': The retail potential of identity needs
Branded: the buying and selling of teenagers
The retail potential of teenagers dreams for self-improvement
Body image: the marketing strategy of inadequacy and the buying of beauty, sex appeal and performance
Being acknowledged as cool: a psychological defence and coping mechanism
The projective identity function of cool and its relation to targeted consumerism
Cool as identity defence against the perils of adolescence

Film, television and advertising:   the most prominent identity-building resources in the culture

Perhaps more than any element of culture and socialisation, film and television provide young people with access to a vast range of identity building resources.

Film, television and commercial advertising are well attuned to a number of the critical tensions/polarities in the psychological identity-building processes for young people.   For example:-

  • between the group and the individual;   
  • between internationalism and nationalism;
  • between group required behaviour patterns and autonomy;
  • between freedom and responsibility.

Film and television have contributed to an increasingly internationalised perspective for young people;   however, while this tends to soften boundaries and distinctions that seem to be more important for older generations, and while it promotes a greater sense of global 'brotherhood/sisterhood' and 'neighbourhood', it does not extinguish a sense of nationalism in identity.   Certainly the commercial world is pragmatically alert to the tension between universalism and individual distinctiveness;   it targets young people for purchases that will reinforce both aspects.   While we may tend to think of identity mainly as a psychological sense of self, something that is primarily internal, it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of externals which can contribute much to self expression.

Items like clothing, hairstyle, preferred music, and fashion have something to say about identity, especially for teenagers.   The quest for identity is easily exploited by commercial interests and the media.   What may appear to another generation as unthinking conformity is of importance to the younger generation as a way of finding security and belonging within a group.   Many commercial industries have developed more or less to cater for the identity experimentation of youth;   they manufacture not only the clothes, food, CDs, mobille phones etc. for individual self-expression, but, through advertising, promote the images and moods that will be most likely fuel young people's desire to purchase their products.   Music and fashion, especially that generated initially in the United States and the United Kingdom, serve as an international fund of resources for the self expression and self understanding of youth.

The problems with universal marketing is that advertising focuses on how to sell values increasingly geared to processes, not things.   Sales appeals directed toward the values of individualism, experimentalism, person-centredness, direct experience, and some forms of pleasure and escape will need to tap intangibles – human relationships, feeling, dreams, and hopes – rather than tangible things or explicit actions.

While consumerism and advertising laud and reinforce both the ideas and images of 'freedom' and 'individuality', at the same time they may subtly seduce people into thinking that the acquisition of marketable commodities will satisfy identity needs.   The meshing of market strategies with perceived identity needs may be successfully promoting what might be called a 'retail identity' or a 'commodity identity'.   Any educational investigation of identity forming processes needs to address these issues.

The way in which external cultural aspects enter into personal identity

The first example here is of adolescents in Japan where in the Harajuku and Shinjuku areas there is a new tradition of young people wearing outrageous clothing such that this has become a national tourist attraction.
The PowerPoint below also raised questions about young children and their media heroes and super-heroes.

The second example: Look at the PowerPoint on the AJC princess campaign which was arguably one of the most successful Australian advertising campaigns. Look to see the way in which the campaign targets the identity vulnerability of women appealing to the mythology of being the Princess.

Concluding comments on interpretation of the Princess advertising campaign and interpreting the way in which it was targeting the identity vulnerability of women. In addition there are copies of two of the advertising videos that were produced by the AJC.

As indicated in the lecture, have a look at the document that interprets how the advertising strategy worked.

Example of excessive identity projection amongst the Japanese teenagers in Harajuku -- has become a tourist attraction. Also material on children's identity development. Audio commentary builit into the powerpoint.

Powerpoint looking at the most successful recent advertising campaign in Sydney -- the Princess campaign This version has an audio commentary.


Princesses prepare video

Princesses stop at Nothing video

Document interpreting the way market/advertising has used the identity vulnerability of women to target them to ‘be a princess' at Royal Randwick

7.2  Youth identity and consumer culture

7.2.1  Externals, consumerism and young people's search for identity

While one might tend to think of identity mainly as a psychological sense of self, something that is primarily internal, it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of identity externals – and this is precisely where commerce enters the sphere of youth identity and exploits it. Consumer products have something to say about identity, especially for teenagers. They are not just functional; they make a statement! They are linked with identity because they are felt to be distinctive self-expressions of the individual.

What may appear to another generation as mindless conformity is often a way for adolescents to find security and belonging within a group. They may not have a strong psychological grasp on identity anyway, and group identification may feel like the only identity they have, covering up the uncertainty and puzzlement within. Group identification may not provide a relatively permanent identity solution, but experimentation with self-expression helps them discover and try out different identity formats to discover those with which they feel most comfortable. Because this is linked with identity searching, one of the most basic developmental issues they have to deal with, it is understandable then that young people have strong feelings about consumer choices and lifestyle. ‘Forming groups by adopting a particular way of dressing does not resolve these issues, but it is one way of building a safe, understood environment to which they can retreat from time to time and from which they can launch themselves at life.' (Ward, 1993).

Group identification through dress and stylised social behaviour seems to serve as temporary reference points in young people's search for a satisfying sense of self. While their own sense of identity feels fragile, they can rely on group identity to sustain them. When their identity is better articulated and more self-sustained, group membership can become more individualistic and allow for more diversity of expression and interaction with other groups.

Identity vulnerability underlies much of the psychological experimentation of youth. Needs for group membership will vary from individual to individual; but for most young people it is fundamental to their search for personal identity. Groups provide an ‘identity haven', but the cost requires conformity in dress, interests, in-language, music and where to ‘hang out'. Youth will look for many options for group membership and for easy and fluid ways of joining and leaving; if a group does not meet needs, it can readily be abandoned. This uncertainty and experimentation are ripe for commercial colonisation. Industries have developed more or less to cater for the identity experimentation of youth; they manufacture not only the clothes, food and CDs for individual self-expression, but, through slick advertising, promote the images and moods that will be most likely to fuel young people's desire to buy their products. As will be explored in more detail later, this sort of marketing actually focuses on selling images and values – and the ‘things' to be purchased are the means for acquiring the attractive lifestyle. Advertising is directed towards individualism, experimentalism, person-centredness, direct experience, pleasure and escape. This taps into the intangibles of youth identity development: human relationships, feelings, dreams, and hopes.

Youth consumer choices are not just a matter of individual taste; what they buy demonstrates their ‘style':

things like listening to a particular piece of music, buying [a CD], buying a particular style of clothing are all means of identification. In such a process young people move closer to others who share those same likes and choices. It is a very free, democratic and easy way of finding common identification with others – even at the level of musical and fashion tastes.(Ward, 1993)

Identification can be as simple as buying a particular cap or wearing the casual ‘uniform' of the group; or by identifying with causes like Amnesty International or a protest movement. This is easier than expressing intentional membership in a political party or in organised religion, and it does not call for much responsibility or commitment, or for assent to an ideology or system of theology and morality. Despite the manipulative uniformity that some adolescent groups or gangs can require of members, it is most often a democratic and egalitarian spirit that is evident.

Commerce has long been interested in making a living from marketing products that meet individuals' needs for distinctive self-expression. For many youth, this can have a disproportionate influence in channelling their self-expression. In turn, it helps create the idea of a distinctive youth subculture: its creation depends heavily on the choices they make in what they buy. Being ‘creative consumers', their purchases have symbolic meaning as well as functional utility.To reinforce its power over youth consumerism, commerce needs to sustain the myth of identity-oriented purchasing: it purports to be an essential part of identity development. To make the myth even more attractive and potent, it is coloured strongly with images of freedom and individuality, where the operative notion of freedom is choice from a multiplicity of products. Smith and Standish considered that current ambiguity about what constitutes morality is

symptomatic of the running together of our excessive preoccupation with individualism and the identity imposed on us as consumers. We think of ourselves as people who express ourselves through choices. To oppose someone's choice then looks like an unwarranted suppression of their individuality and authenticity, of what is closest and most real to them.

This interpretation helps explain the sharpness in some young people's negative reaction to any move that threatens the scope of their choices. In turn, it illustrates the strength of the hold that consumerism can have on them because it is closely associated with their drive to establish an identity. It is therefore difficult to lead young people to see that marketing for distinctiveness can, from another perspective, be a means of mass homogenisation of identity: individuality through the mass marketing of commercial packages.

Young people in places as diverse as Sydney, Los Angeles, Cairo and Moscow can be seen wearing a style of clothing that had its origins with African American youth. The tension between distinctiveness and universality has been aptly caught by the fashion industry's name for this clothing as ‘International urban tribal streetwear'. Somehow for those who wear such clothing the distinctiveness and the universality are harmonised; their dress allows a type of global youth identification, while at the same time making a distinctive statement. When so much clothing like caps and T shirts with brands, names, teams or comments stamped on them is marketed, the specificity of the ‘statements' may end up being diluted; an item without some identification would become the exception.

To some extent the patterns in young people's social group membership, especially after they leave school, relate to the current sociopolitical settings. The style of groups in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has varied according to the prevailing cultural climates. In the social mix are factors like ideas of romantic liberalism, phases of economic depression, economic rationalism and unemployment, together with trends in the globalisation of commerce, worldwide environmental crisis, and expanding communication technologies. Adolescent groups can shield young people from the harsh realities of the world, and they provide scope for personality experimentation. They also serve as starting points for the exploration to find a meaningful and constructive place in life.

7.2.2  Retail identity and the seduction of individuality

The youth consumerism described above leads towards a ‘retail identity'. Whatever the community thinks about this issue, there is no doubt that astute marketing psychologists see it as basic to their industry. Product and market development target the identity needs of young people as selling points; their natural insecurity and identity vulnerability make them prone to consumerism that is supposed to facilitate experimentation in personal image and identity.

This advertising strategy promotes a consumer mentality that says particular consumer products will make a difference to your physical appearance, personal desirability and social status – as well as giving you pleasure and comfort. This stresses the externals of identity. It taps into influential social and cultural themes such as freedom, individuality, popularity and pleasure. These themes work like infrastructure that energises consumerism. Advertising endeavours to develop a symbiotic relationship with these themes to improve its effectiveness. The young (as well as the not so young) are encouraged to see shopping as an integral part of identity development; they can stock up with gear and products that seem to exude desirable image and self-definition.

Such marketing strategies engage in a seduction of individuality. This they do in two ways. First, their images and messages promote individuality as a seductive theme: it is very desirable, something that all youth need; they want it; they have a right to it; and they are prepared to pay for it. Phrases like ‘be yourself', ‘do your own thing', ‘be an individual', ‘be all you can be', ‘go for it' are examples of seductive messages. So, marketing to youth tries to seduce them through an appeal to individuality – they are seduced with individuality. Second, through the purchase of products that are supposed to enhance distinctiveness, young people are seduced away from their individuality – they buy consumer packages that short-change them as far as their authentic self is concerned. Through promoting, and then profiting by, a view of individuality as a profile of consumer products (or a ready-made identifying package), the commercial world insinuates a marketable, external, and therefore materialistic notion of identity. If young people are influenced by this thinking and imagery to an excessive degree, they can neglect internal identity resources, thus compromising the health of their identity.

The many thousands of television advertisements that young people watch each year, as well as those in print media, strongly promote the development and expression of individuality. They suggest what clothes, shoes, toothpaste, acne cream and perfume are needed to express individuality. But while the enhancement of a personal sense of individuality is promoted, at the same time youth are seduced into accepting a pre-packaged public individuality, which is in part created by the media and the leisure industries. Television advertising fuels the fires of individuality, but in a subtle way then draws people away from it towards a public conformity to the images and lifestyle it projects. Consumer advertising can tell you what you need to conform to if you want to be ‘cool', ‘in', ‘hip', ‘whatever'.

The collective aura of participation, together with its presence in the private space of people's homes, make television a powerful instrument for promoting public individuality. The comments of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s now sound like a prophecy fulfilled: ‘Television seduces us from the literate and private point of view to the complex and inclusive world of the group icon. Instead of presenting a private argument it offers a way of life that is for everybody.'

Youth conformity to advertised images poses a significant dilemma for individuality. Where cloning and clichés sustained by television images are relied on too much for desirable individuality, young people may come to wonder if they have any inner private life or identity at all.

7.2.8  Lifestyle-indexed identity: External identity validation, the conditioning influence of advertising and prolonged adolescence

A newspaper article by Delaney entitled ‘Absolutely fabulous: Spend, glam up and party, but is self-indulgence all it takes to make a young woman happy?' suggests that princesses at the racetrack is but one of a number of similar phenomena in the contemporary lifestyle of young women. For many, a costly night (or day) out is planned about twice a month; for others, partying is standard practice every weekend; for some, alcohol is taken both before and during the outing, while they move on to cocaine and ‘ice' (crystal methamphetamine) to keep them going when they tire. Young men participate just as readily in this social scene; their ‘take' on glamour mythology is different, but nonetheless potent. But for both young men and women, their participation in such a social life to various extents provides psychological self-validation. This is often a big component of their lifestyle; and it has psychological roots into their identity because it provides the ‘psychological buzz' or ‘instant feel-good' on which they have become dependent for a sense of personal validation.

The proposed model for identity health in Section 4 calls especially for the development of internal identity resources to complement the external. But in a culture where for many lifestyle assumes greater importance than values or commitments, the internalisation of identity resources is inhibited by a growing dependence on external validations – especially in a combination of experience and consumer goods. The ‘buzz' or ‘feel-good' therefore becomes a type of identity holy grail. If life is primarily about ‘feeling good', then young people will constantly search for experiences that will deliver instant feel-good. Problems occur when buzzes with increasingly higher ‘voltage' are required for satisfaction; and where more and more money is paid for maintaining the buzz. By contrast, the attraction in long-term goals is often not strong enough to have much more than a vague influence – goals and ambitions may be OK as long as they do not compromise current lifestyle too much.

If you are young and cashed up … glamour rules. It's the dominant aesthetic, but it's also an attitude and way of life, one with its own rules and role models. More than that, however, the lust for glamour is deeply emblematic of our age. We are fixated with celebrities, image and style. Prosperity has given us the cash to spend, and a consumer culture that rewards self-absorption encourages us to spend it on ourselves …

[Those strongly influenced by the myth of glamour] are also the ultimate products of consumer culture. Rather than rebelling against it, they have turned up the volume and embraced it with a look that is maxi consumer. (Delaney, 2006)

What she says is no doubt true for some, and is more pertinent to women than men; for men, glamour includes more of the following in the mix: ego, competitiveness, physical prowess, ‘toys' like cars, and success in work – rather than glamorous appearance as such. But if the words self-validation through lifestyle – that is, activities that make one feel valuable, accepted, important and attractive – were substituted in place of glamour, this paragraph would become much more insightful into young people's identity dynamics, both men and women.

People's identity or sense of self needs to be affirmed not just once but continually; some regular recognition and acceptance from outside the self are needed to nourish the identity and keep it alive. Lifestyle activities, probably even more than possessions, have become the principal source of this external validation; and this taps into basic meaning and purpose, perhaps with more influence than one might expect in a healthy identity. Externals, especially consumer items, help give a ‘concrete' sense of identity. In a sense people can feel that they do not have to wait until after death to go to heaven; they can have ‘consumer paradise' right here and now. Access to a particular lifestyle and reference groups supplies people with an instantaneous feeling of identification; the kudos readily rubs off on them; it can underscore what they think they need for the rest of their life. But if the external validation they depend on breaks down (for example when a strongly career-oriented person is retrenched or retires) an identity crisis may result. In addition, lifestyle can even tap into people's natural concern that their passage through life should leave some mark; if they do not see themselves making a mark through family, work achievements and their own personal integrity, there is the temptation to make a statement through lifestyle.

If people do not have a strong sense of doing something meaningful and satisfying that is not so strongly indexed to lifestyle, they are more likely to look continually for self-validation in lifestyle activity. In other words, if there are not influential internal goals and values, people will be more inclined to pursue the immediate feel-good or buzz to fill the void. Periodic doses of external self-validation can keep them going; the princess and night-out activities referred to earlier can top up their needs. The more self-validation from lifestyle, the more they feel that it also gives them meaning and purpose. Identity health is compromised if the psychological and financial cost of continual feel-good validation becomes excessive. On the other hand, a healthy lifestyle (in the broadest sense) enhances identity.

Another factor also enters the equation: where self-validation is primarily external, it is open to commercial colonisation.

The conditioning influence of lifestyle advertising 

Advertising not only markets specific items for self-validation, but promotes and sustains the rationale for an external self-validation. It keeps the myth of consumer or lifestyle identity on low simmer.

People sense that they belong to a particular lifestyle; it identifies them. And every sign of lifestyle advertising is like a banner affirming who they are – hence television and glossy magazine advertising provide an identity infrastructure that reminds them ‘this is where you belong'; this may operate at a relatively unconscious level through an iconography of consumerism. The identity imagery in advertising is atmospheric; it assures people that they are on track as far as lifestyle – and meaning in life – are concerned; you have identified with the right group and the right brands. Some examples: ‘Absolutely everything you desire' (Lancôme Paris); ‘Limited time Unlimited luxury' (Target USA); ‘Because you're worth it' (L'oréal Paris); The full-page advertisement for Bluefly USA, online retailers, lists an extensive range of consumer feelings, in which the word NEED was highlighted – ‘Joy rage envy desire passion jealousy hurt elation success thirst victory boredom fury NEED want lust sex crave rapture hunger triumph stress thrill pleasure ache rush conquest revenge That's why I NEED Bluefly.'

Money and maintenance of lifestyle-indexed identity

Young people need money to pursue the common consumer- and entertainment-related forms of self-validation, even if it eats up more than a healthy proportion of their total earnings. For those who are supported financially to some extent by their family, lifestyle maintenance is even easier; they can live more extravagantly, or they can spend less time working to reach the desired level of disposable income, leaving more time for lifestyle options.

Advertising psychology is well aware of these dynamics; it is in the best commercial interest to keep this mythology alive and well. Most advertising in television and magazines therefore has a dual function: it promotes the targeted item while at the same time sustaining the myth of consumer-related identity development. This mythology in turn fuels consumerism. As discussed in Frank's book Luxury fever, ‘luxury purchases, if adopted by enough people, become the status quo. In order to fit in or just to keep up, we have to spend more money, as in some sort of consumer arms race'.

The evaluation of lifestyle as part of identity development

Lifestyle is a natural part of being human; we all display one. The importance of people's planning and implementing a particular lifestyle is not in question. What is proposed here is the need for reflection about the meaning of lifestyle and about factors that have a conditioning influence on it. This can help with an evaluation of one's lifestyle, to check whether it is consistent with core values. Also, the value stance taken here presumes that the life project needs to be ‘larger' than lifestyle; otherwise, excesses in lifestyle can eventually be damaging for the individual's wellbeing and that of others. Problems can arise with respect to the sources, scope and spread of identity affirmation.

Hence the purpose of analyses like the above is to inform self-evaluation in the light of what it means to have a healthy identity. It seeks to promote substantial rather than ephemeral resources for identity development. And it seeks personal truth in self-understanding rather than an identity that includes pretence and illusion; in other words, it tries to identify and name what is illusory. The warning in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother night is pertinent: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.'

Resourcing young people's identity self-evaluation

Consideration of links between lifestyle and identity is always difficult because it is close to the bone. It is ultimately about individuals' reviewing how their life structure shapes up against their ideal self. And this is a very personal activity. The bulk of this chapter provides raw material that can assist in the self-evaluative process, which usually begins with analysis of what is happening out there in the culture before personal implications can be teased out. One of the difficult tasks of an education in identity is to resource young people's capacity for self-evaluation by helping them access the pertinent issues and ideas. Precisely because of their identity vulnerability, they are not always receptive to critiques of lifestyle or culture, particularly if they feel that this threatens their options. So it is realistic not to expect evidence of too much progress; even pointing young people in the right direction may be the first helpful step towards a mature identity.

Ambiguity abounds in the personal self-evaluation process. We have met young people who are able to discuss many of the above-mentioned issues in an intelligent and responsible way; but we are also aware that the profile of their own lifestyle (how they spend their time and money) is evidence of these very problems. A critical awareness of problems in identity-related consumerism does not seem to be inconsistent with being avid consumers who need the identity cachet of their purchases and leisure activities.

Trying to resource young people's evaluation of self and lifestyle means taking a value stance with respect to materialism and consumerism; and this is not the most attractive stance to commend to today's youth. But at least those involved in education and care of youth can acquaint them with such views, together with the concerns for human wellbeing that motivate them. For example:

We're in the inevitable progression of individualistic culture where what's important is very much what relates to the individual person and his or her attributes. If we take materialism – glamour and good looks are part of that – the evidence suggests that, far from making us happier, materialism is linked to lower wellbeing, alienation and lower happiness levels.

One of the problems with consumer culture is that it tends towards the excess – because ultimately what you get out of it is not deeply fulfilling. You quickly adapt to that level of achievement – you quickly adapt and want the next hit. That's what happens when too much of your life focuses on the personal and individual. Eckersley, 2006

Another key issue to consider is the time, energy and cost (both psychological and financial) that go into self-validation. A healthy identity should not need too much attention; it is not narcissistic. If too much has to be done to ‘prove' an identity, especially to outsiders, this is an indicator of identity sickness. Rather, a healthy identity should be able to channel energy into worthy projects outside the self; it should be altruistic and even self-forgetful. In this sense, one's life needs to be larger than one's identity.

A preoccupation with external self-validation may be part of a more enveloping self-centredness. For young people who by nature and/or nurture are highly self-centred, their lives tend to revolve exclusively around self-satisfying activities. But a life spent in pursuit of just what pleases the self can end up feeling empty, because it does not have the emotional space to engage meaningfully with others. Some young people suffering from this problem may seek psychological help, asking ‘What do I need so that I don't feel so empty?' But a helpful solution cannot be found within this limited frame of reference; it requires questioning the value of ‘meeting needs' as the ultimate criterion for fulfilment. Just as identity should be more than lifestyle, so fulfilment should be more than self-satisfaction.

Also in need of evaluation is the way that focus-on-self is a mantra for lifestyle advertising. This consumer orientation can so occupy young people's attention that it inhibits the development of an identity based more on internal resources, extending the identity resolution tasks that are usually judged to be a part of adolescence.

The prolongation of adolescence

Many of the lifestyle and identity issues discussed here have been referenced to the 18–35 age group, even though they are often evident in older people as well as in young people of school age. One could expect that sorting out a balance between internal and external identity resources is a project that gets under way in adolescence, and that substantial progress would be made by the early twenties. But ambivalence about links between lifestyle and identity remains an ongoing problem for young adults. It is as if the developmental tasks of adolescence are being prolonged.

A cluster of cultural factors is extending the time between leaving school and becoming financially and domestically independent: More time is spent studying at university and technical colleges; the high cost of independent living inclines post-school youth to stay at home; finding secure employment with a clear career pathway is more difficult, as is taking time out for travel. The drive to have a satisfying lifestyle and the associated financial and social costs interrelates with these factors and the resultant mix has a significant effect on personal relationships. The most obvious statistic is the increasing average age at marriage; the idea of marrying, ‘settling down' and raising a family is being postponed or perhaps even taken off the agenda.

In addition, consumer-lifestyle self-validation affects relationships because the tendency to seek existential ‘feel-good/buzz' experiences makes instant satisfaction and enjoyment the focal point; and this may not be a good recipe for successful, enduring friendship. If people carry a mainly self-centred interest into their relationships, it is understandable that this will naturally make the association more ephemeral; if the survival of a relationship depends only on the level of self-affirmation each partner derives from it, then it is less likely that the couple will be able to make a long-term, meaningful project together with shared goals, values and commitments. Such an association could readily stall once the couple passed the initial stage of being ‘in love' when feelings of infatuation provided copious self-validation; this occurs when, for various reasons, they are unable to progress to an ongoing loving relationship that is sustained by commitment and not just emotion (even though emotional compatibility will always remain important).

7.2.3  Logos and the clothing of identity and 'Leaping on the brand-wagon': The retail potential of identity needs

Much can be learned about youth identity development from the psychology of advertising and the work of marketers.

In her book No Logo (2000), Naomi Klein has written in support of an anti-corporate attitude she sees arising as resistance to the manipulative activity of transnational corporations. She argues that the globalisation of markets and the so-called free trade that facilitate the growth of transnationals are usually not fair and will often marginalise the poor and non-powerful – for example, cheap Third World labour producing consumer goods marketed in Western technological societies. What is pertinent to our discussion here is her view of how webs of ‘logos' or ‘corporate brands' came to be more prominent in marketing and retail success than the actual products themselves. Her explanation for this was in the psychological mechanisms of identity development.
Click photo or here for short video on branding

Mass-produced consumer goods are relatively indistinguishable at a technical level; so ‘image-based' differences were developed to make the brand name more attractive. Given the competition for consumer attention, ‘branding' seemed to become a necessity for making products stick in consumers' minds. The success of this branding depended on its psychological appeal; everything was done to promote brand image and brand loyalty. Marketing endeavoured to show how the ‘meaning' and ‘mystique' of brands harmonised with people's lifestyle and aspirations; what they wanted was to forge consumer identification and emotional ties with brands. While many people were attracted to the ‘bargain basement' tier of consumerism for basic requirements, a second tier of ‘premium brands' catered for people's need for status, ‘attitude' and external indicators of quality lifestyle. Klein reported the claim of the CEO of Starbucks coffee franchise ‘The people who line up for Starbucks, aren't just there for the coffee. “It is the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores.” Starbucks' vice-president of marketing, who had formerly directed the Nike ‘Just do it!' campaign, added:

Nike, for example, is leveraging the deep emotional connection that people have with sports and fitness. With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people's lives, and that is our opportunity for emotional leverage … A great brand raises the bar – it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it's the challenge to do your best in sports and fitness or the reaffirmation that the cup of coffee you're drinking really matters.

Similarly, the Diesel Jeans owner said, ‘We don't sell a product, we sell a style of life. I think we have created a movement … the Diesel concept is everything. It's the way to live; it's the way to wear; it's the way a to do something.' And the Body Shop founder explained that ‘her stores aren't about what they sell, they are the conveyors of a grand idea – a political philosophy about women, the environment and ethical business'. The pursuit of beauty with a conscience!

Klein continued:

[Companies were] looking to replace their cumbersome product production apparatus with transcendent brand names and to infuse their brands with deep, meaningful messages … No longer simply branding their own products, but branding the outside culture as well – by sponsoring cultural events, they could go out into the world and claim bits of it as brand-name outposts. For these companies, branding was not just a matter of adding value to a product. It was about thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas and images back on the culture as ‘extensions' of their brands. Culture, in other words, would add value to their brands …

The effect, if not always the original intent, of the advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. It is not to sponsor culture but to be the culture. And why shouldn't it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and experiences, why can't they be culture too? This project has been so successful that the lines between corporate sponsors and sponsored culture have entirely disappeared.

Development of the brand mystique operates through a network of marketing, advertising, television, films, the Internet, computer games, magazines, music and film stars, sporting personalities, corporate event and space sponsorship, merchandise licensing, linked food deals, and brand loyalty programs – as well as peer-to-peer marketing.

It is as if these colossal branding networks, which increasingly operate at a global level, seek to imprint branding on people's souls, making it an essential aspect of identity development – constructing your own unique self-expression through your personal pattern of branding; and in turn, giving this mechanism colossal commercial consequences.

7.2.9  Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers

Market research has understood the psychology of identity development well enough to plan successful links between branded consumer products and the perceived needs of young people. Advertising imagery orchestrates their imaginations in non-verbal as well as verbal ways, to make them more receptive to brand messages. This process is encapsulated in the title of Alissa Quart's book Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers (2003). She followed up Klein's interpretation of marketing as preying on young people's identity vulnerabilities. In addition, she showed how marketing had pushed further into childhood to tap the new retail potential of pre-teenagers – the 11–13-year-olds. The comment on the back cover summarised her intentions as follows:

[The book shows] how teenagers succumb to constant commercial battering designed to reduce their individuality and creativity, the effects of targeted messages on emerging teen identities and how they are subtly taught to market to each other … also the bravery of isolated young people who fight back, turning the tables on the cocksure mega-corporations striving to crack the codes of teen[age] cool. These kids prove it isn't necessary to give in to branding, but it's a drop in the ocean when an entire generation is being raised to consume.

In addition to the move by brand names to market products for ever younger children, there is even a luxury product range for babies. A newspaper reported the trend as follows:

Why babies need luxury gear. Fussy cashed-up parents are digging deep for the right look.

Baby gear (clothing, cots, prams, nappy bags, feeding chairs and the rest) has gone from the stuff of necessity to that of status – for the parents anyway …  But the strange thing about the current obsession for the best, coolest and latest for our babies is that it has nothing to do with our babies at all.

In the United States, annual sales of specialty baby toiletries . . have tripled since 2001 to USD$75 million. First time parents are getting older (one in ten first time mothers in Australia is aged over 35). They have more money, know what they want, have lived and breathed the dominating culture of consumption and, at the end of a long day, the shopping is guilt-free when it is for someone who can't say ‘No'.

Older children and teenagers, both rich and poor alike, seem to be prone to seeking status and desirability through the brands of the consumer goods they purchase – the brand label apparently carrying more identity weight than the actual products themselves.

Today's teens are victims of the contemporary luxury economy. Raised by a commodity culture from the cradle, teens' dependably fragile self-images and their need to belong to groups are perfect qualities for advertisers to exploit … They look at every place of children's vulnerability, searching for selling opportunities … Kids are forced to embrace the instrumental logic of consumerism at an earlier than ever age … finding self definition in logos and products.

[Marketing themes for youth often are] about ‘melodrama', about mastering rules, about the search for identity and a theme called ‘hanging out'.

From their ubiquity, logos derive psychological power that affects teenagers' hopes and dreams. Once, brands could be thought of as being externals that might be used to identify individuals with a group or differentiate them from a group. But now, ‘brands have infiltrated pre-teens and adolescents' inner lives'. As well as appealing to teenagers' felt needs, branding also tapped into their idealism: their wish to have an ideal world to live in could be subtly played upon so they might accept a ‘branded' one instead.

The branding process is not only pervasive, it is often perceived as natural, taken for granted and not questioned – just the way things are. There is a danger here that a culturally constructed and commercially motivated process can begin to distort, and perhaps even substitute for, the process of identity development. Young people may come to feel that they themselves are just a brand – a distinctive combination of commercial brandings that expresses who they are.

In a sense, [branding] provides kids with at sense of self-hood before many of them have even recognised that they have a self … consider[ing] their own characters and personae brands unto themselves.

[Teenagers] suffer more than any other sector of society from wall to wall selling. They are at least as anxious as their parents about having enough money and maintaining their social class, a fear that they have been taught is best allayed by more branded gear. And they have taken to branding themselves, believing that the only way to participate in the world is to turn oneself into a corporate product.

Many of the [teenagers] … who are drenched in name-brand merchandise are slightly awkward or overweight or not conventionally pretty. While many teenagers are branded, the ones most obsessed with brand names feel they have a lack that only super-branding will cover and insure against social ruin.

As noted earlier, research studies have shown that both rich as well as poor teenagers and children are affected by this branding mentality; and both rich and poor are targeted for what they can spend to achieve it. This amounts to corporate manipulation of youth; one Australian columnist referred to it as ‘corporate paedophilia'. (Clive Hamilton)

Whether at school or in other contexts, efforts to help youth become less naive about the implications of participating in consumerist branding need to introduce them to an ‘unbranding' or ‘decolonising' agenda – that is, identifying seduction, and deconstructing chic images and brand mystique.

Advertising that increasingly aims at younger children tries to ‘hook' them at an early age, and retain them as loyally branded for life. Magazines like Teen people, Elle girl, Cosmo girl, and Teen Vogue prepare pre-teenage girls for the more adult versions to which they will graduate as they get older. These, and many consumer products, especially in cosmetics and body-building, appeal to young people's anxiety about body image and their hopes for improvement. The stylised professional wrestling programs on television (in the USA) are said to appeal particularly to the young men who are interested in muscular body image.

7.2.10  The retail potential of teenagers' dreams for self-improvement

The desire for self-improvement, especially in the domain of body image and perceived attractiveness, is a key part of what is called ‘teenage angst'. Pertinent to earlier comments about the cost of conformity, Quart claimed that glossy magazines exploit the teenage angst theme:

[Magazines for teenagers] construct an unaffordable but palpable world of yearning for girls. We are all too familiar with the negative effects of the model body on girls' self images, but these magazines do something new: they help to solidify feelings of economic and taste inadequacy in girls. By introducing very young teens to female celebrity and the dressmakers who helped create it, these magazines underline that girls are not complete or competitive if they don't wear label dresses at their junior high school dances.

Teenagers can be overwhelmed by the constant reminders across media and advertising that they have to measure their attractiveness against the mostly impossible standards set by fashion models. The permanent gap between the ideal and their own appearance is a constant source of depressive feelings. This goes hand in hand with frustration from the gap between the social reality of the media – ‘you can be what you want' – and their own experience that this does not happen no matter how hard they try. There are apparently limitless opportunities advertised, but the high hopes they raise are followed by a sense of failure and impotence, and a feeling of not knowing where to go (see the discussion of youth angst and anomie later in this chapter and in Chapter 9). Klein called the resultant feeling of 'globo-claustrophobia'. .

The always unsatisfying task of measuring your attractiveness against the impossible standards of beauty projected by the media. This shows up in looking through the pages of a magazine like Vogue

Nevertheless, these negative feelings can fuel hope that a combination of labelled clothes and footwear, cosmetics, the right mobile phone and mp3 player, and the right likes and dislikes in music, film and television will give them a successful identity ‘makeover'. This teenage angst is fertile for marketing consumer salves. Klein reported that in 2000, teenagers (in the United States) spent about AUD230 billion in clothing, CDs and makeup.

Marketing and advertising finely tune the perceived social reality that supports branding and consumerism for teenagers. They try to show that this is what normal teenagers do – that teenagers all round the world do it. Specific magazine articles as well as the imagery on television promote this global view. For example: ‘Cool hunting articles in teen magazines convince American teens that all the world is a mall promoting a global youth materialism and homogeneity; these international fashion round-ups also reflect a worldwide teen consumerism and an erasure of the national youth identity.'

7.2.11  Body image: The marketing strategy of inadequacy and the buying of beauty, sex appeal, and performance

Youth marketing, like marketing in general, gives special attention to body image and sex appeal, promoting a heightened body-consciousness to drive consumerism. For young women, clothing and cosmetic products can enhance their sexual desirability. The right body shape and the right ‘boys toys' can strengthen young men's sexual magnetism. For adolescents, who are like ‘hormones on feet', but not fully aware of it, the advertising and media imagery can make their negotiation of sexuality and relationships even more fraught than it need be.

Quart expressed concern about the invasive nature of this marketing:

All this intrusive marketing would be fine … if it didn't deeply affect teens themselves. The personae, self-images, ambitions, and values of young people in the United States have been seriously distorted by the commercial frenzy surrounding them. What do the advertising images of teens, breasts augmented and abs bared do to teenagers? These images take their toll on a teen's sense of self and his or her community.

‘You have to be thin to be popular,' one girl told me, and the array of flat, bare stomachs at her summer camp certainly backs this up. Other girls told me about their eating disorders and their friends' body-image problems. Their self understanding doesn't change their behaviour, though. They are like birds that know every bar of their gilded cage by heart. ‘Can you believe this ad? No one's body looks like that!' one fourteen-year-old told me, pointing to an ad in Vogue. ‘A bunch of old men are telling me how to look!' Thirteen-year-old girls expressed pained astonishment at ‘11-year-olds who get their eyebrows waxed' – but the 13-year-olds shaved their legs everyday.

No matter what they purchase and no matter what beauty formulae they try, the problem does not go away. But it has much value in marketing terms: teenage angst is like an unslakeable identity thirst, fuelling a secure market. At considerable psychic and monetary cost, many teenagers will do whatever they can to become more beautiful and acceptable, and to be part of a desired lifestyle or atmosphere. Being insecure about their identity is one thing, but to be an outcast from groups is worse – to have no identity at all!

Another problem with the sexual imagery in this marketing is its potential to affect young people's attitudes to sex and personal relationships. If they do not have any other significant values input to their thinking, it is understandable that some youth will see sex as just one of a number of pleasures there for them to enjoy; and to be free to use or exploit it is desirable. The overwhelming sexual imagery in the media, and the taken-for-granted place of ‘easy' sex that comes across as ‘normal' in much film and television programming can insinuate a naive view of sex among the young. It is readily associated with fun and pleasure, with little room for the emotional and commitment dimensions.

Many teenagers would not have to look far beyond their parents to learn that feelings of inadequacy (physical and personal) can be relieved by consumer products. Belief in beautification through consumption and acquisition is like a religious faith transmitted from parents to their children. And now, as suggested in the reality television series Ultimate makeover, it is not just hairstyle, cosmetics and clothing but cosmetic surgery that can enhance your prospects. It is of concern that youth are vulnerable to the ‘manufacturing of [body image] inadequacy [as] a sales strategy'. In the United States, ‘Among teenagers 18 and under in 1994, only 392 had breast augmentations and 511 liposuction; in 2001 there were 2596 augmentations and 2755 liposuctions among the group, a 562 percent increase.'

Young people are particularly vulnerable as far as body image is concerned because:

the idea of permanent change to the body – made practically overnight – appeals to adolescents, people who are by definition shifting identity daily … Many teenage cosmetic surgeries emanate from self-aversion, camouflaged as an emblem of self-esteem and normalcy. The girl who chooses cosmetic surgery chooses obsession with the body and mastery over it rather than an attempt at the transcendence that means forgetting the body … the line between self-betterment and a morphic pathology is a blurry one.

Body consciousness and making it look as attractive as possible is not a new idea. But the cosmetic surgery era has taken it into new and much more expensive territory. The 1998 book by Gilman, Creating beauty to cure the soul: Race and psychology in the shaping of aesthetic surgery, suggested that cosmetic surgery was part of a larger movement, the ‘medicalisation of psychological pain': anti-depressants for the depressed, tranquillisers for the stressed, and cosmetic surgery for those who fear the physical effects of ageing. In this sense, it is just another variation on drinking alcohol to feel relaxed and euphoric. In more general terms it is like, ‘Buy this and it will ease the pain', where this can range from headache tablet to new clothes or an overseas trip.

But there are a number of issues here that need further analysis related to fundamental questions about what constitutes health, beauty and happiness. In both surgery and medication, there is great potential to enhance human life; and there are problems where people have not made use of such help when really needed, for example the need for anti-depressants for someone who was clinically depressed; or cosmetic surgery that could correct deformities and disfigurement. Again, it is a matter of balance. The point being made is about the problem of excess where medication or surgery is marketed as an immediate feel-good solution, but a solution that can often exacerbate rather than heal psychological pains. This view of medication and surgery, along with other views considered above, can insinuate an identity that is skewed by consumerism, particularly as regards what constitutes health, beauty and happiness.

A preoccupation with improving body image also seems to have a social class or social mobility dimension. An obsession with body image consumer products (including surgery) might be expected to be a characteristic of the more well off – the so-called middle and upper classes, who have more discretionary income for such purposes. However, even the working class and poor can respond to advertising that proposes the body beautiful as an image for all. Perhaps this encourages those less well off economically to believe that they are really part of a more expensive social group, and they readily subscribe to the level of commercial activity expected of such status. ‘[T]his has speeded teens' mass internalisation of the middle class ideology that worships the perfect body.' But there is little critical awareness of the commercial drive behind such worship. As Quart went on to note:

[this is] symptomatic of a new sort of adolescence in which kids ratify their family's social status through looking the part. Marketers have convinced these kids that they need a specific set of physical attributes … For the large subcultures of teens who self-brand into lookalikes with tiny waistlines, bulging biceps, deracinated noses, and copious breasts, the supposed freedom of self-creation is not a freedom at all. What they have is consumer choice, no substitute for free will.

Another problem related to identity and media-image is the increase in anorexia among teenagers. The unattainable but persistent image of perfect thinness noted earlier can drive young girls (and some young men) to damage their health. Quart reported the websites of ‘Pro-anas' – pro-anorexic young women who shared their identity and lifestyle over the Internet, giving the group some identity by association.

Constructing a more appealing body image is not just a project for adolescent girls. For boys, body image problems are more likely to show as excessive efforts to acquire a more muscular shape. Weightlifting, high-protein diets and even the use of steroids have been part of the regime.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport is another item that fits this stable of problems, all of which have identity-related dimensions.

7.3.2  Being acknowledged as cool: A psychological defence and coping mechanism

Young people's search for a ‘cool' identity. At one level, youngsters frequently use the word ‘cool' to mean simply ‘yes' or ‘OK'. But at another level, the desire to look cool has a big influence on hopes, imagination and behaviour. To be ‘uncool' is dreaded as the ultimate social condemnation. It is at this deeper level that the meaning of cool has significance for young people's search for identity.

Precisely because the notion of cool figures prominently in both ‘projective' and ‘defensive' identity functions, its psychological and sociological dynamics warrant detailed analysis. It has been subtly etched into the imaginations of young people (and many of the not so young) such that it strongly colours their behaviour. If cool identification has become one of the dominant motivating forces for young people, then understanding it is not only important for educators but for health agencies and all concerned with their upbringing.

Cool is a very tangible influence on adolescent thinking and behaviour, while at the same time difficult to pin down and analyse. However, acknowledging that it is socially constructed, communicated and marketed brings it out from the psychological shadows into the open where it can be identified and evaluated. Questions about the anatomy and function of cool, its history and commercial implications are pertinent to the spiritual and moral education of the young.

Pountain and Robbins' interpretation of the historical development of cool highlighted not only its projective identity function – creative, expressive styling for individuals – but also its role in psychological defence and coping.

It is not difficult to understand how the stylish cool posturing originally ascribed to Afro-American men helped insulate them from psychological damage at the hands of the dominant white culture. If you ridiculed the dominant culture and the power elites, you distanced yourself from the prevailing values and economic structures, and the mentality of superiority that went with them. You made yourself less vulnerable, and in your own mind you felt ‘superior' because you were cool and they were not. While the ‘stylish' notion of cool does not always apply to oppressed groups, a comparable system of psychological defence is often evident. In war and in countries with harsh, repressive regimes, a strong sense of group and individual identity was central not only to resistance but to psychological and physical survival.

From the 1950s onwards, it was evident how a cool posture, particularly its ‘ironic detachment', and lack of emotion was easily incorporated into the rebelliousness that was ascribed to youth culture. We have already considered how the clothing, music, and related leisure industries capitalised on this trend as a selling point to youth (7.2.12).

The Projective identity function of cool and its relation to targeted consumerism

Already we have considered how being cool was a desirable image for young people to project. And we referred to ‘cool hunting' where adults, or young people themselves, are recruited to a ‘youth intelligence service'. These ‘youth consultants' search the local area for potentially new styles or trends in clothing, music and lifestyle. This information is then quickly relayed to market research headquarters for commercial appraisal and possible action for youth commerce. The idea is to be first with something cool and exploit it before it loses its gloss and becomes ‘old hat'.

The image of cool applies to those who are perceived by peers as trendy and individualistic, while being laid back, somewhat emotionally detached and unflappable – a kind of undemonstrative distinctiveness. On the face of it, this seems like a tricky posture to pull off – likely, therefore, to be a difficult code for the marketers and advertisers to crack. However, their efforts to do this have been evidently successful. This is instructive, because it gives insights into the way in which the social construction and marketing of cool enters into the identity dynamics of young people.

Those who decide what is to be the latest in cool, and how this is to be advertised, need to do two things: they have to promote the mystique of being cool while targeting the identity needs of young people. This gives commercial access to the considerable money the young are prepared to invest to maintain their coolness. For example, the cool trend some years back for girls to wear crop-tops with hipline skirts or jeans with bare midriff has now become a well-established and profitable fashion – along with baggy clothing for young men – whether or not these styles are actually comfortable. What teenager would dare to ignore this dominant fashion and run the risk of being labelled as a dork or uncool? But, almost inexorably, this fashion has already changed and each new fad is eventually eclipsed by something different.

Young people know when they are cool because this is expressed in peer-credentialled cool behaviour, fashion and musical tastes; their coolness is verified by being reflected back to them by others who affirm their lifestyle choices. Also, their coolness is measured by congruence with the media images that are constructed specifically to promote and maintain cool within the social reality of teenage culture.

Cool as a defence mechanism: Coping with the trauma of living in the 21st century

Traumatic events will always test people's meaning and identity as the internal resources they draw on to cope and make sense of what is happening to them. But life in contemporary Westernised countries now carries with it a continuous experience of low-level trauma. Hence there is continuous pressure on the meaning and identity systems just to manage, let alone propose a successful plan for life. The trauma is not just in wars, terrorism and periodic natural calamities, but increasingly it runs through the social fabric affecting a significant proportion of the population: in environment, economic uncertainties, temporary employment and job insecurity, competitiveness, poverty, cost of living, debt, costs of opportunities for advancement and education, racism, social violence, and so on.

In addition, some persistent trauma is associated with changes that have occurred in the basic systems for the communication of meaning and identity. The sociologist Anthony Giddens described this as follows: ‘My relationship to modern society – my social identity – has become unglued from the contexts, communities and expectations that once circumscribed my (and your) knowledge of who I am and how I live. Today I am responsible and liable for my own identity.' This personal responsibility is attractive from the point of view of freedom and individuality. But having to take on a more demanding and comprehensive role in constructing personal meaning – by contrast with more reliance on packages of institutional meanings – makes the quest for meaning and identity a more stressful burden than perhaps it was formerly.

Even though in Western countries there appears to be increasing affluence and less poverty, there is a continual increase in levels of public stress, anxiety and depression. Significant changes have appeared in the socialisation processes that stem from the so-called ‘better life' that people seem to associate automatically with economic and technological progress. They can assume that quality of life must improve with these advances. But what improves may be ‘lifestyle opportunities' (that may be out of their reach), not necessarily ‘quality of life'. The drive for more individualism and personal autonomy is often at the expense of supportive family and community relationships. Significant but not always constructive changes have appeared in family structures and child-rearing practices.

Some level of continuous trauma is often associated with young people's consumer activity. This is more than the stress of a huge range of products confronting the young customer in the supermarket. The barometer of their self-image and self-esteem is affected by comparisons with those perceived to be better off than themselves, and with people who are worse off. For those who engage in such comparisons excessively, focusing on people who have more, they will always feel relatively ‘deprived'. This is fuelled by a competitiveness both between and inside peer groups. In addition, the film, music and television industries provide highly stylised models for comparison in the cult of celebrities. For young people who are attuned to this social reality, every time they turn on the television, they reactivate their low-level discontent. Their simmering identity trauma is maintained through constantly being confronted by

images of the richest, most beautiful and most fulfilled people on the planet and compared to them, everyone feels like a loser … Celebrities invent an unattainably attractive cool personality, an image which makes insecure teenage fans feel so inadequate that adopting the cool pose is in turn their only way of coping with their enhanced anxiety. (Pountain & Robbins, 2000)

The painful personal cost of being cool

The irony of this situation is that trying to be cool is basically a coping and defence mechanism, giving you a relatively secure group identity that defines who you are and sets your individuality apart; but if this is taken to excess, the psychological cost of trying to be cool can end up being just as stressful and anxiety-ridden, and perhaps more so, than just being plain uncool. Then the cost of the coping mechanism itself can become too difficult to cope with; and the hoped for defence mechanism exposes more painful vulnerabilities. ‘Cool operates as a defence mechanism against the depression and anxiety induced by a highly competitive society … [We also admit] that it is a very imperfect defence and that furthermore, maintaining cool actually imposes its own different kind of psychic strain.' (Pountain & Robbins, 2000) In addition, the financial cost of maintaining a cool image can exacerbate the psychological cost.

Cool as identity defence against the perils of adolescence

The problematic behaviour of young people can often be explained by this mechanism. In response to perceived difficulties, they may think they are following a path towards coping with, or rising above, the problems. But it may end up making their situation even more onerous. For example:

School students [especially boys] who feel that they are failing in the classroom, or who do not fit in socially, adopt a strategy of disengagement from school activities, and develop anti-academic cliques, or subcultures, that provide an alternative route to self-esteem. By acting cool you declare yourself to be a non participant in the bigger race, for if you don't share straight society's values then you can stop comparing yourself to them. Cool cannot abolish social comparisons entirely, but it can restrict their scope to your immediate peer group.

For several successive generations of marginalised and disaffected young people … subcultures [and peer groups], with their own rules, rituals and obligations, had provided a magical alternative to being written off as a hopeless loser in the rat race. In the language a of youth subcultures, ‘I'm cool' equates to ‘I'm in control'.

Studies continue to show that the academic performance of many boys deteriorates rapidly between 13 and 19 as they come to see learning and academic success as ‘girlish' and ‘uncool', and this disabling tendency among boys is being accompanied by increases in the rate of suicide and attempted suicide (as well as in other indicators like depression, abuse of alcohol etc.) Pountain & Robbins (2000)

For young people, the identity defence and coping function of wanting to be cool seems to work through

a kind of mental empowerment that their circumstances otherwise fail to supply. In this sense, cool is a sub-cultural alternative to the old notion of personal dignity, since dignity is a quality that is validated by the established institutions of Church, state and work. Cool, on the other hand, is a form of self-worth that is validated primarily by the way your personality, appearance and attitude are adjudged by your own peers. The expressive styling in the projective identity function of cool comes together with its defensive function. But to get any defence and coping services from your cool image, you first of all have to construct and maintain such an image. And to do this requires conformity to a peer-validated and certified style – across fashion, leisure pursuits, entertainment preferences, slang, attitudes to parents and school. And it is precisely through this quest for image conformity that the door is opened to youth-targeted consumerism and marketing.

Hence, while the quest for a cool identity may offer young people a way of coping with life and negotiating the psychological pains of adolescence, it may well end up being the cause of much of their unease, frustration, stress and depression. And for some youth, this can reach pathological proportions.

Not all is bad! An example of an international identity related music celebartion (1993)

To end up the study of identity on a positive note.

An icon of the celebration of the possibility that, as far as identity is concerned (both personal and national), 'tradition' can work cooperatively with the 'contemporary', and that this can involve resolution of earlier conflict -- Russian Army choir and the Finnish rock group the Leningrad Cowboys in a joint concert in Helsinki in 1993, soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union (December 1991).

The Leningrad Cowboys is a Finnish rock band formed in 1986, with their name chosen satirically as a joke about the waning power of the Soviet Union. With extravagant Elvis pompadour hairdos, shiny suits and long pointy shoes, they played up in an exaggerated way the themes of freedom and individuality that were hallmarks of U.S. and Western culture – singing well known rock songs in English, with perfect American accents.

History : For centuries there had been mutual hatred and warfare between the Finns and the Russians. Russia invaded and fought Finland in 1939-1940. Then (1942-1944) Finland assisted Germany in its invasion of Russia, but only went as far as recovering its lost territory - it did not invade Leningrad from the West as Hitler had hoped. During the cold war, Finland was ideologically aligned with the West against the Russian hegemony.

Click the photograph above for the video

The concert : This involved cooperation between the traditional Russian choir, the Alexandrov Red Army choir and dance ensemble and the Leningrad Cowboys. This concert was in Helsinki in Finland in 1993, soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, at a time when new freedoms and aspirations were prominent in Russia under Boris Yeltsin. Thousands of Finns turned out for the concert and joined in energetically. This was a musical expression of perestroika.

The concert as a celebratory cultural icon : Different layers of meaning (and identity elements)can be assigned to the concert as a cultural event.

Firstly, for the enthusiastic participants, pop concerts are exuberant experiences; you could say like a spiritual/religious experience . It celebrated life, freedom in a form of expression that had acquired a global currency with the young – English rock music, everybody seemed to just love it.

As regards Russian history, it could appear that the Leningrad Cowboys were making a political statement about how the despised, decadent American (Western) culture was now making sharp inroads into Russia. Previously it had been an underground movement. English pop music was like a potent vehicle for promoting a globalising, Western, capitalist, consumer-oriented culture. It was like a freedom counterpoint to the repression, cruelty and censorship that had characterised Russia for many years. Pop music was a great way of expressing the need for change in censorship in the media, arts and the political scene.

There were evident contrasts between traditional Russian culture and contemporary global free culture . The differences were evident; but also there was a mutual acceptance shown in the cooperation that resulted in a new mix of the traditional and the contemporary. It also expressed Russian - Finn mutual acceptance and cooperation; long held enmities and suspicions could be put aside in a musical celebration that drew people together and broke down traditional barriers.

The event could also be used as a metaphor for those critical periods in history when a special window of opportunity for significant change sometimes arose in institutions and cultures; where there was energy and enthusiasm for change. Whether or not valuable developments were enabled usually depended on having an enlightened leadership that was able to read the ‘signs of the times' and enable reformist voices to have a platform for a constructive agenda. Such an open political climate is what characterises a mature society (or institution) which is not afraid of change but can encompass it and allow it to be expressed and openly discussed. To some extent this was the situation in Russia for a time after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The event (with the new embracing the old tradition, and the old embracing the new) could also be used as an icon or metaphor for the way that traditional religious spirituality and contemporary secular lifestyle might find common ground in an exciting and exuberant way. They were not necessarily incompatible. The differences could be negotiated and each had something to learn as well as to contribute.

7.4  Advertising and identity

To sum up the aove: the way in which consumer advertising affects young people's meaning and identity is ‘atmospheric': the cultural combination of consumerism, lifestyle advertising, marketing and the media create an atmosphere, a perceived social reality, that diffuses through people's thinking and behaviour; and it implies that product consumption is an integral part of identity development. Products, acquisitions and lifestyle activities all naturally contribute to self-understanding and self-expression.

A healthy awareness of these dynamics would be desirable to encourage in youth. As regards their identity development, it is a matter of balance. It is also a matter of not being manipulated, even unconsciously, by interests that seek to exploit their identity development for financial payoffs. Advertising psychologists have perceptive insights into young people's identity development – albeit with profitable intentions. Those engaged in the education and care of youth need equally perceptive insights – but for the more noble purpose of enhancing young people's spiritual and moral development.

What it means to educate young people in personal identity development

Some underlying value assumptions to the task of educating young people in personal identity development

The value assumptions in any community activities intended to enhance young people's meaning, identity and spirituality fall into five groups.

  • 1    the nature of the human person
  • 2    access to cultural traditions
  • 3    critical evaluative activity
  • 4    young people's responsibility for personal change
  • 5    background of the teacher (or facilitator, counsellor etc.) in relation to the educative process

1. The nature of the human person

The analyses of meaning and identity in sections 1 - 6 presume that while autonomy is a fundamental goal for human development, this is not achieved quickly or fully in children and adolescents. Hence their quest for meaning, identity and spirituality needs to include as a starting point a basic familiarity with the cultural traditions of their immediate family and community. As they mature, they can take greater responsibility for the cultural elements that sustain their personal life. So their personal development education is not just the communication of packages of institutional meaning, identity and spirituality, but a study of these traditions in a way that promotes their growing responsible involvement.

While the interpretation of meaning is a fundamental human task, it is also a significant educative process. Thus the aim of helping youth become wise interpreters of life should be one of the foremost aims of agencies concerned with the education and care of young people.

2 Access to cultural traditions

Young people need to be given a basic level of access to their cultural heritage. The state school is concerned particularly with transmitting the ‘intellectual culture', as embodied in the curriculum. As far as particular ethnic and religious traditions are concerned, it would be both unrealistic and inappropriate to think that public education should have a prominent role in their transmission. But what the school should do is try to promote the shared community values in multiculturalism and tolerance. In the curriculum, this could include studies where a range of related questions such as the following could be examined: ethnicity, multiculturalism, democracy, religious freedom, respect for individuality, the need for shared values, as well as problems like racism and sexism. Pupils could learn about the psychological and social functions of ethnicity, about its enrichment of the country's cultural resources, as well as about its potential for conflict.

School education contributes to young people's ‘cultural exposure' in a general way; it may extend their cultural horizons beyond what they might absorb from their immediate home and community environment. For example, young people need to know about the religions in their society. A general study of religions may also contribute to a better understanding of their own religious tradition, whether or not they are practising members. The curriculum will inevitably deal with cultural, ethnic and religious diversity in a generic way, but it is not responsible for trying to cover any particular tradition comprehensively. Independent schools have more scope to do this and it is evident in the denominational religious education that they often provide.

Schools, therefore, should provide a range of cultural resources for their pupils' personal development, though the extent to which these are assimilated depends on the individual. The school's contribution is one of many from the different cultural sources that influence the young.

What is attempted at school in terms of education in meaning, identity and spirituality complements but does not substitute for what should be done by the family and the various communities in which young people participate. Children and adolescents have a right to a basic level of cultural heritage as meaning and identity resources. Requiring them to start life with a tabula rasa as far as these resources are concerned would be unfair.

3 Critical evaluative activity

From their earliest years at school, children can gradually understand that an evaluative approach in their learning is much more than being critical – in the sense of just complaining or criticising. The word ‘critical' when applied to evaluative learning means that the learner is trying to get beneath the surface layers of what is being studied to its meanings and values. It involves appraising arguments and seeking evidence to back them up or call them into question; it leads to tentative value judgments; it considers implications for self and others.

In industrialised countries, most of the support networks for meaning and identity that functioned for earlier generations no longer have the same plausibility and force. While many people still identify themselves as religious, beliefs about life's meaning drawn

from religions do not seem to have the same cogency they apparently had in the past. But there is no shortage of available meanings. In an environment awash with ways to make meaning and to find the ‘true self', there is an urgent need for young people to learn how to evaluate critically what is being offered. Education has an important role here in helping youth in their search for meaning and identity.

There is a common tendency to think about culture as something static – it has a sort of taken-for-grantedness about it. An evaluative approach to the study of cultural meanings begins by questioning this assumption, showing that culture is a human construction and that it can be analysed and evaluated in terms of authentic service to communities and individuals. Social problems can be brought out into the open and debated, not left hidden within the culture as if ‘this is the way things are, and must always be'.

An evaluative dimension is essential for any personal development education. The young need to become more aware of the shaping influence of culture on people's spiritual and moral development so that they can be more discerning of the factors that affect their own thinking and behaviour.

The extensive range of issues in meaning, identity and spirituality covered in this part of the book can be overwhelming for educators if they read too much in one sitting, or wonder about how they might deal with so much content in class. They might be intimidated by the thought of themselves trying to become a classroom ‘Dr Phil' (Dr Phil McGraw conducts a popular television counselling program), forever dispensing packages of wisdom to a youthful audience that is not interested or responsive. This image misinterprets the educational role of the teacher and it overestimates both the time and scope that might be available for addressing the issues. The agenda in the previous sections is principally for the education and personal development of educators. It can contribute to the background knowledge and wisdom they bring to their educational dealings with young people – but they do not have to tell all they know!

Nevertheless, there is a side to the Dr Phil analogy that is pertinent here, and it has to do with pedagogy. The style of Socratic questioning employed by Dr Phil McGraw in his counselling program has useful pedagogical implications for personal development education. This is not to say that therapy or counselling should be a principal paradigm for classroom teaching, but it does suggest that judicious questions asked by teachers about the meaning of what is being studied can help young people learn how to think critically. Such Socratic questioning probes for meaning but does not pry into pupils' privacy. Much of the personal learning in the classroom is unnoticed; it takes place within the safety of private reflection.

4 Young people's responsibility for personal change

School education can inform, challenge and favourably dispose young people towards personal change, but it cannot impose or require it. For personal change to be authentic, it must be freely chosen. How much of their study of meaning, identity and spirituality will actually be used by young people to change personally will vary considerably from individual to individual. Any personal change is usually going to be remote from the classroom; it will be determined by the young people themselves, in the light of many non-school influences on their growth as persons. Hence the school has scope to educate young people in meaning, identity and spirituality. But this intention needs to be realistic: such an education does not automatically change them spiritually and morally. This natural limitation to the educational process needs to be acknowledged. There is the legitimate hope that education will enhance their personal development, but this hope is different in kind from the sorts of outcomes that are commonly proposed for schooling.

Personal development education engages pupils in much the same sort of inquiring activity as goes on in other learning areas, but the subject matter is more directly related to their own spiritual and moral development. While personal relevance is intended, it cannot be engineered.

An informative, evaluative study explores social and personal issues, helping young people make links between the study and their own personal life. School education can help them learn more wisely from their own personal experience. But it is a mistake to presume that students need to share at a personal level when discussing issues in the classroom, or that they need to draw personal implications then and there as part of a lesson. It they feel free enough to want to share personal views, then their contributions should be respected and valued. But to expect such personal contributions on cue is to put unethical psychological pressure on them.

The power of reason to change people for the better should not be overestimated. While education can enhance young people's meanings, it should not be expected to perform behavioural miracles. So the popular notion of ‘transformative education', which is intended to change students personally, needs to be used with caution.[6]

5 Background of the teacher (or facilitator, counsellor etc.) in relation to the educative process

The first and most important step for community activity designed to foster young people's meaning, identity and spirituality is the development of understanding of the relevant issues on the part of the adults involved. The sorts of issues with which they need to be familiar were illustrated in the previous sections. How educators understand these questions will filter through into their interactions with students both in the formal curriculum and outside the classroom. While teacher–pupil relationships can be significant in fostering young people's personal development, the focus here and in later chapters will be on classroom teaching–learning transactions.

Having an explicit code of teaching ethics is essential if teachers are to enhance, and never manipulate, the meanings of their students.

Education in identity

The first response that the phrase ‘education in identity' commonly brings to mind is its association with the intention of a group to transmit a particular social identity to the young. While religious schools and some cultural groups make this intention explicit, public schools (in Australia) tend to be more cautious and avoid talking about identity as an educational goal. They are reluctant to say anything that might give an impression they are promoting any particular cultural or religious identity – unless this referred to some broadly based qualities of good citizenship or shared values. In so doing, there is a tendency to neglect the contribution that public education can legitimately make to young people's identity development. But this role needs clarification; it cannot be endorsed without qualification. It is not principally concerned with the handing on of distinctive cultural and ethnic heritage, but with helping young people understand how heritage affects identity, and how they might make best use of identity resources.

Schools therefore have a limited role in young people's identity development. Schools, including religious schools, are not as influential as are other agencies and forums for the communication of cultural, ethnic and religious identities. Sometimes parents and school authorities tend to overrate the scope and the effectiveness of the school's contribution.

In accord with sound teaching ethics, an education in identity should respect the freedom and integrity of the individual, and his or her right to participation in the process of identity development. Hence it involves not just the teaching of identity content, but a study of the complex identity-forming process itself. Such a dual approach could help young people become better informed about identity formation in a way that prompted their own increasingly conscious participation (depending on their age and maturity). While learning about aspects of cultural, ethnic and religious identity, they could become more aware of identity-related issues. This could help them become more reflective about their own identity as linked interactively with heritage and contemporary cultural elements, while avoiding any excessive emphasis on self analysis.

Four areas merit special attention.

Some understanding of the nature and psychological function of identity, and of identity-forming processes

Identity is like meaning, viewed from the perspective of self-understanding and self-expression. Young people need an understanding of different components to identity, helping them become better interpreters of their experience and of potential influences on their personal development. This would show them something of the dynamic interplay between culture and identity, as well as helping them make sense of behaviour, both in the self and in others. An education in identity can make them more aware of influences that previously worked at a fairly subconscious level, providing the groundwork for a more conscious and discerning involvement in the development of identity – as well as a better capacity to evaluate (and resist where necessary) efforts from outside to affect their identity.

What constitutes a healthy identity needs to be explored, including the idea of balance between internal and external identity resources; that is, where one's identity is not dominated almost exclusively by dependence on externals (authorities) or internals (beliefs, values). A healthy identity is not only concerned with development of the self, but also with the welfare of others; it should not motivate behaviour that is anti-social or harmful to others or the environment.

What the developmental theories say about personal development

The adolescent quest for a sense of authentic self can be resourced by an introductory study of theories of human development. In addition to looking at various notions of identity and issues for personal or group identity, young people can examine schemes for personal development proposed by the structural developmental theorists. This would give them more perspective on the identity-related developmental tasks of adolescence.

The relationships between cultural identity resources and the personal construction of identity

The scheme for identity in Section 4 offers young people a useful interpretive framework for exploring relationships between the external, cultural identity resources proposed by agencies in the community (home, religion, peers, popular culture) and inner, personal identity resources.

Their identity development needs to be resourced by community efforts to communicate some basic sense of identity to them when they are children; this informs their initial self-understanding and interpretation of society. They would be disadvantaged by an education that kept them in a type of identity vacuum until they were mature enough to determine their own identity; that is, choose rationally in the light of an appraisal of the many values and identity components available in a pluralist, multicultural society. This is a more adult-oriented process; it needs to be scaled appropriately for children and adolescents.

But educational efforts to communicate a particular identity should not be exclusive, trying to impose a fixed identity that inhibits individuals' growing conscious involvement in determining their own identity. Rather, a basic starting point in identity development is needed – a cultural identity inheritance. This will be one significant contribution towards young people's mature identity, but not necessarily an all-encompassing or predetermining one.

Educational institutions (both public and religious) need to ensure that their curriculum includes adequate attention to the culture and traditions needed by students as identity ‘building materials' (with the qualification noted earlier about the limits to this role). The idea is to give students access to these resources, along with those provided by home and other agencies, as well as by the wider culture. Whether or not individuals incorporate particular elements into their sense of identity cannot be determined by teachers. The school might introduce some pupils to potential identity resources they might not otherwise encounter. Education can open them to larger cultural horizons, and to a broader imagination of the sort of person they could be.

Evaluative study of identity issues

An evaluative study of identity not only encourages youth to look carefully at what is happening in the world socially and politically, but also models for them useful ways of interpreting their own identity development. It suggests that they need to understand how cultural elements and their own internal needs and drives interact, affecting the way they understand and express themselves.

This approach can help them become more alert to the shaping influence of culture, especially through commerce and advertising. There is then less chance that they would accept ‘ready-made' or imposed identities in an uncritical fashion. The evaluation of identity issues can cover the range from the socio-cultural at the level of nation-states, to the identity messages in television, through to the personal level, where perceived identity may be a key to understanding behaviour.

The values and identity that a particular group wants to hand on to its young people should be kept open to evaluation, and not as a hidden agenda. Education in identity needs to show that the development of autonomy and individuality is a complex process. It involves achieving independence from, and less reliance on, traditional authorities like parents and religion. But this does not necessarily require conflict or rebellion. It is more a ‘differentiation' of the new adult. What is important is a new level of maturity in relationships between the individual and authorities, flowing from a new level of maturity in values and commitments and self-motivated behaviour. In some instances it will involve open conflict, and this may have a variety of causes: it may be that either the individual or the authority (for example parents), or both, do not want the new level of independence. There is also a need to consider the economic dimensions of this issue; shrewd marketing has played up teenage rebellion as a selling point for consumer products. Advertising psychology is alert to capitalising on young people's identity vulnerabilities.

An evaluative approach can have personal implications for students because it covers questions about the moral character of self-expression. It can inform their own self-evaluation: they may or may not do this in their own time and space. This is a potential personal enhancement arising from the educational process, but not an intentional educational requirement. Education in identity is not concerned with moral evaluation of the students, but with the moral evaluation of issues that may affect identity generally.

Some aspects of self-expression may not be in the best interests of the individual or it may be harmful to others. This is related to popular thinking about what constitutes one's ‘better self'. There are both light and dark sides to the self. The mature, moral individual can be interpreted as one whose better self is maximised in expression and behaviour, and where harmful behaviours that may emanate from the negative self are minimised. Fidelity to one's own personal beliefs and values could be proposed as a mark of a morally mature self.

Evaluation of the many personal meanings available in society that can have a bearing on personal identity
The multiplicity of cultural meanings – all looking for adherents – creates its own problem for the individual's search for meaning and identity. How to judge the appropriateness of meaning and what criteria might be used therefore become important in education. An evaluative approach can help young people become more aware of cultural meanings, and of behavioural and identity consequences. For example, conflicting meanings from different groups can be a root cause of prejudice and racism; frameworks of meaning can be sources of liberation or of domination; and the dissemination of meanings can insinuate the causes of particular economic and political interests.

Learning how meanings are assigned and how they may need to be ‘uncovered' is a part of becoming wise. What youth need is not so much new meaning but the capacity to evaluate it carefully, and this skill can become a part of their lifelong learning. It can not only help them in any dialogue with traditional religious meanings, but also with seeing where they stand with respect to various ideologies, political views and ‘messages' coming from different quarters, especially the commercial and entertainment worlds.

Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: Young people's identity: Finding a way through the cultural maze, chapter 7 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality.

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