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Conceptualizing Individual Agency in the Transition from School to Work: A Social-Ecological Developmental Perspective

Conceptualizing Individual Agency in the Transition from School to Work: A Social-Ecological... This article addresses the ongoing debate on the role of agency and structure in shaping the transition from school to work. Drawing on theories of life-course sociology and life-span psychology an integrated social-ecological developmental approach is presented, conceptualizing individual agency as a relational and intentional process that evolves through interac- tions with the wider socio-cultural context. Agency is understood as a multi-dimensional construct, influenced by multiple proximal and distal social circumstances that channel the manifestation of agency by offering distinct transition pathways. The article specifies the ways how social structures support and constrain the development of agency, and asks if individual agency can overcome social constraints, and to what extent and in what circumstances can agency be most effective? It is argued that agency is most influential (a) when social structures are flexible, enabling switching between tracks; (b) during critical windows of opportunity, such as during transitions from one educational track to another or from education into paid employment; (c) in situations when individuals leave a pre-structured path; (d) when intentions are closely matched to individual competencies; and (e) when socio-economic disadvantage is not overpowering. The analysis presented in this paper should enable researchers to expand and deepen their understanding of the role of structure and agency in shaping school-to-work transitions and inform empirical research on the topic. Keywords Agency · Structure · School-to-work transition (SWT) · Life course · Expectancy-value theory · Action-phase model Introduction establishing oneself in a career. It can imply a smooth tran- sition leading to a progressing career, or be a most turbu- A key developmental task in the lives of adolescents is to lent phase with various attempts to establish oneself in the prepare for the school-to-work transition, a crucial phase labor market and in the process moving in and out of jobs, of the life course for young people, which critically affects education and training. The transition requires a number adult social status attainment and developmental prospects of important decisions, such as whether to continue with throughout adulthood. This transition generally spans the further education or to leave school directly after complet- phase between completion of full-time education or train- ing compulsory education; what kind of job or career to ing, the entry into continuous full-time employment, and choose; whether to go for an easy-access job that covers basic financial needs or take the route of vocational training or higher education to enter a career with better long-term * Ingrid Schoon prospects; and how best to respond to opportunities and con- i.schoon@ucl.ac.uk straints in the contemporary labor market. Indeed, individual Jutta Heckhausen agency has been identified as a central factor in the study aheckhaus@uci.edu of school-to-work transitions (Dannefer and Huang 2017), University College London, Institute of Education, 20 in particular regarding issues of status attainment (Eccles Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL, UK 2008; Elder et al. 2015; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017) and Berlin Social Science Centre, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin social mobility (Heckhausen and Shane 2015). For example (WZB), Berlin, Germany in a recent UK survey, individual attributes such as con- University of California Irvine, 4316 SBSG, Irvine, fidence, determination and ambition have been identified CA 92697-7085, USA Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 136 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 as key drivers for social mobility, enabling individuals to and change in distinct career paths. In this context, distinct get ahead in life (SuttonTrust 2017). There is, however, a processes enabling individuals to steer their lives and poten- continuing debate about the role of social structure versus tially overcome social constraints are discussed, as well as individual agency in shaping individual development, high- the conditions in which agency can be most influential. lighting the importance of a fit between societal challenges and individual agency capacities. Within the psychological literature on individual agency Towards a Socio‑ecological Approach during career transitions concepts such as Protean Career and for the Study of Individual Agency boundarylessness of individual career striving (Hall 2004) in the School‑toW ‑ ork Transition were introduced. These concepts place a strong empha- sis on the power of individual self-direction and striving Drawing on theories developed within life-span develop- (Briscoe et al. 2006). Within sociology, the idea of a societal mental psychology and life-course sociology, an integra- development towards individualisation gained prominence tive social-ecological developmental model of agency is (Beck 1992), suggesting that in recent decades individuals formulated, enabling the examination of the interplay of are increasingly compelled to make choices throughout their structure and agency in the school-to-work transition over life-course and they are required to take sole responsibil- time and in specific societal contexts. Life-span devel- ity for the consequences of the choices made. However, opmental psychology has long viewed the individual as the notion of unfettered individual agency was challenged, an active co-producer of development (e.g., Lerner and pointing to the persisting societal constraints that continue Busch-Rossnagel 1981). In the past two decades, action- to shape individual choices and constrain their realization theoretical and motivational-psychology models have been (Johnson and Reynolds 2013; Schoon 2007, 2012). Within used to advance the conceptualization of developmental sociology, terms such as “structured” or “bounded” agency agency (Brandtstädter and Lerner 1999; Freund and Baltes (Shanahan 2000; Evans 2002) are used to reflect the societal 2000; Heckhausen 1999, 2018). In general terms, there constraints and social embeddedness of individual agency. is convergence with life-course sociological constructs Likewise theories on career decision making emphasize of agency (Dannefer and Huang 2017; Elder 1994; Elder the interactions between social structures and individual et  al. 2015) which view agency as an individual-level agency in career pursuit. For example careership theory construct fundamental for social action and choice. How- developed within sociology introduced the term “horizon ever, agency as a non-structural construct has remained for action” (Hodkinson and Sparkes 1997), referring to an underspecified, “slippery” theoretical concept within socially structured perceptions about what career options sociological research (Fuchs 2001; Hitlin and Elder 2007; are available and appropriate to strive for. Psychological Loyal and Barnes 2001). Recently, life-course researchers theories of life design (Savickas et al. 2009) also recognize have included key dimensions of agency based in develop- that an individual’s knowledge and identity are the prod- mental, motivational and social psychological constructs uct of social interaction and that meaning is co-constructed into their longitudinal research on the transition into through discourse. Although these theories describe how adulthood (Hitlin and Johnson 2015; Schoon and Lyons- individuals select career goals within structural constraints, Amos 2016, 2017; Vuolo et al. 2012; see also review in; their scope is focused on issues related to career counselling. Settersten and Gannon 2005). These approaches draw on They do not provide a distinct conceptualization of indi- multi-dimensional conceptualizations of agency, as speci- vidual agency and how individuals in the context of societal fied within socio-cognitive theories of agency (Bandura opportunities and constraints engage with or disengage from 2001, 2006), expectancy-value theory (EVT) (Eccles and specific goals. Such an analysis of agency could reveal how Wigfield 2002), the motivational theory of lifespan devel- an individual’s agency develops in interaction with distinct opment (MTD, Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019) and eco- transition pathways that are shaped by the immediate and logical theories of human development (Bronfenbrenner wider social context. 1989). These approaches focus on the dynamic interrela- This article develops an integrated socio-ecological tions between a changing individual and changing social developmental model of agency as manifested in the school- structures. to-work transition. It is argued that individual agency is a The proposed socio-ecological model specifies the mul - relational process that evolves through interactions with tiple influences shaping the development of agency in the the wider socio-cultural context. Agency is conceptual- transition from school-to-work, ranging from factors in the ized as a process of intentional action and action regula- directly experienced family context (proximal influences), tion, which operates in the social ecology of opportunities as well as wider societal influences, such as institutional and constraints imposed by social structures and institutions regulations and aspects of socio-historical change. Agency as well as social networks that channel entry, continuation itself is conceptualized as a multi-dimensional construct, 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 137 comprising aspects of expectancy, control perceptions, associated with the consequences of attaining the goal (e.g., goal selection and goal setting, intention, volition and goal social approval, material reward), and the costs one incurs engagement, control striving, action regulation, disengage- while pursuing it. Values of particular goals such as attaining ment, and goal adjustment that develop during adolescence a university degree or getting into a career, depend on how and young adulthood. It is argued that individual agency members of the social community the individual holds in cannot be reduced to decontextualized universal principles high regard (e.g., parents or the peer group a youth identifies of psychological functioning, nor to a mere expression of with) view the goal (Eccles and Wigfield 2002). structural constraints or regularities produced by societal To comprehensively understand the role of individual institutions or social structures. Agency is understood as a agency in the school-to-work transition, it is thus impor- relational construct that emerges through interaction with tant to consider the multiple components underlying the a wider socio-cultural context. In addition to individual capability to intentionally select goals. These components attributes, the characteristics of the wider social context include expectancies, values, underlying motive strengths have to be considered—as well as the ways in which indi- for achievement, power and affiliation. In addition, it is viduals interact with this context. necessary to consider the dynamics of goal pursuit, i.e. the The socio-ecological approach for conceptualizing tendency to persist in the face of adversity, the capacity agency in the school-to-work transitions is outlined in four to disengage from futile goals, or to re-engage when the steps. First, a multi-dimensional conceptualization of the conditions are favorable. Our approach uses the conceptual notion of agency as intentional action and action regulation framework of the Motivational Theory of Lifespan Develop- is provided. Second, the societal conditions that shape the ment (MTD) (for a comprehensive review see Heckhausen opportunities for individual agency during the school-to- and Buchmann 2018; Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019) which work transition are described. These are considered as the conceptualizes developmental agency in the action field of context of human action, having their effect on the individual societal socio-structural and age-graded constraints and through the societal channeling of individual action along comprises an expectancy-value model of goal selection as distinct pathways. Third, the question if and under which well as an action-phase model of motivational and volitional conditions individual agency can overcome societal con- self-regulation during goal(re)selection, goal engagement, straints is asked, identifying key processes that link structure goal disengagement and re-engagement. and agency. In particular, a differentiation is made between The action-phase model of developmental regulation independent, cumulative, and compensatory processes. specifies a set of motivational and volitional phases indi- Fourth, the circumstances under which agency can be most viduals get involved in as they progress through a develop- effective are discussed. mental action cycle. When first approaching a critical time period for decision making (e.g., during the final year before Individual Agency: Intentional Action and Action graduating from school), youth consider alternative possible Regulation paths and goals to pursue. During this phase of optimization, individuals are well advised to consider the actual opportuni- At the most general level, individual agency is understood ties and constraints as well as the consequences of choosing as intentional action, i.e. the capability to set goals (i.e. one or another path. After an individual has made a choice intention), plan their pursuit and attainment in the future and thus passed the decisional Rubicon, it is most adaptive (i.e. action planning; foresight), and allow behavior to be to stop pondering pros and cons of alternatives, but instead guided by goal pursuit (i.e. action-regulation). Moreover, invest full throttle into the chosen path. This is particularly asking what motivates individuals, psychological theories true under difficult conditions, for example when job or of individual agency have built on the classical expectancy- training opportunities are scarce. Under such conditions of value theories (Lewin et al. 1944; Tolman 1932) as applied threatened yet urgent goal pursuit, individuals may need to to achievement motivated behavior (Eccles and Wigfield use extra meta-volitional strategies to keep themselves com- 2002; Heckhausen and Heckhausen 2018). Expectancy- mitted and focused. In addition, it may be advantageous to value models propose that goal choices and their pursuit think out-of-the-box and come up with compensatory means are determined by expectancies about the likelihood of of getting extra help from others or using detours or unusual attaining the goal and values associated with attaining the means. We will come back to this later. goal. The former comprise beliefs about one’s own capabil- If these enhanced means of goal engagement fail, indi- ity, i.e. expectations for success or self-efficacy—the extent viduals may need to adjust their goals (e.g., look for a differ - to which individuals believe that they can be successful at ent or less prestigious apprenticeship, enroll for a different attaining the specific goal being considered. The latter refer program of studies, or hope to get accepted at a later time to values associated with attaining the goal, which include point)—or even give up certain goals altogether (e.g., if cer- values intrinsic to the activity and goal as well as values tain options hold no prospects). Indeed, under circumstances 1 3 138 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 of high opportunity costs, that is when alternative goal of work. Increasing numbers of young people participated engagements are time sensitive, decisive goal disengage- in higher education, including those from relatively disad- ment is essential to cut one’s losses with the futile goal pur- vantaged social backgrounds (Blossfeld et al. 2005; Schoon suit and move on to a more realistic goal before it is too late and Bynner 2017). The observation of extended education (Tomasik and Salmela-Aro 2012). Thus goal engagement participation, often until the mid or late 20 s, stimulated and disengagement has to be synchronized with available the introduction of the term “emerging adulthood” (Arnett opportunity structures. 2000) as a synonym for a new, universal developmental period, characterized by identity exploration and delay of Societal Canalization of the School‑toW ‑ ork responsibility. However, the assumption of emerging adult- Transition hood solely based on intentional choice, does not take into account the role of socio-historical and economic conditions Societies vary regarding the opportunity structures and sup- that produce the setting for extended transitions. port they provide to young people engaging in the school-to- For example, in most developed countries, the number work transition, variations which have been conceptualized and proportion of full-time employees with contracts of by the term societal channeling or canalization (Heckhausen indeterminate duration has decreased constantly since the and Buchmann 2018). The wider socio-historical context, mid 1980s, unemployment rates and the proportion of inse- institutional arrangements and social inequality at the fam- cure jobs including “zero hours contracts” and precarious ily level all play a role in shaping the contours of the life employment is growing even among graduates (Standing course, setting up the potential pathways for individuals to 2011; Schoon and Bynner 2019). The 2008 Great Recession aspire to and to follow, specifying relevant requirements added another blow. Young people have been hit particu- for achievement and defining key deadlines to do so (Buch- larly hard by this downturn, as unemployment and flexible mann and Steinhoff 2017; Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019; employment among the young (under 25 years) is generally Schoon and Bynner 2017; Wrosch and Heckhausen 1999). higher than average (Bell and Blanchflower 2011; Blossfeld Transition experiences are largely shaped by opportunities et al. 2005). These developments prolonged the step into and constraints presented by the socio-historical context and financial independence and brought with them a prolonged economic conditions, and within this context are dependent dependence on parents for financial, social and emotional on individual decision making and agency. support (Schoon and Bynner 2017). There were, however, country-specific variations in the extent to which young Historical Context people were affected by the economic downturn, associated with different “transition regimes” or “institutional filters”, The wider socio-historical context refers to the overall eco- such as regulations regarding opportunities for employment, nomic circumstances (e.g., boom or bust), the cultural cli- education and training (Schoon and Bynner 2019). mate or current “Zeitgeist” (i.e. ideas and beliefs relevant at the time), or political settings (e.g., collective versus indi- Social Institutions and Transition Regimes vidualistic orientations, periods of stability versus rapid social change) that shape available transition pathways. Different societies provide different sets of possible path- Generally, over the past four decades most Western coun- ways for the school-to-work transition, along with their insti- tries have witnessed dramatic changes in employment oppor- tutional support systems. These pathways generate the main tunities following the introduction of new technologies, the “action field” for young people to find their way in. Given disappearance of manual jobs, the increasing participation pathways are partially age-graded, e.g., regarding variations of women in the labor market (Blossfeld et al. 2005), the in legal age of entering and leaving full-time education and gradual shift towards automatization and increasing precari- paid employment, and are regulated by social institutions ousness of transitions (Ashton 2017; Bell and Blanchflower based on cultural beliefs and social norms about age-appro- 2011; Schoon and Bynner 2019). As a consequence of mas- priate behavior, timing, and sequencing of social roles or sive restructuring and changes in the labour market since the status (Blossfeld et al. 2005; Buchmann and Kriesi 2011; 1980s, there has been increasing fragmentation, uncertainty Heckhausen and Buchmann 2018). Institutional regulations and unpredictability regarding employment careers, and that regarding the school-to-work transition are also referred to in turn required increased individual agency in proactively as “transition regimes” (Raffe 2008; Walther 2006; Schoon shaping one’s career (Heckhausen 2010; Schoon 2007). and Bynner 2019), or “institutional filters” (Blossfeld et al. Most developed countries have responded to the eco- 2005), reflecting the relative enduring features of a country’s nomic changes by placing greater emphasis on participa- institutional and policy arrangements, including the struc- tion in education and training, to equip young people with ture of education and training systems, features of employ- the necessary skills for making the transition into the world ment regulation, social welfare systems and the assumptions 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 139 underlying youth policy regulating transition patterns. For standards. The poor quality of much of the work-based train- example, building on Esping-Andersen’s (1990) model of ing available to teenagers, and low credibility of the certi- welfare regimes Walther (2006) differentiates between sub- fication arising from it, has yet to convince employers and protective, universalistic, liberal, and employment centered families that apprenticeship is a high value alternative to transition regimes. This differentiation has been highly influ- staying on in academic education. For example, youth in ential in European comparative youth research, yet more the US face a system that provides no structured path into recent approaches have advanced a “welfare mix” approach, skilled employment without college, strongly favoring col- to clarify the different contributions made by the state, the lege education as a prerequisite for any worthwhile occu- family and the labor market in supporting young people’s pational career (Heckhausen and Shane 2015). Attempts to school-to-work transitions (Antonucci et al. 2014). introduce what are described as non- or applied baccalau- The sub-protective transition regime applies primarily to reate level programs (i.e. non-college bound youth) have southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, so far not succeeded in creating opportunities for a smooth or Greece. These countries are characterized by a high share school-to-work transition (Dougherty and Lombardi 2016). of informal or insecure employment conditions and the lack Employment-centered transition regimes are typical for of a comprehensive social safety net. Education is mostly Germany (and most German speaking countries includ- comprehensive, although with relatively high rates of early ing Austria and Switzerland). Education is organized more school leaving (i.e. below upper secondary qualifications) selectively, allocating young people to occupational careers (Eurostat 2017). Vocational training is not well developed, and associated social position at an early age. For exam- nor highly valued, mainly provided by professional schools ple, in Germany young people are channeled into different and the involvement of companies is low. Due to the eco- tracks leading to low-skilled occupations, skilled vocational nomic weakness of many regions, there are high rates of careers requiring apprenticeships, and professional careers youth unemployment (Schoon and Bynner 2019), prolonged requiring university degrees. By the age of 10 most pupils in periods of job search and a long waiting phase during which Germany are selected into one of these three tracks. It is pos- young people depend primarily on their families for support. sible to switch tracks, yet that is not a very easy route to take Universalistic transition regimes, prevalent in Scandi- (Hillmert and Jacob 2010). Vocational training plays a cen- navian countries such as Sweden, Norway or Finland are tral role and is relatively standardized. It is mostly company characterized by a comprehensive and inclusive education based, involving a “social partnership” comprising local system with diversified post-compulsory routes into general government, vocation-oriented schools (i.e., Berufsschule), and vocational education and high levels of investment in employers’ organizations, and trade unions in maintaining tertiary education. Many students combine work and study, and reforming the apprenticeship pathways, with a direct smoothing the transition to employment (Eurofound 2013). link to the employment system. The employment system is typified by an extended public Where did young people fare best in the aftermath of the sector and a strong emphasis on equal opportunities. Col- 2008 recession? A central purpose in the specification of lective agreements constitute important driving forces for “transition regimes” is to identify features of “successful” labor market regulations, wage setting and social assistance transition systems, which enable a smooth integration into programs. Counselling is widely institutionalized at all the labor market (Raffe 2008). Generally, the labor-market stages of education, training, and the transition to employ- integration of new entrants tends to be faster in countries ment, aiming to identify individual motivation and support characterized by strong institutional linkages between educa- personal development. Young people have the right to social tion and the labor market, and strong institutional networks assistance from 18 years onward, regardless of the socio- which can support transitions from education to work. And economic status of their families. If they are participating indeed, employment focused countries, such as Austria, Ger- in either formal education or training they receive an edu- many, the Netherlands and Switzerland have been most suc- cational allowance. cessful in keeping young people engaged in the labor market The liberal transition regime, predominant in Anglo- with youth unemployment rates mostly stayed around 10% phone countries, such as the UK and the USA, is character- (Schoon and Bynner 2019; OECD 2019). This was mostly ized by a comprehensive education system, as well as high due to the efficient use of vocational training programs and flexibility and fragmentation in post-compulsory education. well-organized pathways that connect initial education with It values individual rights and responsibilities more than col- work and further study, but also due to a strong economy and lective provisions. The labor market is largely deregulated robust employment protection regulations. Youth coming with a large segment of low-skilled and non-standard jobs, of age in countries with a sub-protective transition regime and checkered attempts to establish a vocational training (e.g., Spain, Greece and Portugal) have been hit hardest by system. Vocational training is mostly focused on delivering the 2008 recession, suffering the highest levels of youth particular occupational skills, albeit with relative low quality unemployment (between 30 and 55%), and high levels of 1 3 140 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 temporary employment. Employment opportunities for background and young people’s ambitions in the aftermath young people in countries with a liberal or a universalistic of the massive education expansion and changing employ- transition regime were less severely affected, yet unemploy - ment opportunities described above. In the course of this ment rates reached over 30% in Ireland, and around 20% in social change, individuals independent of their social back- the UK and the US. Finland and Sweden, representatives of ground were encouraged to raise their achievement orienta- a universalistic transition regime, also suffered high youth tion and ambitions for upward social mobility. Increasingly unemployment rates (over 20%). At times when there is young people from disadvantaged background aspire to go exceptional economic strain, the institutions concerned with to university and to enter a professional career, thus climb- managing the education and training system of any coun- ing the social ladder (Reynolds and Johnson 2011; Schoon try become the key agents of social policy concerned with 2010, 2012; Shane and Heckhausen 2013), in particular ensuring that young people have opportunities to participate young women and those from ethnic minority background and engage in society. In particular, clear pathways between (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017). Indeed, a new norm of the education system and the labor market play an impor- “college for all” (Rosenbaum 2001) has been emerging, tant role in buffering the negative effect of the recession encouraging high education expectations regardless of on employment prospects, and outline a transparent path of academic aptitude or social background. Currently, most choices and required behaviors for young people to follow young people in the Global North are striving to obtain a (Schoon and Bynner 2017, 2019). college degree qualification, and the association between parental socio-economic status and achievement orienta- Social Stratification tions has weakened (Johnson and Reynolds 2013; Reynolds and Johnson 2011; Schoon 2010, 2012). Within a context In addition to institutional arrangements offering distinct of education systems that encourage and facilitate upward transition pathways, the social structure of a given society mobility from lower to higher-level college institutions (e.g., regulates access to these pathways through the influence of California Master Plan for Higher Education), young people social status on material, cultural and social resources, and from a less privileged background who have high long-term the “horizon of perceived possibilities” (i.e. the perception educational aspirations are more likely to succeed regard- about what career options are available and appropriate ing educational and occupational attainment than their less to strive for). Even though most modern societies uphold ambitious peers (Heckhausen and Chang 2009; Schoon and an ideal of equal life chances for everyone, each of them Lyons-Amos 2016, 2017). A potentially important motivator provides SES-differential landscapes for pursuing major for such high educational aspirations is that current cohorts developmental goals regarding education and career devel- of young people will need higher levels of educational quali- opment (Heckhausen and Buchmann 2018). Indeed, a range fications to avoid downward social mobility and maintain of indicators of family SES, including parental education, the social status of their parents, never mind moving up the occupational status and income are associated with young social ladder (Schoon and Bynner 2017). people’s education and employment aspirations and subse- quent experiences in the education system and labor mar- How Societal Landscapes of Opportunity Support ket. Parents in a higher social position generally have more and Constrain the Development of Individual Agency access to financial resources which enable them to inspire and support the aspirations of their offspring by purchasing Countries provide different institutionalized pathways that study materials or tutoring or even simply providing them stratify individuals’ lives into path-dependent trajectories with a room or desk to study, financing their extended educa- leading to very distinct outcomes. The different pathways tion participation and associated tuition and living costs, or offer a number of sequentially organized decision points supporting them through unpaid internships or volunteering that require individuals to make choices. For example, after to acquire relevant skills and competencies. Moreover, high- the completion of compulsory education young people have SES parents might have the relevant cultural knowledge of to choose whether to continue in further and higher educa- how different institutions work, facilitating negotiations with tion or whether to enter paid employment, either with or gate keepers and handling institutional requirements, and without training. The transition from school-to-work occurs they have connections to social networks facilitating access during certain critical windows of age timing, offering opti- to important information and contacts. Thus, young people mal opportunities as well maximum risks during those age from the most privileged backgrounds tend to have higher periods. Choosing one particular path over another can level resources and ambitions than their less privileged peers influence later outcomes, a process also referred to as “path (Eccles 2008; Schoon 2010, 2014). dependency”. For example, while staying on in education is There have, however, been significant changes regard- associated with higher qualification and better job prospects, ing the association between parental socio-economic early school leaving without relevant qualifications is often 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 141 associated with less advantaged employment opportunities, impossible, individual agents need to be able to know when and makes it more difficult for the individual to return to it is time to disengage from a futile endeavor and revise their education at a later time point. On-time transitions are made goals and plans for the future. easy, whereas off-time transitions are difficult for the indi- In sum, the processes shaping transition experiences of vidual to achieve. However, there is also potential for change young people are multifaceted, including macroeconomic in direction, and especially at decision points, small differ - conditions, institutional structures, social background, gen- ences pertaining to or acting on the developing individual der, ethnicity, as well as individual resources such as ability, agents can guide them into one developmental path, moving motivation, and aspirations and their development over time. away from alternative paths. For example, at critical deci- For a better understanding of transition experiences of young sions points an external push (e.g., by an economic crisis) people it is important to consider the relational nature, the or alternatively an internal impetus (e.g., raised aspirations) dynamic interplay between structural constraints and indi- can shift the individual into a developmental trajectory far vidual agency and how these might differ and change over removed from the original path or trajectory. time and across socio-cultural contexts. We can use the ideas of Kurt Lewin about the hodologi- cal (i.e., path-related) characteristics of action fields (Lewin Can Individual Agency Overcome Social Constraints? 1943) to understand how societal structuring and cultural norms about the life course shape the individual’s develop- Being active agents in their own life course, individuals can ment of directed motivation and behavior. We can consider make use of the opportunities and flexibilities in a given the life course as a field of action, in which the individual’s society when navigating a life-course transition, such as the position may be adjacent or further away from a desired goal one from school to work. Although educational and occupa- state, including Lewin’s notion that an environmental field tional attainment is shaped by family socio-economic back- may involve the necessity of detours to reach a certain goal, ground and resources, as reflected in the term of “bounded when direct access to an adjacent field is blocked. Apply - or structured agency” (Evans 2002; Shanahan 2000), indi- ing Lewin action field model to the life course, requires the viduals from very similar backgrounds can end up in quite addition of a temporal dimension to Lewin’s hodological different positions in society when they reach adulthood. conceptions (see also Levy and Bühlmann 2016). Depend- A growing body of evidence points to the significant role ing on the hodological and temporal distance of a present of so-called “non-cognitive” skills, including motivational state to the desired developmental goal, the incentive of the characteristics such as goal-setting, control perceptions, and ultimate goal may or may not be sufficient to motivate an self-regulation, in moderating the impact of socio-economic individual agent to actively pursue it. Moreover, and as a disadvantage. These individual-level skills and competencies function of socio-economic fit with the desired goal, more or can become critical resources for attaining academic, social, less elaborate and rich personal and social resources may be health and employment outcomes in addition and beyond the required for the individual agent to pursue the goal through established predictors of status attainment, such as cognitive the more or less easily navigated life-course action field. ability and parents’ socio-economic position (Heckman and For example, for students early in secondary education, the Kautz 2012; OECD 2015). incentive pull of admission to a highly prestigious college, The concept of “non-cognitive skills” was introduced by may be too far away to motivate intense academic effort, so sociologists Bowles and Gintis (1976) as a catch-all phrase that parental pressure or relevant career guidance can make to distinguish factors other than those measured by cog- more of a difference. Action paths towards developmental nitive test scores such as literacy and numeracy. There is, goals that involve several steps and cover extended periods however, no common definition of the relevant skills and of life time are particularly challenging for the individual competences, and the concept of “non-cognitive skills” is and her/his regulatory efforts, unless they are supported by used as a “black box” comprising multiple competences, institutional structures, such as educational institutions with including decision making, self-regulation, problem solv- strong normative pressure to stay on track. Considering this, ing, creative thinking, effective communication, interper - it is clear that individuals who cannot use such institutional sonal relationship skills, self-awareness, coping with stress, supports because they are trying to achieve certain develop- as well as broader indicators of personality (e.g., conscien- mental attainments outside the well-scaffolded paths and/or tiousness, Heckman and Kautz 2012). The effectiveness of at a non-normative time in life, can be successful only if they these characteristics in facilitating individuals to overcome command special and strong self-regulatory motivational disadvantages in the school-to-work transition are, however, skills to overcome adversity, stay committed and focused likely to differ across cultures and settings, and across differ - on giving the chosen goal priority over any competing goals ent domains of application, because the specific challenges or activities, or get lucky. Under circumstances that make in these social settings can differ a lot. Depending on the social mobility outside or inside the well-established paths specific challenges in a given society at a specific life-course 1 3 142 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 transition, certain skills and competencies may be more Although the ideologically enhanced “social mobility important than others. For a more comprehensive under- dream” does not generally match actual mobility (Heck- standing of how and under what circumstances different hausen and Shane 2015; Schoon and Mortimer 2017), it individual competencies are effective, the black box needs nonetheless can steer individuals to strive for it. A longitudi- to be unpacked. Here we focus on the role of individual nal study of US youth transitioning out of high school found agency, understood as a multi-dimensional construct. In par- that control-related beliefs about the controllable dimensions ticular, we focus on aspects of the value systems (intrinsic, of effort and social connections, but not beliefs about uncon- extrinsic; costs; Eccles and Wigfield 2002; see for example trollable dimensions such as ability or luck, were predictive education-career trade-offs in Heckhausen et al. 2013), aspi- of career-related control striving 1 year later, and in turn rations and expectations about goal controllability and one’s career striving amplified personal control beliefs (Shane self-efficacy to attain goals (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017; and Heckhausen 2012, 2013). In a study with university Schoon and Mortimer 2017), and about the consequences of students transitioning into work life, Shane and Heckhausen goal attainment for other goals and life domains, goal com- (2016) found two contrasting belief-patterns about career mitment and engagement, volitional self-regulation (Shane development, one that emphasized the role of individual and Heckhausen 2012, 2016; Shane and Heckhausen 2013), merit (effort and ability) and one that focused on the role and the ability to adjust goals or even disengage from goals of external factors outside on individual’s control (privilege if needed (see Heckhausen and Wrosch 2016). and luck). The meritocratically oriented group of youth were When considering the potential compensatory role of more engaged with their career goals and also reported bet- agency-related capacities with regard to the effects of social ter career progress. The group viewing external factors as origin on ultimate social status attained in adulthood, pre- most prominent were more likely to disengage from and to vious social science research has identified three different devalue their career goals. Another study showed that meri- processes involving independent, cumulative, and compen- tocratic beliefs about one’s own career-related agency, but satory effects (Damian et al. 2015; Ng-Knight and Schoon not about career-related agency for most other people were 2017; Shanahan et al. 2014; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017). associated with career outcomes (Shane and Heckhausen The evidence so far is focused on the role of broad personal- 2013). In assessing “independent” effects, it has however to ity indicators (not discussed here), with some evidence also be considered that indicators of agency are already shaped being available regarding the role of intentions, expectations by socio-economic factors, and if the association between and values, which are summarized here. However, further them is substantial there is the potential of over-estimating evidence is needed to complete the picture (especially individual differences of youth that are partially due to SES- regarding the role of values and the relative importance and related advantages and class-specific socialization. possible interactions between different agency indicators). Cumulative Eec ff ts Independent Eec ff ts Cumulative processes reflect the fact that an advantaged Findings from research examining the predictive power of social position is associated with resources critical for fur- educational or occupational aspirations, self-efficacy and ther relative gains in position, such as high aspirations as self-regulation on outcomes such as educational and occu- well as access to financial, social and cultural resources that pational attainment show that major dimensions of agency provide advantages in negotiating socially structured transi- have a unique and significant contribution on attainment out- tion pathways, while a disadvantaged position comes with comes beyond the influence of cognitive ability and family accumulated detrimental effects of insufficient resources. socio-economic background (SES). For example, achieve- For example, young people from the most privileged back- ment goals, such as aspirations to participate in further and grounds tend to have higher levels of ambition than their less higher education or to enter a professional career are associ- privileged peers, while those from relatively disadvantaged ated with subsequent educational (Domina et al. 2011; Vil- backgrounds are facing greater difficulties when developing larreal et al. 2015; Reynolds and Johnson 2011) and occu- ambitious educational and career goals, because they tend to pational attainment, over and above the influence of social feel constrained by perceptions of limited opportunities and background and cognitive ability (Johnson and Reynolds resources (Eccles 2008; Schoon 2007). Their “horizon of 2013; Reynolds et al. 2007; Schoon and Polek 2011), as are perceived possibilities” is foreshortened, and thus they end subjective expectations of success (Ashby and Schoon 2010; up expressing lower educational and occupational aspira- Hitlin and Johnson 2015) and indicators of self-regulation tions and self-confidence than their more privileged peers and self-efficacy (Moffitt et al. 2011; Ng-Knight and Schoon (Duckworth and Schoon 2012; Eccles 2008; Mortimer 2003; 2017). Schoon 2012), and are more likely to believe that external causal factors (i.e. other people, luck or fate) influence their 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 143 success in society (Shane and Heckhausen 2013). Even after employment or training (NEET). Similar buffering effects taking into account early academic attainment, lower SES were observed for young people maintaining high levels of youth are less likely to achieve higher level academic quali- control perceptions in situations of family socio-economic fications and top-level jobs characterized by high pay, job adversity, although control perceptions could not provide security and autonomy, and are more likely to experience protection against long-term inactivity that is being more precarious employment (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2016, than 6 months NEET (Ng-Knight and Schoon 2017). 2017). Thus, (dis)advantages tend to accumulate over the However, young people from higher socioeconomic status life course (DiPrete and Eirich 2006; Schoon et al. 2002) families were more likely to hold onto their high education favoring certain more-advantageous trajectories for upper expectations then their less privileged peers, and these more class individuals and other less advantageous trajectories persistent high expectations might help explain the greater for lower class individuals. Moreover, differences between success of young people from higher socioeconomic sta- individuals become amplified along a given transition path - tus backgrounds in earning a 4-year degree (Johnson and way, so that the outcomes are much more disparate than the Reynolds 2013). In addition, parental resources, in particular original states. parental education can buffer the effect of economic hard- ship, and in an interesting twist to the story there is evidence to suggest that the academic orientations of parents back Compensatory Eec ff ts when they had been adolescents themselves, appeared to be protecting their children from the risks of economic troubles Potential compensatory effects, also described by the term many years later (Mortimer et al. 2014). These findings drive “resource substitution” (Ross and Mirowsky 2006), refer to home the fact that individuals may react to the same situa- processes where one resource can substitute for another or tion in very different ways, that individuals tend to hang on can fill the gap if the other is absent. The “resource sub- to their hopes and dreams even in times of adversity unless stitution” hypothesis predicts the worst outcomes for those socio-economic conditions are overpowering their ability to with neither resource. Within compensatory effects, we can cope, or changing circumstances require them to change the differentiate whether overcoming a given adversity requires course of their action and the associated aspirations. only one dimension of agentic capacity (e.g., very high ambitions or very high self-regulatory skills) or multiple To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances can dimensions (e.g., high ambitions, high self-regulatory skills, Agency be Most Eec ff tive? high success expectations and high levels of self-efficacy). The former constellation is one of multiple sufficient causes Potential advantages of agency-related individual capacities whereas the latter is reflecting multiple necessary causes. vary across cultural contexts and appear to be especially Evidence regarding potential compensatory effects prevalent in societies with a relatively flexible transition of agency suggests a mixed picture and is not clear cut. system that allows for individual variations in paths to suc- Although findings within the UK context suggest that high cessful adult careers, as for example in the USA and the aspirations among relative disadvantaged students enable UK. In other more stratified societies, such as the German them to do better than their less ambitious peers from a system of early educational segregation into different school similar background (Schoon and Parsons 2002; Schoon and types and highly institutionalized vocational training, such Polek 2011; Schoon 2014), educational attainment is at least individual optimizations are less needed and less enabled as strong, if not a stronger predictor of career attainment (Evans 2002; Heckhausen and Chang 2009; Holtmann et al. than individual aspirations. This is especially the case for 2017). We thus have to ask, what are the characteristics of young people born in later cohorts, who made the school- a socio-structural framework that permit individual agency to-work transition after the expansion of higher education in to be effective and enable young people from disadvantaged the late 1980s (Duckworth and Schoon 2012; Schoon 2007, background to succeed? 2012). Compensatory effects of individual agency were evi- First, individual agency is not uniformly effective dent in studies examining the effect of the Great Recession throughout the life course. It is less needed when individuals on young people making the transition from school-to-work. move on well-buffered and institutionally regulated paths, When young people held onto a more positive outlook for i.e. during primary and secondary school, after having the future, their parents’ economic troubles posed less risk to decided for a study major (Heckhausen 2010; Heckhausen their socioeconomic functioning as young adults (Mortimer and Shane 2015), or when entering a well-supported voca- et al. 2014; Vuolo et al. 2012). Even among young people tional training program leading to relatively stable voca- growing up with unemployed parents (Schoon 2014), high tional careers. Individual agency is most needed at times levels of academic achievement orientations were associated of transition, when individuals leave a pre-structured path, with a reduction in the time spend not being in education, 1 3 144 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 such as at the end of compulsory schooling, when they enter risks are over-powering (Duckworth and Schoon  2012; a new path or field and are assuming new social roles. Ng-Knight and Schoon  2017).  Parents in higher social Second, there are crucial “windows of opportunity” positions generally have more access to financial, cultural when agency is most effective. These are related to the and social resources that enable them to support the aspi- appropriate age-related timing of transitions. For exam- rations of their offspring (Evans 2002; Shanahan 2000; ple, educational systems relying on strong and early-ability Schoon and Parsons 2002; Schoon 2010, 2012). There tracking tend to foreclose or open up subsequent educa- might however also be the danger of intergenerational path tional opportunities at the respective transition points. Due dependency, where young people feel pushed to pursue to the channeling of educational trajectories based on early the ambitions and aspirations of their parents and are not decisions, early manifestations of agency may potentially enabled to express or follow their own dreams and ambi- be more decisive than later ones (Buchmann and Steinho ff tions (Franceschelli et al. 2016). 2017). Moreover, engagement with a developmental goal Fifth, there is a potential “dark side” to high levels of can become urgent when facing rapidly declining oppor- agency beliefs. For example, there is evidence to suggest tunities (i.e., developmental deadlines; Heckhausen et al. that unrealistic ambitions can harm individuals by promot- 2010, 2019), such as access to stipends or funding for ing inappropriate persistence and overconfidence, which distinct educational or career openings. Once opportuni- in turn hinder performance and attainment (Armor and ties decline, required investments to achieve these goals Taylor 1998; Salmela-Aro 2017; Schoon and Lyons-Amos become too costly, and individuals need to disengage from 2017). This is particularly the case in situations where the obsolete or futile goals and refocus on goals that are still demands of the task are higher than individual capabili- attainable (Heckhausen et al. 2010). Sticking with unob- ties, or where agency beliefs are not matched to individual tainable goals can become maladaptive, especially when competencies. There are however also variations by socio- individuals persist despite repeated set-backs, feeling cultural context. For example, the less structured and more entrapped in a project that does not yield the anticipated permeable educational system of the USA provides better outcomes. This situation has been termed “action crisis” opportunities for highly ambitious students than the highly (Brandstätter and Herrmann 2016) describing the conflict structured education system in Germany, where educa- of being torn between holding on giving up a specific goal. tional aspirations need to be closely calibrated to one’s Third, agency is facilitated in conditions where the action social status and prior school achievement (Heckhausen field is more permeable, i.e. the boundaries between dif - and Chang 2009). ferent tracks or path are not too strict and it is possible to change between tracks. Ideally such permeability could be facilitated by the building of bridges and flexibility in chang- ing track (Heckhausen 2010; Heckhausen and Shane 2015; Conclusion Schoon 2015). This would be the case in institutions that enable change between educational or occupational tracks, Integrating assumptions developed in life course sociology not only at the beginning but also at multiple crossover and life span psychology, this paper presents an integra- points. As we have described previously, in some countries, tive socio-ecological developmental model for studying such as Germany, students can become “locked” into tracks the interplay of structure and agency in the transition from offering different learning opportunities and subsequent school-to-work. Agency cannot be comprehensively concep- differential path-dependent career chances. Although these tualized as a sheer individual level construct, nor as the mere pathways facilitate a smooth transition from school to work, reproduction of existing social structures. The manifestation there can be the danger that being locked into a rigid and of agency is a relational and intentional process that emerges inflexible system can undermine individual agency, in par - through person-context interactions over time and in con- ticular via detrimental effects on self-concepts and control text. The development and realization of individual agency beliefs (Chmielewski et al. 2013; Dumont et al. 2017; Marsh is shaped by social structures and networks that constrain, et al. 2007; Steinhoff and Buchmann 2017). In contrast, in extend, and also enable the formation of new expressions of countries with more flexible and permeable transition sys- agency. In their transition from school to work young people tems, such as the UK or the US, high levels of agency are carve their pathways based on the competencies, resources, required to navigate a complex action field (Evans 2002 ; and structural opportunities they perceive to be available to Heckhausen and Chang 2009). them. They have to develop and specify their intentions and Fourth, access to socio-economic resources, which in translate them into action in order to pursue and achieve, turn is shaped by social background, determines the extent or revise them, in a given social context. Individual agency to which agency can be mobilized and realized. Agency can to some limited extent compensate the consequences is less effective in situations where the socio-economic and experience of socio-economic adversity. Yet, individuals 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 145 Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. 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Conceptualizing Individual Agency in the Transition from School to Work: A Social-Ecological Developmental Perspective

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Publisher
Springer Journals
Copyright
Copyright © 2019 by The Author(s)
Subject
Psychology; Developmental Psychology; Psychiatry; Neurosciences; Child and School Psychology; Criminology and Criminal Justice, general; Educational Psychology
ISSN
2363-8346
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2363-8354
DOI
10.1007/s40894-019-00111-3
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Abstract

This article addresses the ongoing debate on the role of agency and structure in shaping the transition from school to work. Drawing on theories of life-course sociology and life-span psychology an integrated social-ecological developmental approach is presented, conceptualizing individual agency as a relational and intentional process that evolves through interac- tions with the wider socio-cultural context. Agency is understood as a multi-dimensional construct, influenced by multiple proximal and distal social circumstances that channel the manifestation of agency by offering distinct transition pathways. The article specifies the ways how social structures support and constrain the development of agency, and asks if individual agency can overcome social constraints, and to what extent and in what circumstances can agency be most effective? It is argued that agency is most influential (a) when social structures are flexible, enabling switching between tracks; (b) during critical windows of opportunity, such as during transitions from one educational track to another or from education into paid employment; (c) in situations when individuals leave a pre-structured path; (d) when intentions are closely matched to individual competencies; and (e) when socio-economic disadvantage is not overpowering. The analysis presented in this paper should enable researchers to expand and deepen their understanding of the role of structure and agency in shaping school-to-work transitions and inform empirical research on the topic. Keywords Agency · Structure · School-to-work transition (SWT) · Life course · Expectancy-value theory · Action-phase model Introduction establishing oneself in a career. It can imply a smooth tran- sition leading to a progressing career, or be a most turbu- A key developmental task in the lives of adolescents is to lent phase with various attempts to establish oneself in the prepare for the school-to-work transition, a crucial phase labor market and in the process moving in and out of jobs, of the life course for young people, which critically affects education and training. The transition requires a number adult social status attainment and developmental prospects of important decisions, such as whether to continue with throughout adulthood. This transition generally spans the further education or to leave school directly after complet- phase between completion of full-time education or train- ing compulsory education; what kind of job or career to ing, the entry into continuous full-time employment, and choose; whether to go for an easy-access job that covers basic financial needs or take the route of vocational training or higher education to enter a career with better long-term * Ingrid Schoon prospects; and how best to respond to opportunities and con- i.schoon@ucl.ac.uk straints in the contemporary labor market. Indeed, individual Jutta Heckhausen agency has been identified as a central factor in the study aheckhaus@uci.edu of school-to-work transitions (Dannefer and Huang 2017), University College London, Institute of Education, 20 in particular regarding issues of status attainment (Eccles Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL, UK 2008; Elder et al. 2015; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017) and Berlin Social Science Centre, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin social mobility (Heckhausen and Shane 2015). For example (WZB), Berlin, Germany in a recent UK survey, individual attributes such as con- University of California Irvine, 4316 SBSG, Irvine, fidence, determination and ambition have been identified CA 92697-7085, USA Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 136 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 as key drivers for social mobility, enabling individuals to and change in distinct career paths. In this context, distinct get ahead in life (SuttonTrust 2017). There is, however, a processes enabling individuals to steer their lives and poten- continuing debate about the role of social structure versus tially overcome social constraints are discussed, as well as individual agency in shaping individual development, high- the conditions in which agency can be most influential. lighting the importance of a fit between societal challenges and individual agency capacities. Within the psychological literature on individual agency Towards a Socio‑ecological Approach during career transitions concepts such as Protean Career and for the Study of Individual Agency boundarylessness of individual career striving (Hall 2004) in the School‑toW ‑ ork Transition were introduced. These concepts place a strong empha- sis on the power of individual self-direction and striving Drawing on theories developed within life-span develop- (Briscoe et al. 2006). Within sociology, the idea of a societal mental psychology and life-course sociology, an integra- development towards individualisation gained prominence tive social-ecological developmental model of agency is (Beck 1992), suggesting that in recent decades individuals formulated, enabling the examination of the interplay of are increasingly compelled to make choices throughout their structure and agency in the school-to-work transition over life-course and they are required to take sole responsibil- time and in specific societal contexts. Life-span devel- ity for the consequences of the choices made. However, opmental psychology has long viewed the individual as the notion of unfettered individual agency was challenged, an active co-producer of development (e.g., Lerner and pointing to the persisting societal constraints that continue Busch-Rossnagel 1981). In the past two decades, action- to shape individual choices and constrain their realization theoretical and motivational-psychology models have been (Johnson and Reynolds 2013; Schoon 2007, 2012). Within used to advance the conceptualization of developmental sociology, terms such as “structured” or “bounded” agency agency (Brandtstädter and Lerner 1999; Freund and Baltes (Shanahan 2000; Evans 2002) are used to reflect the societal 2000; Heckhausen 1999, 2018). In general terms, there constraints and social embeddedness of individual agency. is convergence with life-course sociological constructs Likewise theories on career decision making emphasize of agency (Dannefer and Huang 2017; Elder 1994; Elder the interactions between social structures and individual et  al. 2015) which view agency as an individual-level agency in career pursuit. For example careership theory construct fundamental for social action and choice. How- developed within sociology introduced the term “horizon ever, agency as a non-structural construct has remained for action” (Hodkinson and Sparkes 1997), referring to an underspecified, “slippery” theoretical concept within socially structured perceptions about what career options sociological research (Fuchs 2001; Hitlin and Elder 2007; are available and appropriate to strive for. Psychological Loyal and Barnes 2001). Recently, life-course researchers theories of life design (Savickas et al. 2009) also recognize have included key dimensions of agency based in develop- that an individual’s knowledge and identity are the prod- mental, motivational and social psychological constructs uct of social interaction and that meaning is co-constructed into their longitudinal research on the transition into through discourse. Although these theories describe how adulthood (Hitlin and Johnson 2015; Schoon and Lyons- individuals select career goals within structural constraints, Amos 2016, 2017; Vuolo et al. 2012; see also review in; their scope is focused on issues related to career counselling. Settersten and Gannon 2005). These approaches draw on They do not provide a distinct conceptualization of indi- multi-dimensional conceptualizations of agency, as speci- vidual agency and how individuals in the context of societal fied within socio-cognitive theories of agency (Bandura opportunities and constraints engage with or disengage from 2001, 2006), expectancy-value theory (EVT) (Eccles and specific goals. Such an analysis of agency could reveal how Wigfield 2002), the motivational theory of lifespan devel- an individual’s agency develops in interaction with distinct opment (MTD, Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019) and eco- transition pathways that are shaped by the immediate and logical theories of human development (Bronfenbrenner wider social context. 1989). These approaches focus on the dynamic interrela- This article develops an integrated socio-ecological tions between a changing individual and changing social developmental model of agency as manifested in the school- structures. to-work transition. It is argued that individual agency is a The proposed socio-ecological model specifies the mul - relational process that evolves through interactions with tiple influences shaping the development of agency in the the wider socio-cultural context. Agency is conceptual- transition from school-to-work, ranging from factors in the ized as a process of intentional action and action regula- directly experienced family context (proximal influences), tion, which operates in the social ecology of opportunities as well as wider societal influences, such as institutional and constraints imposed by social structures and institutions regulations and aspects of socio-historical change. Agency as well as social networks that channel entry, continuation itself is conceptualized as a multi-dimensional construct, 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 137 comprising aspects of expectancy, control perceptions, associated with the consequences of attaining the goal (e.g., goal selection and goal setting, intention, volition and goal social approval, material reward), and the costs one incurs engagement, control striving, action regulation, disengage- while pursuing it. Values of particular goals such as attaining ment, and goal adjustment that develop during adolescence a university degree or getting into a career, depend on how and young adulthood. It is argued that individual agency members of the social community the individual holds in cannot be reduced to decontextualized universal principles high regard (e.g., parents or the peer group a youth identifies of psychological functioning, nor to a mere expression of with) view the goal (Eccles and Wigfield 2002). structural constraints or regularities produced by societal To comprehensively understand the role of individual institutions or social structures. Agency is understood as a agency in the school-to-work transition, it is thus impor- relational construct that emerges through interaction with tant to consider the multiple components underlying the a wider socio-cultural context. In addition to individual capability to intentionally select goals. These components attributes, the characteristics of the wider social context include expectancies, values, underlying motive strengths have to be considered—as well as the ways in which indi- for achievement, power and affiliation. In addition, it is viduals interact with this context. necessary to consider the dynamics of goal pursuit, i.e. the The socio-ecological approach for conceptualizing tendency to persist in the face of adversity, the capacity agency in the school-to-work transitions is outlined in four to disengage from futile goals, or to re-engage when the steps. First, a multi-dimensional conceptualization of the conditions are favorable. Our approach uses the conceptual notion of agency as intentional action and action regulation framework of the Motivational Theory of Lifespan Develop- is provided. Second, the societal conditions that shape the ment (MTD) (for a comprehensive review see Heckhausen opportunities for individual agency during the school-to- and Buchmann 2018; Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019) which work transition are described. These are considered as the conceptualizes developmental agency in the action field of context of human action, having their effect on the individual societal socio-structural and age-graded constraints and through the societal channeling of individual action along comprises an expectancy-value model of goal selection as distinct pathways. Third, the question if and under which well as an action-phase model of motivational and volitional conditions individual agency can overcome societal con- self-regulation during goal(re)selection, goal engagement, straints is asked, identifying key processes that link structure goal disengagement and re-engagement. and agency. In particular, a differentiation is made between The action-phase model of developmental regulation independent, cumulative, and compensatory processes. specifies a set of motivational and volitional phases indi- Fourth, the circumstances under which agency can be most viduals get involved in as they progress through a develop- effective are discussed. mental action cycle. When first approaching a critical time period for decision making (e.g., during the final year before Individual Agency: Intentional Action and Action graduating from school), youth consider alternative possible Regulation paths and goals to pursue. During this phase of optimization, individuals are well advised to consider the actual opportuni- At the most general level, individual agency is understood ties and constraints as well as the consequences of choosing as intentional action, i.e. the capability to set goals (i.e. one or another path. After an individual has made a choice intention), plan their pursuit and attainment in the future and thus passed the decisional Rubicon, it is most adaptive (i.e. action planning; foresight), and allow behavior to be to stop pondering pros and cons of alternatives, but instead guided by goal pursuit (i.e. action-regulation). Moreover, invest full throttle into the chosen path. This is particularly asking what motivates individuals, psychological theories true under difficult conditions, for example when job or of individual agency have built on the classical expectancy- training opportunities are scarce. Under such conditions of value theories (Lewin et al. 1944; Tolman 1932) as applied threatened yet urgent goal pursuit, individuals may need to to achievement motivated behavior (Eccles and Wigfield use extra meta-volitional strategies to keep themselves com- 2002; Heckhausen and Heckhausen 2018). Expectancy- mitted and focused. In addition, it may be advantageous to value models propose that goal choices and their pursuit think out-of-the-box and come up with compensatory means are determined by expectancies about the likelihood of of getting extra help from others or using detours or unusual attaining the goal and values associated with attaining the means. We will come back to this later. goal. The former comprise beliefs about one’s own capabil- If these enhanced means of goal engagement fail, indi- ity, i.e. expectations for success or self-efficacy—the extent viduals may need to adjust their goals (e.g., look for a differ - to which individuals believe that they can be successful at ent or less prestigious apprenticeship, enroll for a different attaining the specific goal being considered. The latter refer program of studies, or hope to get accepted at a later time to values associated with attaining the goal, which include point)—or even give up certain goals altogether (e.g., if cer- values intrinsic to the activity and goal as well as values tain options hold no prospects). Indeed, under circumstances 1 3 138 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 of high opportunity costs, that is when alternative goal of work. Increasing numbers of young people participated engagements are time sensitive, decisive goal disengage- in higher education, including those from relatively disad- ment is essential to cut one’s losses with the futile goal pur- vantaged social backgrounds (Blossfeld et al. 2005; Schoon suit and move on to a more realistic goal before it is too late and Bynner 2017). The observation of extended education (Tomasik and Salmela-Aro 2012). Thus goal engagement participation, often until the mid or late 20 s, stimulated and disengagement has to be synchronized with available the introduction of the term “emerging adulthood” (Arnett opportunity structures. 2000) as a synonym for a new, universal developmental period, characterized by identity exploration and delay of Societal Canalization of the School‑toW ‑ ork responsibility. However, the assumption of emerging adult- Transition hood solely based on intentional choice, does not take into account the role of socio-historical and economic conditions Societies vary regarding the opportunity structures and sup- that produce the setting for extended transitions. port they provide to young people engaging in the school-to- For example, in most developed countries, the number work transition, variations which have been conceptualized and proportion of full-time employees with contracts of by the term societal channeling or canalization (Heckhausen indeterminate duration has decreased constantly since the and Buchmann 2018). The wider socio-historical context, mid 1980s, unemployment rates and the proportion of inse- institutional arrangements and social inequality at the fam- cure jobs including “zero hours contracts” and precarious ily level all play a role in shaping the contours of the life employment is growing even among graduates (Standing course, setting up the potential pathways for individuals to 2011; Schoon and Bynner 2019). The 2008 Great Recession aspire to and to follow, specifying relevant requirements added another blow. Young people have been hit particu- for achievement and defining key deadlines to do so (Buch- larly hard by this downturn, as unemployment and flexible mann and Steinhoff 2017; Heckhausen et al. 2010, 2019; employment among the young (under 25 years) is generally Schoon and Bynner 2017; Wrosch and Heckhausen 1999). higher than average (Bell and Blanchflower 2011; Blossfeld Transition experiences are largely shaped by opportunities et al. 2005). These developments prolonged the step into and constraints presented by the socio-historical context and financial independence and brought with them a prolonged economic conditions, and within this context are dependent dependence on parents for financial, social and emotional on individual decision making and agency. support (Schoon and Bynner 2017). There were, however, country-specific variations in the extent to which young Historical Context people were affected by the economic downturn, associated with different “transition regimes” or “institutional filters”, The wider socio-historical context refers to the overall eco- such as regulations regarding opportunities for employment, nomic circumstances (e.g., boom or bust), the cultural cli- education and training (Schoon and Bynner 2019). mate or current “Zeitgeist” (i.e. ideas and beliefs relevant at the time), or political settings (e.g., collective versus indi- Social Institutions and Transition Regimes vidualistic orientations, periods of stability versus rapid social change) that shape available transition pathways. Different societies provide different sets of possible path- Generally, over the past four decades most Western coun- ways for the school-to-work transition, along with their insti- tries have witnessed dramatic changes in employment oppor- tutional support systems. These pathways generate the main tunities following the introduction of new technologies, the “action field” for young people to find their way in. Given disappearance of manual jobs, the increasing participation pathways are partially age-graded, e.g., regarding variations of women in the labor market (Blossfeld et al. 2005), the in legal age of entering and leaving full-time education and gradual shift towards automatization and increasing precari- paid employment, and are regulated by social institutions ousness of transitions (Ashton 2017; Bell and Blanchflower based on cultural beliefs and social norms about age-appro- 2011; Schoon and Bynner 2019). As a consequence of mas- priate behavior, timing, and sequencing of social roles or sive restructuring and changes in the labour market since the status (Blossfeld et al. 2005; Buchmann and Kriesi 2011; 1980s, there has been increasing fragmentation, uncertainty Heckhausen and Buchmann 2018). Institutional regulations and unpredictability regarding employment careers, and that regarding the school-to-work transition are also referred to in turn required increased individual agency in proactively as “transition regimes” (Raffe 2008; Walther 2006; Schoon shaping one’s career (Heckhausen 2010; Schoon 2007). and Bynner 2019), or “institutional filters” (Blossfeld et al. Most developed countries have responded to the eco- 2005), reflecting the relative enduring features of a country’s nomic changes by placing greater emphasis on participa- institutional and policy arrangements, including the struc- tion in education and training, to equip young people with ture of education and training systems, features of employ- the necessary skills for making the transition into the world ment regulation, social welfare systems and the assumptions 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 139 underlying youth policy regulating transition patterns. For standards. The poor quality of much of the work-based train- example, building on Esping-Andersen’s (1990) model of ing available to teenagers, and low credibility of the certi- welfare regimes Walther (2006) differentiates between sub- fication arising from it, has yet to convince employers and protective, universalistic, liberal, and employment centered families that apprenticeship is a high value alternative to transition regimes. This differentiation has been highly influ- staying on in academic education. For example, youth in ential in European comparative youth research, yet more the US face a system that provides no structured path into recent approaches have advanced a “welfare mix” approach, skilled employment without college, strongly favoring col- to clarify the different contributions made by the state, the lege education as a prerequisite for any worthwhile occu- family and the labor market in supporting young people’s pational career (Heckhausen and Shane 2015). Attempts to school-to-work transitions (Antonucci et al. 2014). introduce what are described as non- or applied baccalau- The sub-protective transition regime applies primarily to reate level programs (i.e. non-college bound youth) have southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, so far not succeeded in creating opportunities for a smooth or Greece. These countries are characterized by a high share school-to-work transition (Dougherty and Lombardi 2016). of informal or insecure employment conditions and the lack Employment-centered transition regimes are typical for of a comprehensive social safety net. Education is mostly Germany (and most German speaking countries includ- comprehensive, although with relatively high rates of early ing Austria and Switzerland). Education is organized more school leaving (i.e. below upper secondary qualifications) selectively, allocating young people to occupational careers (Eurostat 2017). Vocational training is not well developed, and associated social position at an early age. For exam- nor highly valued, mainly provided by professional schools ple, in Germany young people are channeled into different and the involvement of companies is low. Due to the eco- tracks leading to low-skilled occupations, skilled vocational nomic weakness of many regions, there are high rates of careers requiring apprenticeships, and professional careers youth unemployment (Schoon and Bynner 2019), prolonged requiring university degrees. By the age of 10 most pupils in periods of job search and a long waiting phase during which Germany are selected into one of these three tracks. It is pos- young people depend primarily on their families for support. sible to switch tracks, yet that is not a very easy route to take Universalistic transition regimes, prevalent in Scandi- (Hillmert and Jacob 2010). Vocational training plays a cen- navian countries such as Sweden, Norway or Finland are tral role and is relatively standardized. It is mostly company characterized by a comprehensive and inclusive education based, involving a “social partnership” comprising local system with diversified post-compulsory routes into general government, vocation-oriented schools (i.e., Berufsschule), and vocational education and high levels of investment in employers’ organizations, and trade unions in maintaining tertiary education. Many students combine work and study, and reforming the apprenticeship pathways, with a direct smoothing the transition to employment (Eurofound 2013). link to the employment system. The employment system is typified by an extended public Where did young people fare best in the aftermath of the sector and a strong emphasis on equal opportunities. Col- 2008 recession? A central purpose in the specification of lective agreements constitute important driving forces for “transition regimes” is to identify features of “successful” labor market regulations, wage setting and social assistance transition systems, which enable a smooth integration into programs. Counselling is widely institutionalized at all the labor market (Raffe 2008). Generally, the labor-market stages of education, training, and the transition to employ- integration of new entrants tends to be faster in countries ment, aiming to identify individual motivation and support characterized by strong institutional linkages between educa- personal development. Young people have the right to social tion and the labor market, and strong institutional networks assistance from 18 years onward, regardless of the socio- which can support transitions from education to work. And economic status of their families. If they are participating indeed, employment focused countries, such as Austria, Ger- in either formal education or training they receive an edu- many, the Netherlands and Switzerland have been most suc- cational allowance. cessful in keeping young people engaged in the labor market The liberal transition regime, predominant in Anglo- with youth unemployment rates mostly stayed around 10% phone countries, such as the UK and the USA, is character- (Schoon and Bynner 2019; OECD 2019). This was mostly ized by a comprehensive education system, as well as high due to the efficient use of vocational training programs and flexibility and fragmentation in post-compulsory education. well-organized pathways that connect initial education with It values individual rights and responsibilities more than col- work and further study, but also due to a strong economy and lective provisions. The labor market is largely deregulated robust employment protection regulations. Youth coming with a large segment of low-skilled and non-standard jobs, of age in countries with a sub-protective transition regime and checkered attempts to establish a vocational training (e.g., Spain, Greece and Portugal) have been hit hardest by system. Vocational training is mostly focused on delivering the 2008 recession, suffering the highest levels of youth particular occupational skills, albeit with relative low quality unemployment (between 30 and 55%), and high levels of 1 3 140 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 temporary employment. Employment opportunities for background and young people’s ambitions in the aftermath young people in countries with a liberal or a universalistic of the massive education expansion and changing employ- transition regime were less severely affected, yet unemploy - ment opportunities described above. In the course of this ment rates reached over 30% in Ireland, and around 20% in social change, individuals independent of their social back- the UK and the US. Finland and Sweden, representatives of ground were encouraged to raise their achievement orienta- a universalistic transition regime, also suffered high youth tion and ambitions for upward social mobility. Increasingly unemployment rates (over 20%). At times when there is young people from disadvantaged background aspire to go exceptional economic strain, the institutions concerned with to university and to enter a professional career, thus climb- managing the education and training system of any coun- ing the social ladder (Reynolds and Johnson 2011; Schoon try become the key agents of social policy concerned with 2010, 2012; Shane and Heckhausen 2013), in particular ensuring that young people have opportunities to participate young women and those from ethnic minority background and engage in society. In particular, clear pathways between (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017). Indeed, a new norm of the education system and the labor market play an impor- “college for all” (Rosenbaum 2001) has been emerging, tant role in buffering the negative effect of the recession encouraging high education expectations regardless of on employment prospects, and outline a transparent path of academic aptitude or social background. Currently, most choices and required behaviors for young people to follow young people in the Global North are striving to obtain a (Schoon and Bynner 2017, 2019). college degree qualification, and the association between parental socio-economic status and achievement orienta- Social Stratification tions has weakened (Johnson and Reynolds 2013; Reynolds and Johnson 2011; Schoon 2010, 2012). Within a context In addition to institutional arrangements offering distinct of education systems that encourage and facilitate upward transition pathways, the social structure of a given society mobility from lower to higher-level college institutions (e.g., regulates access to these pathways through the influence of California Master Plan for Higher Education), young people social status on material, cultural and social resources, and from a less privileged background who have high long-term the “horizon of perceived possibilities” (i.e. the perception educational aspirations are more likely to succeed regard- about what career options are available and appropriate ing educational and occupational attainment than their less to strive for). Even though most modern societies uphold ambitious peers (Heckhausen and Chang 2009; Schoon and an ideal of equal life chances for everyone, each of them Lyons-Amos 2016, 2017). A potentially important motivator provides SES-differential landscapes for pursuing major for such high educational aspirations is that current cohorts developmental goals regarding education and career devel- of young people will need higher levels of educational quali- opment (Heckhausen and Buchmann 2018). Indeed, a range fications to avoid downward social mobility and maintain of indicators of family SES, including parental education, the social status of their parents, never mind moving up the occupational status and income are associated with young social ladder (Schoon and Bynner 2017). people’s education and employment aspirations and subse- quent experiences in the education system and labor mar- How Societal Landscapes of Opportunity Support ket. Parents in a higher social position generally have more and Constrain the Development of Individual Agency access to financial resources which enable them to inspire and support the aspirations of their offspring by purchasing Countries provide different institutionalized pathways that study materials or tutoring or even simply providing them stratify individuals’ lives into path-dependent trajectories with a room or desk to study, financing their extended educa- leading to very distinct outcomes. The different pathways tion participation and associated tuition and living costs, or offer a number of sequentially organized decision points supporting them through unpaid internships or volunteering that require individuals to make choices. For example, after to acquire relevant skills and competencies. Moreover, high- the completion of compulsory education young people have SES parents might have the relevant cultural knowledge of to choose whether to continue in further and higher educa- how different institutions work, facilitating negotiations with tion or whether to enter paid employment, either with or gate keepers and handling institutional requirements, and without training. The transition from school-to-work occurs they have connections to social networks facilitating access during certain critical windows of age timing, offering opti- to important information and contacts. Thus, young people mal opportunities as well maximum risks during those age from the most privileged backgrounds tend to have higher periods. Choosing one particular path over another can level resources and ambitions than their less privileged peers influence later outcomes, a process also referred to as “path (Eccles 2008; Schoon 2010, 2014). dependency”. For example, while staying on in education is There have, however, been significant changes regard- associated with higher qualification and better job prospects, ing the association between parental socio-economic early school leaving without relevant qualifications is often 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 141 associated with less advantaged employment opportunities, impossible, individual agents need to be able to know when and makes it more difficult for the individual to return to it is time to disengage from a futile endeavor and revise their education at a later time point. On-time transitions are made goals and plans for the future. easy, whereas off-time transitions are difficult for the indi- In sum, the processes shaping transition experiences of vidual to achieve. However, there is also potential for change young people are multifaceted, including macroeconomic in direction, and especially at decision points, small differ - conditions, institutional structures, social background, gen- ences pertaining to or acting on the developing individual der, ethnicity, as well as individual resources such as ability, agents can guide them into one developmental path, moving motivation, and aspirations and their development over time. away from alternative paths. For example, at critical deci- For a better understanding of transition experiences of young sions points an external push (e.g., by an economic crisis) people it is important to consider the relational nature, the or alternatively an internal impetus (e.g., raised aspirations) dynamic interplay between structural constraints and indi- can shift the individual into a developmental trajectory far vidual agency and how these might differ and change over removed from the original path or trajectory. time and across socio-cultural contexts. We can use the ideas of Kurt Lewin about the hodologi- cal (i.e., path-related) characteristics of action fields (Lewin Can Individual Agency Overcome Social Constraints? 1943) to understand how societal structuring and cultural norms about the life course shape the individual’s develop- Being active agents in their own life course, individuals can ment of directed motivation and behavior. We can consider make use of the opportunities and flexibilities in a given the life course as a field of action, in which the individual’s society when navigating a life-course transition, such as the position may be adjacent or further away from a desired goal one from school to work. Although educational and occupa- state, including Lewin’s notion that an environmental field tional attainment is shaped by family socio-economic back- may involve the necessity of detours to reach a certain goal, ground and resources, as reflected in the term of “bounded when direct access to an adjacent field is blocked. Apply - or structured agency” (Evans 2002; Shanahan 2000), indi- ing Lewin action field model to the life course, requires the viduals from very similar backgrounds can end up in quite addition of a temporal dimension to Lewin’s hodological different positions in society when they reach adulthood. conceptions (see also Levy and Bühlmann 2016). Depend- A growing body of evidence points to the significant role ing on the hodological and temporal distance of a present of so-called “non-cognitive” skills, including motivational state to the desired developmental goal, the incentive of the characteristics such as goal-setting, control perceptions, and ultimate goal may or may not be sufficient to motivate an self-regulation, in moderating the impact of socio-economic individual agent to actively pursue it. Moreover, and as a disadvantage. These individual-level skills and competencies function of socio-economic fit with the desired goal, more or can become critical resources for attaining academic, social, less elaborate and rich personal and social resources may be health and employment outcomes in addition and beyond the required for the individual agent to pursue the goal through established predictors of status attainment, such as cognitive the more or less easily navigated life-course action field. ability and parents’ socio-economic position (Heckman and For example, for students early in secondary education, the Kautz 2012; OECD 2015). incentive pull of admission to a highly prestigious college, The concept of “non-cognitive skills” was introduced by may be too far away to motivate intense academic effort, so sociologists Bowles and Gintis (1976) as a catch-all phrase that parental pressure or relevant career guidance can make to distinguish factors other than those measured by cog- more of a difference. Action paths towards developmental nitive test scores such as literacy and numeracy. There is, goals that involve several steps and cover extended periods however, no common definition of the relevant skills and of life time are particularly challenging for the individual competences, and the concept of “non-cognitive skills” is and her/his regulatory efforts, unless they are supported by used as a “black box” comprising multiple competences, institutional structures, such as educational institutions with including decision making, self-regulation, problem solv- strong normative pressure to stay on track. Considering this, ing, creative thinking, effective communication, interper - it is clear that individuals who cannot use such institutional sonal relationship skills, self-awareness, coping with stress, supports because they are trying to achieve certain develop- as well as broader indicators of personality (e.g., conscien- mental attainments outside the well-scaffolded paths and/or tiousness, Heckman and Kautz 2012). The effectiveness of at a non-normative time in life, can be successful only if they these characteristics in facilitating individuals to overcome command special and strong self-regulatory motivational disadvantages in the school-to-work transition are, however, skills to overcome adversity, stay committed and focused likely to differ across cultures and settings, and across differ - on giving the chosen goal priority over any competing goals ent domains of application, because the specific challenges or activities, or get lucky. Under circumstances that make in these social settings can differ a lot. Depending on the social mobility outside or inside the well-established paths specific challenges in a given society at a specific life-course 1 3 142 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 transition, certain skills and competencies may be more Although the ideologically enhanced “social mobility important than others. For a more comprehensive under- dream” does not generally match actual mobility (Heck- standing of how and under what circumstances different hausen and Shane 2015; Schoon and Mortimer 2017), it individual competencies are effective, the black box needs nonetheless can steer individuals to strive for it. A longitudi- to be unpacked. Here we focus on the role of individual nal study of US youth transitioning out of high school found agency, understood as a multi-dimensional construct. In par- that control-related beliefs about the controllable dimensions ticular, we focus on aspects of the value systems (intrinsic, of effort and social connections, but not beliefs about uncon- extrinsic; costs; Eccles and Wigfield 2002; see for example trollable dimensions such as ability or luck, were predictive education-career trade-offs in Heckhausen et al. 2013), aspi- of career-related control striving 1 year later, and in turn rations and expectations about goal controllability and one’s career striving amplified personal control beliefs (Shane self-efficacy to attain goals (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017; and Heckhausen 2012, 2013). In a study with university Schoon and Mortimer 2017), and about the consequences of students transitioning into work life, Shane and Heckhausen goal attainment for other goals and life domains, goal com- (2016) found two contrasting belief-patterns about career mitment and engagement, volitional self-regulation (Shane development, one that emphasized the role of individual and Heckhausen 2012, 2016; Shane and Heckhausen 2013), merit (effort and ability) and one that focused on the role and the ability to adjust goals or even disengage from goals of external factors outside on individual’s control (privilege if needed (see Heckhausen and Wrosch 2016). and luck). The meritocratically oriented group of youth were When considering the potential compensatory role of more engaged with their career goals and also reported bet- agency-related capacities with regard to the effects of social ter career progress. The group viewing external factors as origin on ultimate social status attained in adulthood, pre- most prominent were more likely to disengage from and to vious social science research has identified three different devalue their career goals. Another study showed that meri- processes involving independent, cumulative, and compen- tocratic beliefs about one’s own career-related agency, but satory effects (Damian et al. 2015; Ng-Knight and Schoon not about career-related agency for most other people were 2017; Shanahan et al. 2014; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017). associated with career outcomes (Shane and Heckhausen The evidence so far is focused on the role of broad personal- 2013). In assessing “independent” effects, it has however to ity indicators (not discussed here), with some evidence also be considered that indicators of agency are already shaped being available regarding the role of intentions, expectations by socio-economic factors, and if the association between and values, which are summarized here. However, further them is substantial there is the potential of over-estimating evidence is needed to complete the picture (especially individual differences of youth that are partially due to SES- regarding the role of values and the relative importance and related advantages and class-specific socialization. possible interactions between different agency indicators). Cumulative Eec ff ts Independent Eec ff ts Cumulative processes reflect the fact that an advantaged Findings from research examining the predictive power of social position is associated with resources critical for fur- educational or occupational aspirations, self-efficacy and ther relative gains in position, such as high aspirations as self-regulation on outcomes such as educational and occu- well as access to financial, social and cultural resources that pational attainment show that major dimensions of agency provide advantages in negotiating socially structured transi- have a unique and significant contribution on attainment out- tion pathways, while a disadvantaged position comes with comes beyond the influence of cognitive ability and family accumulated detrimental effects of insufficient resources. socio-economic background (SES). For example, achieve- For example, young people from the most privileged back- ment goals, such as aspirations to participate in further and grounds tend to have higher levels of ambition than their less higher education or to enter a professional career are associ- privileged peers, while those from relatively disadvantaged ated with subsequent educational (Domina et al. 2011; Vil- backgrounds are facing greater difficulties when developing larreal et al. 2015; Reynolds and Johnson 2011) and occu- ambitious educational and career goals, because they tend to pational attainment, over and above the influence of social feel constrained by perceptions of limited opportunities and background and cognitive ability (Johnson and Reynolds resources (Eccles 2008; Schoon 2007). Their “horizon of 2013; Reynolds et al. 2007; Schoon and Polek 2011), as are perceived possibilities” is foreshortened, and thus they end subjective expectations of success (Ashby and Schoon 2010; up expressing lower educational and occupational aspira- Hitlin and Johnson 2015) and indicators of self-regulation tions and self-confidence than their more privileged peers and self-efficacy (Moffitt et al. 2011; Ng-Knight and Schoon (Duckworth and Schoon 2012; Eccles 2008; Mortimer 2003; 2017). Schoon 2012), and are more likely to believe that external causal factors (i.e. other people, luck or fate) influence their 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 143 success in society (Shane and Heckhausen 2013). Even after employment or training (NEET). Similar buffering effects taking into account early academic attainment, lower SES were observed for young people maintaining high levels of youth are less likely to achieve higher level academic quali- control perceptions in situations of family socio-economic fications and top-level jobs characterized by high pay, job adversity, although control perceptions could not provide security and autonomy, and are more likely to experience protection against long-term inactivity that is being more precarious employment (Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2016, than 6 months NEET (Ng-Knight and Schoon 2017). 2017). Thus, (dis)advantages tend to accumulate over the However, young people from higher socioeconomic status life course (DiPrete and Eirich 2006; Schoon et al. 2002) families were more likely to hold onto their high education favoring certain more-advantageous trajectories for upper expectations then their less privileged peers, and these more class individuals and other less advantageous trajectories persistent high expectations might help explain the greater for lower class individuals. Moreover, differences between success of young people from higher socioeconomic sta- individuals become amplified along a given transition path - tus backgrounds in earning a 4-year degree (Johnson and way, so that the outcomes are much more disparate than the Reynolds 2013). In addition, parental resources, in particular original states. parental education can buffer the effect of economic hard- ship, and in an interesting twist to the story there is evidence to suggest that the academic orientations of parents back Compensatory Eec ff ts when they had been adolescents themselves, appeared to be protecting their children from the risks of economic troubles Potential compensatory effects, also described by the term many years later (Mortimer et al. 2014). These findings drive “resource substitution” (Ross and Mirowsky 2006), refer to home the fact that individuals may react to the same situa- processes where one resource can substitute for another or tion in very different ways, that individuals tend to hang on can fill the gap if the other is absent. The “resource sub- to their hopes and dreams even in times of adversity unless stitution” hypothesis predicts the worst outcomes for those socio-economic conditions are overpowering their ability to with neither resource. Within compensatory effects, we can cope, or changing circumstances require them to change the differentiate whether overcoming a given adversity requires course of their action and the associated aspirations. only one dimension of agentic capacity (e.g., very high ambitions or very high self-regulatory skills) or multiple To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances can dimensions (e.g., high ambitions, high self-regulatory skills, Agency be Most Eec ff tive? high success expectations and high levels of self-efficacy). The former constellation is one of multiple sufficient causes Potential advantages of agency-related individual capacities whereas the latter is reflecting multiple necessary causes. vary across cultural contexts and appear to be especially Evidence regarding potential compensatory effects prevalent in societies with a relatively flexible transition of agency suggests a mixed picture and is not clear cut. system that allows for individual variations in paths to suc- Although findings within the UK context suggest that high cessful adult careers, as for example in the USA and the aspirations among relative disadvantaged students enable UK. In other more stratified societies, such as the German them to do better than their less ambitious peers from a system of early educational segregation into different school similar background (Schoon and Parsons 2002; Schoon and types and highly institutionalized vocational training, such Polek 2011; Schoon 2014), educational attainment is at least individual optimizations are less needed and less enabled as strong, if not a stronger predictor of career attainment (Evans 2002; Heckhausen and Chang 2009; Holtmann et al. than individual aspirations. This is especially the case for 2017). We thus have to ask, what are the characteristics of young people born in later cohorts, who made the school- a socio-structural framework that permit individual agency to-work transition after the expansion of higher education in to be effective and enable young people from disadvantaged the late 1980s (Duckworth and Schoon 2012; Schoon 2007, background to succeed? 2012). Compensatory effects of individual agency were evi- First, individual agency is not uniformly effective dent in studies examining the effect of the Great Recession throughout the life course. It is less needed when individuals on young people making the transition from school-to-work. move on well-buffered and institutionally regulated paths, When young people held onto a more positive outlook for i.e. during primary and secondary school, after having the future, their parents’ economic troubles posed less risk to decided for a study major (Heckhausen 2010; Heckhausen their socioeconomic functioning as young adults (Mortimer and Shane 2015), or when entering a well-supported voca- et al. 2014; Vuolo et al. 2012). Even among young people tional training program leading to relatively stable voca- growing up with unemployed parents (Schoon 2014), high tional careers. Individual agency is most needed at times levels of academic achievement orientations were associated of transition, when individuals leave a pre-structured path, with a reduction in the time spend not being in education, 1 3 144 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 such as at the end of compulsory schooling, when they enter risks are over-powering (Duckworth and Schoon  2012; a new path or field and are assuming new social roles. Ng-Knight and Schoon  2017).  Parents in higher social Second, there are crucial “windows of opportunity” positions generally have more access to financial, cultural when agency is most effective. These are related to the and social resources that enable them to support the aspi- appropriate age-related timing of transitions. For exam- rations of their offspring (Evans 2002; Shanahan 2000; ple, educational systems relying on strong and early-ability Schoon and Parsons 2002; Schoon 2010, 2012). There tracking tend to foreclose or open up subsequent educa- might however also be the danger of intergenerational path tional opportunities at the respective transition points. Due dependency, where young people feel pushed to pursue to the channeling of educational trajectories based on early the ambitions and aspirations of their parents and are not decisions, early manifestations of agency may potentially enabled to express or follow their own dreams and ambi- be more decisive than later ones (Buchmann and Steinho ff tions (Franceschelli et al. 2016). 2017). Moreover, engagement with a developmental goal Fifth, there is a potential “dark side” to high levels of can become urgent when facing rapidly declining oppor- agency beliefs. For example, there is evidence to suggest tunities (i.e., developmental deadlines; Heckhausen et al. that unrealistic ambitions can harm individuals by promot- 2010, 2019), such as access to stipends or funding for ing inappropriate persistence and overconfidence, which distinct educational or career openings. Once opportuni- in turn hinder performance and attainment (Armor and ties decline, required investments to achieve these goals Taylor 1998; Salmela-Aro 2017; Schoon and Lyons-Amos become too costly, and individuals need to disengage from 2017). This is particularly the case in situations where the obsolete or futile goals and refocus on goals that are still demands of the task are higher than individual capabili- attainable (Heckhausen et al. 2010). Sticking with unob- ties, or where agency beliefs are not matched to individual tainable goals can become maladaptive, especially when competencies. There are however also variations by socio- individuals persist despite repeated set-backs, feeling cultural context. For example, the less structured and more entrapped in a project that does not yield the anticipated permeable educational system of the USA provides better outcomes. This situation has been termed “action crisis” opportunities for highly ambitious students than the highly (Brandstätter and Herrmann 2016) describing the conflict structured education system in Germany, where educa- of being torn between holding on giving up a specific goal. tional aspirations need to be closely calibrated to one’s Third, agency is facilitated in conditions where the action social status and prior school achievement (Heckhausen field is more permeable, i.e. the boundaries between dif - and Chang 2009). ferent tracks or path are not too strict and it is possible to change between tracks. Ideally such permeability could be facilitated by the building of bridges and flexibility in chang- ing track (Heckhausen 2010; Heckhausen and Shane 2015; Conclusion Schoon 2015). This would be the case in institutions that enable change between educational or occupational tracks, Integrating assumptions developed in life course sociology not only at the beginning but also at multiple crossover and life span psychology, this paper presents an integra- points. As we have described previously, in some countries, tive socio-ecological developmental model for studying such as Germany, students can become “locked” into tracks the interplay of structure and agency in the transition from offering different learning opportunities and subsequent school-to-work. Agency cannot be comprehensively concep- differential path-dependent career chances. Although these tualized as a sheer individual level construct, nor as the mere pathways facilitate a smooth transition from school to work, reproduction of existing social structures. The manifestation there can be the danger that being locked into a rigid and of agency is a relational and intentional process that emerges inflexible system can undermine individual agency, in par - through person-context interactions over time and in con- ticular via detrimental effects on self-concepts and control text. The development and realization of individual agency beliefs (Chmielewski et al. 2013; Dumont et al. 2017; Marsh is shaped by social structures and networks that constrain, et al. 2007; Steinhoff and Buchmann 2017). In contrast, in extend, and also enable the formation of new expressions of countries with more flexible and permeable transition sys- agency. In their transition from school to work young people tems, such as the UK or the US, high levels of agency are carve their pathways based on the competencies, resources, required to navigate a complex action field (Evans 2002 ; and structural opportunities they perceive to be available to Heckhausen and Chang 2009). them. They have to develop and specify their intentions and Fourth, access to socio-economic resources, which in translate them into action in order to pursue and achieve, turn is shaped by social background, determines the extent or revise them, in a given social context. Individual agency to which agency can be mobilized and realized. Agency can to some limited extent compensate the consequences is less effective in situations where the socio-economic and experience of socio-economic adversity. Yet, individuals 1 3 Adolescent Research Review (2019) 4:135–148 145 Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. 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