Perceptions of Present, Ideal, and Future Lives among Chinese Adolescents Experiencing Economic Disadvantage

By Shek, Daniel T. L.; Lam, Mong-Chow et al. | Adolescence, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Present, Ideal, and Future Lives among Chinese Adolescents Experiencing Economic Disadvantage


Shek, Daniel T. L., Lam, Mong-Chow, Lam, Ching-Man, Tang, Vera, Adolescence


Despite the growing problem of poverty in the global context, there has been little research on adolescents experiencing economic disadvantage. As Jessor (1993) commented, "neither research nor theory in the adolescent field has had much to say about young people growing up in poverty" (p. 118).

Lener and Galambos (1998) suggested that personal factors, such as aspirations and perceptions of the future, are important protective factors for poor adolescents. Positive evaluation of one's life has also been regarded as a factor that helps adolescents cope with adversity (Hauser, 1999; Smith & Carlson, 1997). Nonetheless, there have been few empirical studies of the aspirations and perceptions of present, ideal, and future lives among poor adolescents. Present life refers to the life as experienced at the moment. Research has shown that those with adjustment problems tend to see their lives as meaningless (Frankl, 1966, 1967) or in a negative manner (Beck, 1987). Ideal life refers to the life that one wishes to live, including life goals (things that one wishes to attain), ideal careers, and ideal forms of living. Finally, future life refers to anticipation of what will happen and one's related feelings. The views of poor adolescents on these three aspects of their lives are relevant to their resilience.

A review of the literature shows that perceptions of present, ideal, and future lives among adolescents have been examined in quantitative studies. In their study of the present life of adolescents with and without economic disadvantage, Dew and Huebner (1994) found that adolescents of low socioeconomic status (i.e., those who were qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches) reported lower life satisfaction. Ash and Huebner (2001) reported similar findings.

Regarding the ideal lives of adolescents, some quantitative findings have been reported. In the area of life goals, Easterlin and Crimmins (1988) found that the importance of making money for high school seniors increased but the importance of finding purpose and meaning in life decreased between 1976 and 1986. Concerning the area of ideal careers, Rojewski and Hill (1998) found that adolescents aspired to high prestige occupations (i.e., requiring a college education for initial entry), and the most frequently mentioned occupation was doctor. Easterlin and Crimmins (1988) found that the job characteristics preferred by high school seniors included: "earn a good deal of money," "high status and prestige," and "promotion chances good." In the area of ideal life, York-Barr and Paulsen (1996) found that the attributes of a happy and successful life for adolescents included: people (usually with specific mention of partner and children), a job of high quality (e.g., an area of personal interest, providing the opportunity to contribute to others, and generally being meaningful and enjoyable), and sufficient income.

Finally, some quantitative studies have been conducted to explore the anticipation of future life among adolescents with or without economic disadvantage. Lamm, Schmidt, and Trommsdorff (1976) found that middle-class adolescents were more optimistic about their distant future in the public subdomains than were lower-class adolescents. In Normi's (1989) study, adolescents from a high socioeconomic background anticipated a greater likelihood of realizing their hopes than did adolescents from a low socioeconomic background. Sun and Fogg (1991) found that poor adolescents perceived their educational attainment less optimistically than did adolescents from mid-upper income families. A study by McCabe and Barnett (2000) found that low-income African American adolescents perceived their future careers optimistically.

In contrast to the above quantitative studies, a survey of the literature shows that very few qualitative studies have investigated the perceptions of present, ideal, and future lives of adolescents experiencing economic disadvantage, although there are some qualitative studies of adolescents in the general population. …

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