Lifetime Accumulation of Stress and Disadvantage

In conducting research on pathways into adulthood, as described in the preceding section, questions naturally arise about the prior family and personal situations to which both positive and negative young adult experiences are undoubtedly linked. For this reason, developmental frameworks that incorporate attention to environments at different points in the life course and processes of selection into and adaptation within those environments offer a compelling set of conceptual foci and methodological tools for longitudinal analysis. Within this general orientation, however, we must specify the nature of the social forces and individual actions that drive the direction of change and mental health over this period.

Our second focus concerns the study of cumulative advantage/disadvantage, which Dannefer defines as "the systematic tendency for interindividual divergence in a given characteristic (e.g., money, health, or status) with the passage of time" (Dannefer, 2003:S324). Although closely associated with the study of individual and cohort aging, an important point of departure within our field is the sociological conceptualization of the structural origins of mental health problems (Aneshensel, Rutter & Lachenbruch, 1991). This has been modeled in terms of the stresses that are embedded in the contexts of daily life, as emphasized in the Pearlin formulation of social stress theory (Pearlin, Lieberman, Menaghan, & Mullan, 1981) or through restricted access to economic, interpersonal and political resources that might alter exposure to stress and broader sociogenesis of ill health (Link & Phelan, 1995). Research in the field of social stress, for example, has addressed mental health disparities associated with socioeconomic factors and racial/ethnic group memberships and documented that cumulative stress exposure, including recent stressful events and longstanding or chronic stressors are implicated in these differentials (Turner & Avison, 2003; Turner & Lloyd, 1999). The explanatory potential of these stressors is not surprising. Stressors include significant aspects of disadvantage in work settings, threatening economic and legal stresses, problems in relationships, exposure to violence and other events that are socio-economically linked. This is important evidence that cumulative processes of disadvantage are implicated in the social stratification of mental health.

A contrasting but complementary approach that takes a life course focus seeks to understand the risks that are rooted in key developmental periods, and the unfolding of disorder as young people move from childhood to adulthood. Whereas the studies of stress we have just described examine mental health over the young adult's lifetime, this approach examines mental health over the young adult's life course. There is good reason to take this latter approach. We mentioned earlier the findings from the National Comorbidity Study concerning the high rates of disorder among young adults and the early onset nature of these disorders (Kessler et al., 1994). The research conducted by Newman and associates with a Dunedin, New Zealand sample also suggests that the prior functioning of individuals in the adolescent period may be implicated in the rates of distress and disorder evidenced among young adults. Nearly half of their sample was diagnosed with 2 or more disorders at age 21, and rates of disorder significantly increased between the ages of 13 and 15, and again between the ages of 15 and 18 (Newman et al., 1996).

Due to the importance of the adolescent period, structural perspectives on the consequences of disadvantage for the pathways into adulthood have emphasized the multiple links between family economic stress and multiple aspects of adolescent functioning. Whether disadvantage is measured at the level of the family or its neighborhood context, extensive evidence indicates that these family conditions are causally linked with child and adolescent internalizing and externalizing mental health problems and that this relationship is mediated by unsupportive and punitive socialization practices within the family environment (Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1992; McLeod & Shanahan, 1993; Wheaton & Clarke, 2003). Importantly, this line of research illustrates the life course principle of linked lives, which is the embeddedness of individuals within interpersonal contexts over the life course (Elder, 1995).

In particular, studies focusing on specific types of events, such as violence exposures (Macmillan, 2001) reveal the traumatic nature of some stress exposures in the lives of the disadvantaged, and document the role of severe stress in curtailed education. Macmillan and Hagan (2004), for example, have examined the impact of an adolescent victimization on young adult socioeconomic attainment and found reductions in educational advancement that are mediated through the impact of violence on self perceptions of efficacy. In addition, experiencing victimization during adolescence is not a random event. Young people growing up in poverty have an elevated risk of experiencing violence, among other traumatic events including homelessness (McLoyd, 1998). Thus, events during adolescence which are severe and traumatic play an important role in our understanding of cumulative stress processes and the role of stratification in mental health processes linking generations.

Social Structure and the Social Embeddedness of Agency

To this point we have begun to make the case that cumulative lifetime social stress can be re-framed as a problem of cumulative life course disadvantage, a shift that serves to emphasize the underlying processes of stratification that govern the accumulation of stress and pathways into adulthood that diverge both in resources and well being (Dannefer, 2003; Kerckhoff, 1993). However, life course perspectives recognize that processes of individual action or agency are also at play, as evidenced in extensive evidence on the role of individual characteristics and behavior in selecting into environments and shaping stressful interpersonal relations (Caspi, Henry, McGee, Moffitt, & Silva, 1995; Caspi, Moffitt, Wright, & Silva, 1998; Hammen, 1991; Quinton, Pickles, Maughan & Rutter, 1993; Ronka & Pulkkinen, 1995). One such problem that can be viewed as a selection process in transition to adulthood is the role of an early onset psychiatric disorder in shaping the subsequent developmental pathways. Findings from the NCS have documented that early onset disorder predicts to failure to complete high school and/or college (Kessler, Foster, Saunders, & Stang, 1995). More extensive research has linked the escalation and exacerbation of conduct problems through adolescence and early adulthood to a childhood onset of antisocial behavior. The issue here is not the simple continuity of disorder across developmental periods but its exacerbation through multiple domains of role functioning which ultimately depletes motivation and opportunities for developing skills and forging supportive ties (Aguilar, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 2000; Moffitt, Caspi, Harrington, & Milne, 2002). Alcohol abuse, in particular, may serve to lock-in a pattern of antisocial behavior that prohibits any tendency toward reduction in conduct problems and offending that might other wise occur (Roisman, Aguilar & Egeland, 2004).

Research that establishes a strong association between prior and future disorder has not generally been of theoretical interest to sociologists because it suggests that the disease process within the individual drives social change, that is, that unwell individuals select into the environments that have fewer resources and are less optimal for development. This view would seem to be in conflict with the paradigm of structural causation that informs most sociological research and is prominently reflected more generally in developmental studies emphasizing the abilities and capacities of individuals that are generally adaptive or maladaptive. Clausen (1991) for example, has linked the idea of individual agency—individual effort and decision that shape one's own development—to the construct of planful competence or self-efficacy. He argues that the wide range of options available to young people as they exit adolescence calls for realistic goal setting and that this is likely to occur among individuals who are responsible (as opposed to rebellious), oriented toward self examination and self confident (as opposed to victimized in one's stance). Analyses emphasizing the predictive importance of these traits establish their significant impact on young adult educational and occupational attainment, marital stability and (reduced) stress exposure.

There are, however, important alternative perspectives on the role of intra-individual characteristics in cumulative stress processes. For example, the core of mental health research on the positive association between socioeconomic status and the individual's sense of control emphasizes the role of distal childhood socialization and more current life contexts in shaping individual self appraisals of this nature (Mirowsky & Ross, 2003; Wheaton, 1978). Evidence that links individual outlook and coping-related capacities to the social structure and processes of inequality is important for understanding why there is a low likelihood for change in the life situations of young people who have a history of delinquent and antisocial behavior. We have noted that one prominent explanation is that a cumulative deficit in skills and motivation ultimately functions to close doors that might have been open. However, for sociologists who are concerned with social stratification of pathways into adulthood, these models of risk accumulation overemphasize the dimension of personal responsibility (Laub & Sampson, 1993). For this reason, Shanahan and Hood (2002) have conceptualized agency as bounded, indicating that there are varying opportunities made available to subgroups of youth for a successful pathway into adulthood and that agency must be understood in relation to the opportunity context. A striking and well known illustration of this point is seen in Elder's research on the differences between two age cohorts in surmounting a background of family disadvantage during the Great Depression (Elder, 1974). The somewhat older men in the Oakland subsample were of age to seek employment to help support their families. In doing so, they escaped the often harsh confines of their economically stressed families and later used army service as a springboard for educational and employment opportunities made available after the war. In this way, historical events enhanced economic opportunity for the Oakland men, which was not the case for those in the younger Berkeley age cohort. Each cohort, then, embarked on the life course with different possibilities for the exercise of agency.

It is interesting to note that both Elder and Clausen conducted their analyses using the archival Oakland Growth/Berkeley Guidance data. Thus, we may conclude that interest in the limiting power of structure or the personal sense of agency is a matter of emphasis. However, more recent studies establish the choice of emphasis might best be linked to the process being investigated. We noted earlier that NLSY data indicate that for a 1990's cohort of young adults, the sense of personal control increases between the ages of 14 and 22 (Lewis et al., 1999: 1594). The investigators further established that growth in sense of control was muted for young people who dropped out of high school and that strength of control perceptions had little impact on their staying in high school. Thus, the investigators conclude that in this case the "realities of social status shape beliefs [about the self], rather than the beliefs determining the status gained."

Overall, it is safe to say that the dynamics through which the weakened bonds and continuity of disadvantage occurs involve both social structural constraints on opportunity as well as intra-individual capacities and self defeating action. Quite apart from questions about the evidence, we also think it important that investigations of young adult mental health have sparked renewed sociological interest in the concept of agency and its structural contexts. In addition, these lines of study have forged heretofore nonexistent connections between the research on criminal desistance conducted by criminologists in our field and the mental health investigations that have not been as focused on high risk young adults.

We now address the final theme that is regularly discussed in research involving young adults, namely the potential for change in life direction and its mental health impact.

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