Elina Marttinen wants to find out why the youngsters are so lost

Mental health symptoms among young people have increased. This Research Pitching Competition 2018 finalist, researcher and psychologist Elina Marttinen from University of Helsinki* thinks identity formation should be studied further so we can find out why the youngsters are so lost.


Your research strives to understand young people’s identity building process. Why is this important right now?

The changes in our society such as increased wealth, longer education and multiple career options challenge the way in which young people construct their identities. Young people aren’t feeling well and “being lost” is a common experience for many. More psychological knowledge and skills are required from adolescents and young adults to individually construct a stable and viable identity and negotiate their passage into adulthood by setting goals, exploring different identity alternatives and committing to a certain life path. If we have more knowledge about how identity is formed, it can be taken into account in society, educational institutions and organisations. We need to know more so that we can make improvements on a societal level.

In this competition we look for research ideas that bring something new to the table. What is new about your idea?

Even though identity has been researched for decades, we still don’t know all the factors affecting the formation of identity. Also in my research idea, I suggest we ask young people about their experiences and feelings more often. Earlier research has been based in interviews made once a year or once a month. Now identity research is moving to everyday-level. We learn so much more about identity formation when we ask if someone is feeling the same today as they did yesterday.

What made you want to step on stage at Slush and pitch your work?

Because of the audience. I’m quite sure there are many young people in the audience who have been wondering these same things. Who am I, where am I going and where is this whole world heading to? This kind of rumination isn’t yet the kind of thing you talk in coffee table. I wan’t young people to understand that identity search is part of this time we live in. We know that forty percent of 23-year-old people have experienced confusion in their identity – we are not talking about margins anymore. We are talking about big, societal issues.

What got you interested in psychology in the first place?

It happened during my year as an exchange student in New Zealand. I was in high school and wanted to go as far as possible from Finland to do some soul searching. In New Zealand I saw that people can have such different starting points and ways of living. That’s when the human mind started to intrigue me.

Elina's wild idea:

Today’s world of work demands self-navigating, engaged and committed agentic young people and at the same time this world lays out uncertainty, fragmentary careers and multiple pressures. Identity formation is the key element in both sustaining mental health and enhancing career development among young people. Identity development and its predictors and outcomes needs to be researched more intensively in order to gain more understanding on what is happening with our youth and young adults. We need more understanding of several different age groups, across essential developmental transitions such as educational and work career transitions. Developmental psychological research on daily experiences as well as long term development across the educational and career transitions is still lacking both in Finnish as well as global perspective. So far, several large Finnish and European data sets include developmental psychology data on identity formation and I am applying now funding to investigate in these data sets on identity formation and its predictors and outcomes. The results will enlighten significant insight for individuals, organisations as well as the whole society.

*Elina currently works as a researcher at both University of Helsinki and University of Jyväskylä.