The Kids Are Alright

Contrary to popular belief, this generation of Americans is among the most well behaved and law abiding in decades, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by the Washington Post:

In absolute terms, arrests (like crime) are as expected consistently concentrated among the young at each historical time point. But surprisingly, the drop in the arrest rate over time is entirely accounted for by the current generation of young adults, who are busted 23 percent less frequently than prior generations were at their age. Remarkably, despite the national drop in overall crime and arrest rates, the arrest rate among older Americans is higher than it was 20 years ago. This holds for adults ages 40 to 54 (a 9 percent increase) and even more so for adults age 55 and older (a 12 percent increase). The baby boomers, who drove the American crime explosion in their youth, are apparently continuing to outdo prior generations in their late-life criminality.

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…Presuming that like prior generations millennials carry their crime-related habits forward as they age, the country could soon see an acceleration of the recent trend toward reduced incarceration as millennials replace their more crime-prone elders in the population.

Meanwhile, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1991, has found a marked decline in various other social ills that were once prevalent among past generations generations of youth  — including the often Millennial-bashing boomers. Vox.com sums up the data thusly: “today’s teens smoke less, drink less, and have sex less than the previous generation. They are, comparatively, a mild-mannered bunch…”

Indeed, only 10.8 percent of teens smoke cigarettes, compared to nearly a third in the 1990; they are 46 percent less likely to binge drink alcohol compared to teens twenty years ago, and 21 percent less likely to have even tried alcohol; and only 2.3 percent of teenage girls become pregnant, compared to more than double the percentage ten years ago. They are also less likely to bring weapons to class, get into a physical fight, contemplate suicide, to forget to put on their seatbelt.

Yet despite such relative timidity and good behavior, today’s youth are commonly perceived to be among the most rambunctious, self indulgent and ill disciplined of any generation in American history. For example, teen pregnancy is widely perceived to be on the rise when it has in fact declined to historic lows. And I imagine most readers are familiar with the regular barrage of articles, opinion pieces, memes, and social media rants about the various alleged improprieties of teens and college students.

To be sure, it is not as if young people are without faults — no generation, young or old, past or present, has been perfect. But by and large the kids are alright, and whatever real or imagined moral or social failings they display must be looked at in the larger historical context: younger generations have always been overly scrutinized by their elders, and have always developed or embraced new ideas, habits, and lifestyles that cause some measure of anxiety and apprehension among the older folks who are unfamiliar with them. I think social media has gone a long way towards amplifying the extent to which isolated but ultimately mundane instances of misbehavior are occurring.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

The Problem With Early School Days

The vast majority of public schools in the U.S. start earlier than 8:30 a.m. Like most American students, I took this as a given, albeit begrudgingly — we all struggled to get up and get focused for school, and it only got harder with each passing year. Naturally, many people chalk this up to the laziness and entitlement of adolescence. But mounting scientific research is finding that getting up really early, and being thrown into a cognitively-intensive bloc schedule, is bad for both the health and education of youth. Various leading public health authorities are urging an end to this practice. Continue reading

The System is Against Millennials

Millennials are endlessly criticized as lazy, self entitled, and narcissistic. But as Steven Rattner makes soberingly clear in a 2015 New York Times article, young Americans are among the most hapless generations in a century, due more to the economic system they have inherited than to flaws of character and work ethic.

Americans between 18 and 34 are earning less today (after adjustment for inflation) than the same age group did in the past. A typical millennial averaged earnings of $33,883 (in 2013 dollars) between 2009 and 2013. That was down 9.3 percent (after adjustment for inflation) in just a decade and is the lowest since 1980. Older Americans have fared considerably better; earnings of all full-time workers were roughly flat between 2000 and 2011.

Still more striking is that millennials have endured falling earnings even though they have attended college in record numbers.

I think the visual data speak louder than words:

Millennial Suffering IMillennial Suffering IIIMillennial Suffering IV

A major reason is the recession. Those who graduate in weaker economic times typically earn less than those who enter the work force during more robust periods. Starting behind often means never catching up.

Millennials who didn’t attend college have found their wages particularly squeezed, perhaps because of the decline of middle-skilled jobs in sectors like manufacturing, a clear consequence of globalization.

The wealth of millennials has been hit even harder than their incomes. Their median net worth was just $10,400 as of 2013, down 43 percent from the $18,200 that Gen Xers had in 1995 when they were under 35. With incomes squeezed, millennials are not only not saving much; they are dipping into whatever savings they do have.

That’s worrisome when combined with weak incomes and low net worths. Millennials also participate less frequently in 401(k) plans and, scarred by the recession, invest less and keep more than half their money in cash — not a great long-term strategy.

Another huge drag on the finances of younger Americans is the mountain of student debt that has been piled up in recent years. Members of this year’s graduating class left their campuses owing an average of $35,051, about twice the levels borne by their counterparts two decades earlier (after adjusting for inflation).

Indeed, as a college education becomes increasingly necessary to acquire a relatively better job, average tuition has risen by an incredible 234 percent since 1993, compared to an overall inflation rate of 63 percent. With all that debt and little income to show for it, it is no surprise that car and home ownership — once considered the staples of the middle class — are subsequently down as well.

While part of this trend can be attributed to changing tastes — for all the talk of their wanton materialism, young people today seem indifferent to acquiring luxuries — one has to wonder if such wariness of big purchases has been shaped by necessity. More to the point: young people are also holding off on marrying and having children, which are also expensive endeavors.

Most of these problems could be resolved by simply increasing the earning power of young people (and for that matter, most Americans). But that would require either government mandate, the initiative and goodwill of employers, or labor action on the part of workers. I wonder which, if any, will come first? All I know is that something will have to give, as tens of millions of young people around the world face an uncertain, unnerving, and unsustainable future.

Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading

African Century

According to the U.N., Africa’s population is projected to quadruple to over 4.4. billion people by 2100. By then, the total number of people in the world is estimated to be around 11 billion, meaning that Africa alone will account for over a third of the global population and almost all of the new population growth over the next century.

As The Economist points out, this staggeringly high growth rate — contrasted with stagnating, if not declining, populations almost everywhere else  — will have tremendous implications for both the continent and the world at large. Continue reading

Young People Aren’t Partying Like They Used To

Like many people in my early college years, I enjoyed the quintessential house party experience. But as I approach my early thirties, I find my interest in these big social events waning. Indeed, I am not alone in this: an ever fewer number of my peers are bothering to host parties, opting for limited and low-key social gatherings and hang outs. The few parties I manage to show up to typically end up with a shortfall in attendance, and those who do arrive come late, leave early, or both.

Now there is nothing wrong with this trend, especially insofar as it involves folks like myself who are getting older and therefore busier and more tired. But it is interesting to consider what other forces may be at work here, as the New York Times does with its piece on “The Death of the Party”.

First, the statistics:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of hours per day 15- to 24-year-olds spent attending or hosting social events on weekends or holidays — the times they are most likely to go to parties — declined sharply from 2003 to 2014 to nine minutes from 15. (That may not seem like much, but consider that this is the average of all those who fit the demographic.) The percentage who participated in these activities dropped to 4.1 from 7.1 over the same span.

Their tame night lives began in high school. According to a nationwide annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, the time high school seniors devoted to partying has slid dramatically over the decades. Except for a few years, the number of homebodies who never attended parties as high school seniors has steadily increased, to 41.3 percent in 2014 from 11.6 percent in 1987, and it’s accelerated in the new millennium, more than doubling since 2001. Over a third of Gen X high schoolers fought for their right to party at the tail end of the Reagan administration, spending more than six hours per week at gatherings; just 10.7 percent of the most recent Obama-era high school seniors did.

So my observation is not merely anecdotal: young people are in fact partying less than previous generations. But this is happening even among people half my age, e.g. in their prime for social gatherings and extroversion. What accounts for this? Naturally, the initial culprits involve technology — namely the Internet, social media, and smartphones — which together have influenced the way we interact and socialize. Continue reading

Young People Have a Harder Time Losing Weight

As if the Millennial generation didn’t have enough going against — from poorer job prospects to more expensive education — a recent study reported in The Atlantic has found that young people in the 21st century are less likely to lose or maintain weight than previous generations — even when they eat and exercise the same.

The authors examined the dietary data of 36,400 Americans between 1971 and 2008 and the physical activity data of 14,419 people between 1988 and 2006. They grouped the data sets together by the amount of food and activity, age, and BMI.

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.”

Note that the study utilized Body Mass Index (BMI), the accuracy of which is questionable. But if the findings are true, it has some pretty big implications about how much our social, dietary, and physical environments have changed, and what impact that is having on human health.

While the researchers are pretty cautious about what exactly accounts for this generational disparity, they mention three likely culprits.

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the ’70s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.

I would also add that the high rates of anxiety and depression resulting from tougher economic times probably play a role, too; stress and sleeplessness are well documented contributors to weight gain, and a large proportion of young people report chronically experiencing these problems.

As in so many other studies about the causes of weight gain, it appears that the contributing factors are complex and poorly understood, involving a confluence of hormonal, dietary, and environmental influences we are just starting to understand. Hence why the study cautions about the prevailing negative attitude towards the physically unfit.

The fact that the body weights of Americans today are influenced by factors beyond their control is a sign, Kuk says, that society should be kinder to people of all body types.

“There’s a huge weight bias against people with obesity”, she said. “They’re judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That’s really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.

As someone who has endured a lifelong struggle to maintain a healthy weight, I never really considered whether or not my difficulties were part of a larger generational milleui. Being fit and healthy was always supposed to be a difficult endeavor, not least because it runs somewhat contrary to our biology (humans evolved to store fat at all costs, for example). But what happens when humans struggle to adapt to totally new diets and conditions? Our species is already taller and larger in overall mass than it was just a couple of centuries ago; how different will physically be another century or two from now?

What are your thoughts?

Most Young Homeowners Have Rich Parents

Yet another big indication of America’s declining social mobility is the fact that most young people who are financially well-off are simply those already born into stable and prosperous circumstances. As The Atlantic points out, the majority of Millennials who enjoy the rare benefits of homeownership, higher education without crushing debt, or ample savings owe such prosperous standing to their parents and families.

To start with, most of those who continue their education after high school have families that are able to help financially. A recent report from the real-estate research company Zillow looked at Federal Reserve Board data on young adults aged 23-34 and found that of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.

And yet, even with this help, the average student with loans at a four-year college graduates with about $26,000 in student-loan debt. Millennials who are lucky enough to have some, or all, of a college tuition’s burden reduced by their parents have a leg up on peers who are saddled with student debt, and they’ll be able to more quickly move out on their own, and maybe even buy their own house.

To be sure, there is no shame in getting help from one’s family. But it is important to acknowledge one’s fortuitous circumstances, and the contributions of others — from loved ones to society as a whole — that helped make it happen.  Continue reading