1 Growing up in a
State of Extremes
The creation of adolescence as an age-based pathological condition contributes to the masking of factors that contribute to threats to health in a highly differentiated, complex society... racism, the juvenilization of poverty, underemployment, inadequate education, and declining per-capita resources for dependent children and youth... Subsequently, a largely unsubstantiated theoretical position explains excess adolescent morbidity and mortality by “risk taking.”
--Robert F. Hill, J. Dennis Fortenberry (1992). Adolescence as a culture-bound syndrome. Social Science and Medicine, 35, 78.
In California, all the rules must be laid aside.
This book is about a remarkable population of youth, the world’s most diverse and dynamic, who they are, and how they got that way. It is also about a state and nation reacting with fear and hostility to emerging generations based on false panics, crass political opportunism, appalling institutional exploitation, and some of the worst academic junk since social Darwinism--to the point that California’s and America’s future is needlessly endangered as never before.
California youth are the leading edge both of what is most promising in reality and what older generations think is most wrong with society. Today’s California young are the first population to have major respresentations--in the hundreds of thousands each--from all four inhabited continents. That growing diversity, foretelling the state and country’s transition away from its long-standing European white majority to all-minority status, has terrified older Americans (conservatives and liberals alike) to the point that rational discussion of young people today is increasingly impossible.
Fear of the young and the future they portend is the main factor driving rising political reaction. American social and health policy, already the most deficient in the Western world, is in shambles, uncannily fixating on exactly the wrong issues based on assumptions that consistently are the opposite of reality. Leading experts can’t even accurately describe what’s going on. For examples, it is axiomatic among top social scientists and policy makers of all stripes that young people (particularly young people of color) constitute the nation’s fastest-rising drug, crime, violence, and prison populations. In fact, 30 years of public health and crime statistics show these risks are declining among youth but rising fastest among middle-aged whites, with drug abuse among older age groups the worst our country has ever experienced. August experts declare HIV and sexual risk-taking is becoming “younger and younger.” Federal and state health statistics show HIV is declining among the young; it is 30-to-60-agers who suffer the fastest rising HIV infection rates. Alcohol control officials pronounce high schoolers at deadly risk from drunk driving and overdrinking. In fact, their own statistics show 40 year-olds are much more dangerous with alcohol, both in terms of causing deadly drunken crashes and dying from “binge drinking,” than 17 year-olds are. Educators scoff that students today are more academically challenged than ever; their own tests show students today, though going to worse schools, are more academically talented than those of the past. Mental health authorities declare young people more suicidal and depressed, yet their own statistics show youth today have the lowest suicide rates of any on record and report higher rates of self esteem than their parents did. Sex educators and abstinence promoters alike insist epidemics of risky sex, “teen pregnancy,” and sexually transmitted diseases are sweeping the youth population, even in junior high years. Public health figures show that young people’s pregnancy, abortion, birth, and disease rates, especially at junior high ages, have plummeted, most to record lows. Crime officials declare “youth violence” and crime, driven by blood-soaked media and teen risk-taking are soaring to unheard-of heights. Meanwhile, three decades of FBI and state crime statistics show crime and violence among youth, especially rape and murder, plunging to record lows, and where crime by youths is serious, poverty is the biggest factor. Liberals insist youths are being sentenced by adult courts to prisons in skyrocketing numbers. State prison statistics show that never have fewer youth been sentenced by adult courts or incarcerated in either youth or adult prisons. Conservatives preach that violence in public schools, everything from shootings to shakedowns, is out of control. The best surveys and studies show it has never been rarer; a youth is in far more danger of being murdered by family adults at home than by peers at school.
At every critical juncture, America’s best social scientists, policy makers, institutional authorities, and media reporters are not just off base in their most fundamental statements, but pronouncing the opposite of reality. No wonder the United States ranks worst--usually by far the worst--among all Western nations in murder, gun violence, HIV infection, imprisonment, drug abuse deaths, alcohol-related deaths, homelessness, infant mortality, broken-up families, obesity, wealth concentration, poverty, and a host of other destructive social ills other affluent countries have long since ameliorated.
How has this happened? As will be relentlessly documented in this book, rising fear of increasingly diverse youth generations, led by California’s, has produced massive panic among aging America--the same aging America whose own disarray is really responsible for the country’s worst and fastest growing social problems. Because politicians and institutions quail from identifying powerful middle-aged, Baby Boom constituencies with social crises, scapegoats are frantically trotted out. Youth--especially in urban areas and states where the youth population is most nonwhite--have been the biggest target. Thus, as youth problems have continued to decline and middle-aged Boomer problems have skyrocketed, institutions and the media that publish anything they dispense have careened into ever wilder falsifications and fantasy scenarios. In tandem, American social policy is heavily privatized, making publicity over what constitutes a social problem and its solution resemble commercial advertising rather than science. Much of what passes for social- issue--and especially, youth-issue--discussion in America’s news media and institutional forums is simply a joke. It would be silly if not so serious in its consequences for the fabric of our society and its future.
We begin with a modern panic over youth that was simply made up out of thin air by a couple of extremists, then spread by the country’s most educated, qualified, and powerful authorities far and wide, demeaning the image of younger people and feeding increasingly absurd and repressive policies. Unfortunately, it illustrates the rule rather than the exception in Americans’ formation of views about young people and what to do about their behaviors.
For more than a decade, beginning in the mid-1980s, a list of the supposed “top problems of public schools in 1940” compared to a sensational list of those of public schools of the 1980s and 1990s was widely circulated in the U.S. press, quoted by politicians of both major parties, and worshipfully cited by institutional and activist lobbies across the spectrum as illustrating the frightening deterioration of America’s youth.
The 1940 list stated that the worst school problems were: 1, talking; 2. chewing gum; 3. making noise; 4. running in the halls; 5. getting out of turn in line; 6. wearing improper clothing; 7. not putting paper in wastebaskets. In the 1980s list, the top problems had become: 1. drug abuse; 2. alcohol abuse; 3. pregnancy; 4. suicide; 5. rape; 6. robbery; 7. assault.
The list received explosive attention. President Bush Sr’s education secretary, William Bennett repeated them constantly in television talks, editorials, books, and speeches to promote his “The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.” So did religious conservatives and right wing commentators such as George Will, Rush Limbaugh, and US News & World Report publisher Mortimer Zuckerman to criticize public education and promote private schools. Liberal pundits such as Anna Quindlen, Herb Caen and Carl Rowan included the lists in their columns to push their own social issues, as did top educators such as former Harvard president Derek Bok, former New York City schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez, and the California Department of Education’s program administrator Mary Weaver. Politicians, such as former California Governor George Dukmeijan, former Democratic Senator John Glenn, former presidential candidate Ross Perot, and former President Clinton’s surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders (among many other luminaries) likewise used the list to promote their pet causes; Congressional Researcher even cited it. The news media went wild. The New York Times printed the list five times, and the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CBS News, Harper’s magazine, a famous 1989 documentary on child criminals narrated in shocked tones by actor Tom Selleck, and other major outlets referred to it repeatedly as fact.
The lists “have become the most quoted ‘results’ of educational research, and possibly the most influential,” declared New York Times Magazine writer Barry O’Neill (1994), even though they were a hoax. His exhaustive research found the list was made up from the musings of a troubled Texas socialite turned religious zealot, T. Cullen Davis, who created them as a fundamentalist attack on public schools. There was no research, no science, no fact involved; it was simply a rant. “How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940?” Davis declared of the two lists. “I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the newspapers.”
As will be shown later, those who are “there” in public schools today report general calm (surveys of 1980s and ‘90s teachers and students repeatedly show crowded classrooms, administrative issues, tardiness, and lack of funding, not violence or drugs, are the big issues). Similarly, the “newspapers” of the 1940 era report sensational drugs and violence scares in schools of that day, much as they do now, so that one could easily devise an opposite set of lists proving how much calmer classrooms are now.
But the faultiness of Davis’s “methodology” is not at question here; he was simply rendering his opinion. The real question is: how could thousands of America’s major authorities in youth, social science, education, government, and the media--the leaders who form our opinions about the state of young people--be duped by such primitive silliness for years? For such a comparison is absurd on its face. The top school problem of 1940 was that half of all American youths were not even in school!
The answer, as O’Neill points out, is that those who put the list to their own uses wanted to believe it. “If there was any hoaxing, it was users hoaxing themselves,” he puzzled. Not only did top authorities cite the list without question, they repeatedly changed and embellished it to fit whatever caprices seemed timely and best fit their own causes. When polls showed the public thought drugs were the worst problem, “drugs” went to the top of the modern list of “school problems;” “bombings” appeared briefly on the list when a press splash dealt with that topic; and the date of the modern list moved forward, from Cullen’s 1982 to later users’ date of 1990 or later, to keep it fresh. It was cited by author Ed Humes in his popular, award-winning book on the juvenile justice system in 1996, long after the lists were shown to be a myth, and it is still cited today.
The eagerness of a large variety of American grownups and interest groups to believe, publicize, and base policy on the most absurd, derogatory libel of modern youths--without even checking its accuracy, and even exaggerating them as needed--is deeply disturbing. It is also routine. Its implications are that standard methods of sociological inquiry, including reliance on official and expert sources, are too unreliable to trust in the study of teenagers.
The impossible sociology
Adolescents are difficult to study in the United States because modern American adults--probably more than any other grownups in any era or locale--dislike teenagers so intensely. American academics, professionals, and news reporters, like the public, seem unable to separate their transparent anger and condescension toward adolescents from the needs of research and policy for objective information. Despite the wealth of good research and statistics on adolescents in America, the state of discourse on teenagers remains governed by what one veteran social scientist termed “a stubborn, fixed set of falsehoods” that is little more advanced than the racial, gender, and religious prejudices social scientists held a century ago.
As such, statements in the popular media and public forums, even by noted authorities, relentlessly accentuate the negative and overstate adolescent flaws, misbehaviors, and presumed bad attitudes. When making assertions about adolescents, American authorities violate every norm of sound science. Sweeping, negative generalizations are made about an entire generation from very few cases; survey questions are worded to elicit maximum criticizeable response and are interpreted in the direst way; time periods and objects of study are manipulated to produce the most disturbing results; comparisons are made to absolutist standards of perfect behavior rather than to adult behavior norms; and a general tone of alarm, anger, and disgust are regularly used to describe a generation of some 30 million 12-19 year-olds as if they were a unitary, frightening and obnoxious plague.
And these are not abstract philosophies; American adults act on them with vigor. The United States, home of the free, places far more restrictions on teenagers than any other comparable country. The U.S. legally affords teenagers no constitutional rights whatsoever, subjects them to a system of pervasive (even violent) controls and regulations not found even in military or fundamentalist dictatorships, denies resources and opportunities to youth basic to their well-being and development, strips rights from teens as if they were small children while demanding better-than-adult behaviors from them, and imposes extra-harsh punishments for youthful failings that would never be applied to similar adult transgressions. These are strong statements, and this book intends a high standard of proof to substantiate them.
Why are American adults in particular so hostile to adolescents? Three hypotheses, admittedly incomplete, are offered here to explain the combination of qualities that render the U.S., more militarily powerful and materially affluent than any other country, one of the most fearful, anti-youth cultures on the globe:
1. Demographic diversity: Unlike other affluent nations, the U.S. is racially and ethnically diverse, especially at young age levels. The result is that an aging white majority increasingly governs a youth population of color, which has become a majority in major cities and states such as California.
2. Conflicted values: America’s puritan ethos demanding austere sacrifice, communitarian responsibility, and individual salvation are at sharp odds with this nation’s uniquely materialistic, self-indulgent, risky, and competitive lifestyle forged by 300 years of frontier culture. In a society that is deeply troubled about the conflict between its real and its ideal values, whose adults are unwilling to take responsibility for their own beliefs and practices, adolescents will be disliked because they so visibly emulate a society’s real, not ideal, behaviors.
3. Commodification: In a country which accepts little government and public responsibility for children and families, adolescents have become objects of commercial value. A large and rapidly growing array of law enforcement agencies, treatment programs, psychiatric hospitals, prison industries, drug testing firms, security police, behavior modification programs, counseling and psychological interests, institutional researchers, and other private interests have a proprietary interest in promoting teenagers as greatly and increasingly troubled and in need of more services. Much of the information on youth issues reaching the public and policy makers (and finding its way into many scientific forums and texts) is, in effect, commercial advertising for growth industries specializing in managing adolescents.
We often think of racism, puritan morality, repressive policies, and economic commodification as conservative, right-wing values. However, when it comes to youth, liberal and left-wing groups are just as likely to embrace such values, as we will see.
The result of these systemic, institutional biases is that studying adolescence requires going beyond the normal reviews of research and commentaries and to scrutinize the research and commentators themselves. Second-hand statements about teenagers in America are highly suspect. Those serious about researching adolescents have to examine original source data before using secondhand statements--including statements made in this text. In as many places as possible, this text uses original statistics and ethnographic research to verify or challenge statements by researchers and other commentators.
I worked with dozens of families and hundreds of youths for 15 years in a variety of community, wilderness, government, and remedial programs, and as an individual volunteer. I never met a “typical teenager.” I know what the term means: impulsive, irrational, rebellious, rude, sullen, volatile, self-conscious, obnoxious, crime-prone, detached, parent-hating, self-destructive, unthinking, risk-happy, certainly nothing good. Yet, the vast majority of teens I worked with were none of these things. True, a few fit the stereotype most of the time, and some did on occasion--pretty much like adults.
Following, from page 2 of the 2000 text Adolescent Development: The Essential Readings, is a statement by a professor of human relations with 30 years’ experience working with, researching, and teaching courses about teenagers:
If you wish to observe what adolescents think about and do, watch the latest teenage soap on television, or go to the movies and watch those high school antic movies that keep coming and coming, year after year. Watch out though because you can get “dumber and dumber.”
This statement, like so many I read on teenagers, absolutely baffles me. (First, the timely pop-culture referent is “dumb and dumber” or, in the text’s next edition, “dumb and dumberer.”) More important, does the author suggest that we best discover what adolescents think and do by watching Dawson’s Creek, or La Vida Loca? American Pie or Boyz N the Hood? Not Another Teen Movie, I Know What You Did Last Summer, 90210, The O.C., or My So-Called Life? And do we conclude from a scientifically drawn, methodically catalogued sample of such observations that average American adolescents are rich and glamorous, busy having sex with teachers and pastries, sensitively confiding with gay guys in girls’ bathrooms, teaming up to dispatch vengeful meathook-wielding and blade-fingered maniacs, running hundred-thousand-dollar incall whore scams for college recruiters, and popping rival gangstas in the cap before dinner? Our kids are busy! Exciting! Resourceful! Glamorous! Sexually fulfilled, comedically adept, landing on their feet by the closing credits! What do they need adults for?
Funny that pop culture, as a rule, presents a more diverse, unstereotyped image of adolescents--from super-competent to super-idiot (always the first to die), where lovely airheads kick crap out of the undead, handsome bullies get taken down by wily nerds, cheerleaders just have to take a fall--than America’s news media and institutional literature. The latter are relentlessly negative: our kids are bad, getting worse, and will probably kill us all if they don’t kill themselves first.
If judged against perfect standards of abstinence from all things unhealthy, adolescents indeed behave like idiots, which is what the mass of scary “teen risk” surveys filling newspapers, institutional reports, and conference workshops proclaim. (If as many millions of teens were engaging in such terrible behaviors as these reports insist, every youth would be dead ten times over.) But if judged against the standards set by adults around them, teenagers are not doing so badly. The dozens of 15-18 year-olds I worked with didn’t like getting up in the morning to go to hard wilderness work projects, but they nearly always made it to the worksite long before the adult supervisors did. When climbing the steep, lofty Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, a couple of teens scrambled up and down the rock face overlooking 2,500-foot drops casually with one hand on the cable, a few others clung tightly in white-knuckled fear to both cables and inched up the slope; most struck the happy medium in between. A similar range existed for attitudes and behaviors of every other kind, as this volume intends to show.
“Adolescents are an extraordinarily diverse group of people” (Moshman 1999). There is no such thing as a typical teenager, any more than a typical Jew or typical Californian. Are these such difficult concepts to embrace? Apparently so. That so many Americans, including experts (particularly those the media frequently quotes) discuss adolescents in terms of demeaning stereotypes evidences the intensity of anger against teenagers in our society--as well as the commodification of youth by various interest groups as faceless symbols of distress, violence, addiction, immorality, materialism, and fear in order to promote agendas that little benefit young people.
Start noticing how common the negative descriptions applied to adolescents by commentators of all political stripes are-- “typical teenage petulance,” “bravado,” “adolescent arrogance,” “self-absorption,” “moody and sullen,” “delusions of immortality,” and so on. One local (Santa Cruz) newspaper movie reviewer denigrates “all rich teenagers everywhere” as vacuous and “teenage sex” as empty and meaningless (one wonders how she knows). Another manufactures a teenage heroin plague (ignoring the far larger middle-aged heroin toll) and brims with commentary on how “kids today” are a backward vexation to the politically aware, feminist, musically tasteful, well-mannered, granola-healthy Baby Boom generation. Progressive talk radio regularly features speakers whose New Age schtick includes disparaging the United States as an “adolescent society”--by which they mean, impetuously violent, consumerist, and conformist. In a typical Sunday San Francisco Chronicle (August 24, 2003), one writer insists that while older daters are attracted by good communication, younger ones just want “animal attraction;” a film reviewer lauds a movie for showing “13 year-olds as we’ve never seen them before,” which is “violently angry,” “obsessed with (their) looks,” and degenerating from “innocent to hellion;” and a book reviewer charges an author with writing “an adolescent’s rant” instead of “insightful” commentary.
These are the kinds of gratuitous insults that could be directed at any group in society the commentator doesn’t like, although it would be termed bigotry if directed at most. “Bias against youth is so blatant that no one bothers mentioning it,” generational historians William Strauss and Neil Howe point out (1993, p. 111). From the popular titles crowding bookstore shelves--I’m OK, You’re a Brat; The Primal Teen; Unglued and Tattooed, Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager; Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young: Surviving a New Generation of Teenagers; Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy, and on and on--you would think, rightly perhaps, that American adults are enraged at the teens they raise. “We evidently need youth bashing,” laments sociologist Karen Sternheimer (2003).
Anthony Bernier, former director of youth services for the Los Angeles and Oakland public libraries and now a library science professor at San Jose State University, has compiled a presentation illustrating some of the worst youth-fearing books. A modest sample of the deterioration, the narrowing into a stereotype of pure risk (which enables the adult boundless self-flattering in both distancing and saving the “troubled youth”) in American views of adolescents is presented here.
Decades of research consistently shows that none of these degrading stereotypes is true; adolescents are no more violent, materialistic, conformist, moody, apathetic, shallow, lazy, ignorant, impulsive, rant-prone, or otherwise deserving of negative characterizations than adults are (note the qualification than adults are). An excellent, across-the-board debunking of the modern media-myths about teenagers, and the self-aggrandizing interests that perpetrate them, is found in sociologist Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear (1999), whose chapter, “Youth at Risk: Faulty Diagnoses and Callous Cures” details manufactured panics surrounding teenage violence, gambling, heroin abuse, motherhood, and other dangers (p. 52ff). But when it comes to the way youth are treated, and treat each other, perception trumps reality every time.
second common technique of prejudice applied to adolescents is the
generalization of the rare, negative event to the entire group. For example,
after the massacre by two students at Columbine High School in April 1999,
commentators universally generalized the tendency to shoot up schools to all
youth. “The Monsters Next Door,” Time
headlined. “Do we really know our kids?” Newsweek
asked. “This isn't the first generation that has been bullied, taunted, and
tormented, but this is the first that has resorted to mass homicide as a
response,” Josephson Institute on Ethics
president Michael Josephson fumed. Did any of the commentators consider whether similar school shootings occurred in the past (they did), whether adults conduct such shootings as well (they do)--or, more importantly, whether the actions of one in three million adolescent boys could be generalized to an entire generation?
Nor is the prejudicial notion of collective guilt--that all teens are responsible for the behaviors of their worst fraction--confined to conservative or centrist curmudgeons. Liberal culture critic Alissa Quart (Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers) depicts youths as one-dimensional consumers defined solely by what they buy and own, a “world of self loathing” in which “teens’ dependably fragile self images” and “teen girls’...wish to be erotic objects of consumption” lead them to all sorts of unheard-of atrocities, from mass materialism to breast augmentation surgery. Quart’s book was widely praised in the progressive and alternative press (including a blurb by the left-wing Working Assets that “you’ll never look at the younger generation the same way again”). In fact, it is strikingly inaccurate (see polls on youth self-esteem and values in Chapter 2).
Liberal sociologist Charles Derber’s The Wilding of America criticizes adults and corporate executives for unethical and violent behavior as individuals, but he denigrates youth as a class. The supposed “explosion” in student violence, unethical behavior, indifference to others’ suffering, and materialism form “the mindset of Generation Y,” he argues. Nor is such commentary confined to the old. In my classes, as well as in forums and media interviews, many teens seem to delight in detailing how their “peers” (never themselves!) behave deplorably in every conceivable way--what I call the “teen panel syndrome.” Like many similar manifestations among women and disparaged minorities, there is a sizable fraction of youth that seeks to identify with the mainstream view by denigrating their own group.
There is little evidence that today’s commentators on adolescence have examined how new or widespread such behaviors they deplore are. True, 3,682 teen girls did get breast augmentation surgery in 2000, Quart reports--which amounts to 1 in 4,000 girls, hardly a mass movement, and a far lower proportion than of women Quart’s age who do so. True, American teenagers do spend around $150 billion on consumer purchases every year, some large part of which is for brand-name and snob-appeal items, but they hardly deserve criticism from an adult generation that spends $6.7 trillion annually on itself for consumer items! And, as we’ll see, surveys of teen attitudes do not reveal a generation caught up in self-loathing, misery, and desperation--astoundingly high percentages report being satisfied with themselves, their lives, their friends, and the state of their possessions.
Imagine the reaction if adults were described in similar terms (see example below). A commentator who tried to use serial killer David Berkowitz or child-torturer Joel Steinberg to describe frightening tendencies or trends among Jews, rapist-murderer Willie Horton as a typical black man, or child-murderer Andrea Yates as the archetype soccer mom would be accused (rightly) of hate speech. Yet, such mass, negative attributions regularly are used when the subject is youth, embodied in terms such as “youth violence” and “teen pregnancy” that would not be applied to any other group.
What if the press covered the old like it does the young?
To illustrate public and media biases against youths, imagine that the press and “experts” portrayed senior citizens the way it does adolescents. The following hypothetical media story on “senior violence” incorporates real incidents (though the quote is made up) from the last year and the latest real crime figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Department of Corrections, and Center for Health Statistics (see sidebar).
Why will press readers and viewers never see a story like this? Senior citizens indeed display skyrocketing drug abuse, crime, and violence trends in recent decades, but they also vote--40 million registered voters are over age 50--and fill major political, media, business, and community leadership posts. Their power shields them from the
kinds of indignities the press and social science authorities routinely heap on teenagers, minority groups, immigrants, and others with less power.
It isn’t that teenagers are misunderstood fonts of idealism and revolutionary truth. Teens, after all, quickly learn to praise themselves and deplore precocity in those younger just like adults do. Give a 16 year-old the chance and you’ll hear how rotten modern middle-school hellions have gotten, foul-mouthed, rowdy, spoiled, getting away with depravities today’s high schoolers never dreamed of indulging; seventh graders, in turn, lament the unheard-of materialism and sex mania found in the grade-school generation. American adults, ourselves the worst behaved in the Western world, displace blame onto teens who then redisplace it onto children who would, if able to articulate, rant about how easy today’s ingrate fetuses have it.
Adults’ rising fear and anger at adolescents results not only in outlandish public depictions of all manner of mythical teenage malaise, but concrete, contradictory policies that repress teens in the United States more than in any other Western society. In no other nation are youth subjected to such a draconian array of daytime and nighttime curfews, media restrictions, drinking ages, zero-tolerance regulations, bans of all types on participation in adult culture, harsh policing, and criminal justice punishments. No other Western nation stands by as such a large proportion of its youths (16% of those under 18 in 2002 Census surveys) grow up in poverty; no other nation invests so little in education, health care, employment training, housing, or other basic subsidies for young people; no other modern nation imprisons its youths with such gusto, let alone executes them. All the while, official declarations, expert opinions, and press reports constantly declare the Land of the Free should impose even more regulations and punishments on its adolescents.
A better question is: what is it about so many American adults--psychologists, social scientists, officials, news reporters, grownups in general--that is so hostile to adolescents? Why do “expert” officials and academics invent so many grotesque mistruths about young people that unraveling just the worst occupies most of this volume? From Supreme Court opinions to academic conferences, there is a generally accepted, lax standard for statements and policies applied to youth: normal scientific and legal rigors such as showing cause and effect, the effectiveness of solutions, not generalizing from rare and anecdotal examples, and the truth of claims about things depicted as “adolescent,” do not apply. While some conscientious scientists do study youth issues carefully (and typically issue findings that challenge conventional wisdom), most commentators on teenagers expound any cockamamie notion that suits their immediate interest--and then are requoted secondhand in widening falsehood.
These questions argue that we cannot understand adolescence, and the recent evolution of California adolescence in particular, simply by quoting statements and studies about teenagers. We have to examine and evaluate--that is, interrogate--those statements and studies, and their authors, as well, a considerably more complex challenge than simply describing teens as the sum of claims made about them.
The demographic perspective
What makes the United States, and California in particular, so uniquely anti- youth? Bear with this section on basic demography even if you don’t like numbers --they can be read at a glance. It yields striking insights into California’s seemingly inexplicable turn toward defunding schools and building prisons over the last 30 years.
Demography, a branch of sociology, is the study of populations. It deals with forces that change populations, chiefly birth, death, and migration. Demographic techniques are ideal to analyze and predict California political and social trends that affect youth. For example, in the 1980s, UCLA demographer David Hayes-Bautista and colleagues, in The Burden of Support, correctly predicted California’s race, ethnic, and age wars of the 1990s (reflected in anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative-action, and anti-youth initiatives such as Propositions 187, 209, and 21, rapid prison building, and reduced funding for schools and universities). Their predictions rested in examining changes in the composition of the state’s population by race/ethnicity and age.
Let us begin with what California’s population looked like back in 1970, when most of today’s middle-agers such as me (born 1950) were growing up:
Just three decades ago, whites (of European origin) dominated at every age level, so that a white power structure (mostly older) was governing a largely white youth population. The kids, three-fourths of them, anyway, looked like the parents.
Note the same table for the state’s population today:
The population change is dramatic. From 1970 to 2004, California’s population grew by 16 million--that is, it nearly doubled in size.
However, its white population grew by only a tiny amount (up 500,000, from 15.5 million in 1970 to 16.0 million today)--and it aged rapidly. In 1970, well over half the white population was under age 35 (capping an era in which most of the state’s schools were built). In 2005, well over half the white population is over 35 (notice all the handicapped parking spaces?).
As whites declined from three-fourths of California’s population in 1970 to less than half today, the state’s Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander populations exploded (up 14 million). By 2030, whites (even under current projections that underestimate white flight) will be less than one-third of a population expected to exceed 50 million.
California has become the first affluent state in the world to shift to an all-minority status--that is, no racial or ethnic group is a majority today--and it will shift more in the future.
Even more important, a major age-based imbalance is obvious. Whites comprise a large majority of the older population (62% of those age 50-plus) that dominates the state’s political, institutional, business, and voter structure, and comprises the wealthiest taxpayers. True, that’s less than in 1970, when whites comprised 86% of the aging powerful, but it is still dominant, given the much greater representation of older folks in positions of power and in voting. Whites, in short, run California for now--but that dominance is ebbing.
Meanwhile, people of color, especially Latinos, dominate younger age groups (67% of those under age 35) by wide margins--and thus are positioned to dominate the state’s future. The white population of California actually declined from 1990 to 2000 while all other minority groups increased--even more than had been predicted by the California Department of Finance’s Demographic Research Unit. The 2000 census found 800,000 fewer whites in California, as well as 650,000 fewer persons over age 35, than demographers predicted. They also found 700,000 more Latinos and Asians than expected.
Older whites are leaving California for the first time since the Gold Rush. Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and other northern Rockies and Pacific coast states are experiencing record influxes of California immigrants. Voting patterns indicate these whites are politically conservative and are pushing the politics of these states sharply rightward. In equal and opposite reaction, the outflux of older whites and the influx of Latino immigrants contributed heavily to California’s shift leftward in politics in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections, defying national trends. The state’s legislature is more dominated by liberal Democrats today than at any time in the past, and (even after 2003’s recall election), seven of eight statewide offices, both U.S. Senate seats, and the largest majority of any state’s Congressional delegation seats are held by Democrats. California is the nation’s most unpopular state right now in Washington.
do these shifts in demography, and therefore in politics, mean for California’s
young people? Lots. Today, a white power structure is governing a nonwhite
youth population which is gradually replacing the white majority at older age
levels as well, a development that occurred within one generation. Think about the political implications of that for a minute. What do you conclude might occur?
If you suspected that an aging white population might be less willing to pay taxes to support schools, universities, and opportunities for children of color, you are correct. California school funding has plummeted relative to that of other states, from 7th in per-pupil spending in 1970 to 35th today, giving this state the most crowded elementary and secondary school classrooms and the lowest-funded school libraries. University budgets have taken similar hits in terms of lost tax funding, so that students today pay four times more in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) tuitions than they did before 1975. In 2004-05, U.C. students will pay 4 times more, C.S.U. students 6 times more, and junior and community college students infinitely more (they were free prior to 1985) in inflation-adjusted, mandatory tuition and fees than students of the mid- 1960s. The figures illustrate the steep decline in California education spending by taxpayers as tax burdens fell, and the sharp increase in education spending by students.
If you went further and suspected that older white populations might actually come to fear younger populations of color, evidence also suggests you would be right. (As we will see, white fear is not as simple as dread of poorer youth of color; it embraces an historical fear that white youth will be infected by the values of poorer youth as well.) In the last two decades, California lawmakers and voters passed 1,100 new law toughening criminal statutes and vastly expanded police forces, supplemented by a record 185,000 private security guards. The state’s increased spending on law enforcement was led by prisons. From 1985 through 1999, the state added eight new prison beds every day and now locks up five times more of its citizens per-capita than it did a quarter-century ago. The figure shows the recent growth in prison populations.
Is the white flight from California--and, within California, from urban areas to suburbs, then from suburbs to condominiums, distant exurbs (often gated), and rural enclaves, a process I refer to as “gatism”--justified? Put another way: viewed from the perspective of California’s aging white population, is there anything good about the state’s population transition?
Very much so, Hayes-Bautista et al (1988) argue. To understand what, consider another demographic concept called the “dependency ratio.” The dependency ratio is the ratio of workers (defined as ages 18-64) to non-workers (ages 0-17 and ages 65-plus) that workers’ wages and taxes support.
Investment in children is an investment in the future of society--in fact, its very existence. In contrast, investment in the elderly is a reward for past service, nice but unnecessary to society’s survival, which is why more fragile past cultures put granny on an ice floe and nudged her out to sea or let the wolves catch up with her. Further, the elderly are the most expensive to support due to their medical costs. In the U.S., elder welfare is funded primarily through tax payments in the form of Social Security and Medicare. Most paychecks have 7.6% deducted, and the employer pays an additional 7.6% out of wages, for FICA taxes. That is, one dollar in six earned goes to support the elderly. Children, in contrast, are supported privately, mainly by their families; their taxpayer costs are mainly for education, and we saw what happened to those.
The dependency ratios of workers (age 18-64) to elderly (age 65-plus) for California’s major ethnic groups are the most important to calculate. They are:
These simple trends indicate that California’s white population is getting into trouble. In 1970, there were 6 white workers (optimistically assuming all were employed) to support each white elder over age 65. Today, due to the aging of the white population and the fact that the old are living longer, there are just 4 white workers to support each white elder. By 2030, there will be just 2 white workers to support each white geriatric. (Blacks and Asians have younger populations but face the same trends.)
These trends spell fiscal disaster for California whites. Imagine that the state consisted only of white people. Even at today’s white dependency ratio--3.9 to 1--white workers would see gigantic deductions (20% to 25%) taxed from their paychecks and business payrolls to support the elderly due to the low number of workers in relation to the old. And it would get worse. By 2030, there would be only two white workers for each white elder, requiring tax bites of 35% to 50% from paychecks and payrolls for Social Security and Medicare, leaving little for workers and employers to support themselves and their families. Adding to the burden would be the fact that the most expensive elder population--those over age 80--is growing the fastest.
If whites think their taxes are too high right now, they ain’t seen nothing yet-- and blacks and Asians aren’t in much better shape. But, fortunately, the state has seen a huge influx of younger Latino and Asian workers (and a Latino population that has few elderly of its own to support) whose wages can be taxed to support the white elderly. Note the Latino dependency ratio hasn’t changed much since 1970, and the result is that the state’s overall dependency ratio (see “Total” column) has changed little. In effect, growing numbers of young immigrant workers are subsidizing California’s growing numbers of white elderly. That subsidy will increase markedly in the future.
Hayes-Bautista calls this relationship “the intergenerational compact:”
Masked in the dependency ratios is an intergenerational compact that has provided much social cohesion in the United States in the past. This compact is an implicit consensus that the working-age population should provide for the young and the elderly.
...If the intergenerational compact is to be honored, a society must possess two qualities. First, its workers must be economically productive enough to meet the needs of the older and younger generations. Second, those workers must have the desire to forgo part of what they produce to meet the needs of a society’s dependence. Thus, both productive capacity and political will are essential to the success of the intergenerational compact (1988, pp. 50, 51).
Hayes-Bautista’s incisive conclusion is that from a demographic perspective, older white taxpayers should be happy to pay more to support younger workers’ education and job opportunities, even though most are of other races. The reason? The more younger workers earn through better education and higher-paying jobs, the more they pay in taxes to support senior citizens, most of whom are white. The old and white invest, the young and color pay back, Hayes-Bautista suggests in the most optimistic “California 2030” scenario, and the future of this wealthy, diverse state is bright.
Conversely, the worst blunder older whites (including more affluent people of color who vote in similar ways to affluent whites) could make, Hayes-Bautista judges in his bleaker “California 2030” scenario, is to starve education and rely on prisons, which are extremely costly ($31,000 per inmate per year, the California Department of Corrections estimated in 2004) to lock up people who then generate little or no taxable wages. Yet, that is exactly the mistake older California is making. The retreat of whites and older people to other states, gated communities and condominiums, and exurban enclaves indicates whites realize the bleakness of the future they and state leaders are creating. Due to recent social policies,
...the education and social service needs of the young are increasingly being left to the decaying nuclear family to provide, while the expensive needs of the elderly are increasingly assumed by the public. The fate of the elderly now rests not in the hands of its own children, but in public policy. In a sense, the elderly are insulated from the vagaries of their children’s economic position by social policy. The young, particularly in the areas of education and health care, on the other hand, appear to have less and less call on public monies, and may turn only to their biological parents for support (Hayes-Bautista et al 1988, p. 51).
The future horizon of the elderly is short. Senior citizens need not concern themselves with what society will be like beyond a decade or two, unless they voluntarily choose to be concerned. Further, a tax-funded elderly population no longer needs to view its immediate economic survival as tied to how well economically the younger generation is doing. In the starkest sense, the elderly only need concern themselves with maintaining the political strength to assure they can sufficiently tax the earnings of younger workers. Unless, of course, older generations choose to concern themselves with investing in youths, either from the goodness of their hearts or to forestall anti-senior tax revolts by strapped young workers.
A further complication, Hayes-Bautista et al argue, is that the differering age structures of older white and younger Latino populations renders the intergenerational compact also an interethnic compact. Which raises the Big Question:
Is the largely Anglo, working-age Baby Boom generation...willing to dedicate a sufficient portion of its economic pie to an investment in the Latino and minority youth of today?... Given California’s wealth and the state’s tremendous economic growth in the mid- to late-1990s, the question of whether today’s workers have the wherewithal to invest in the younger generation scarcely needs to be asked... The question that does need to be asked is that of will. When faced with a choice between pursuing an affluent “Yuppie” lifestyle that consumes many resources and deferring part of that gratification to invest in a young generation that is very different ethnically, how will Baby Boomers respond? (1988, pp. 54, 55).
By 2003, Hayes-Bautista’s question has its answer: there is great resistance among aging California whites and wealthier citizens, represented largely by the state’s dwindling Republican Party, to such investment in the young. Much of the political war that erupted in California in 2003 over the budget deficit between those who argued for preserving schools and services for the young and poor by means of raising taxes on the older, wealthier, and corporate, versus those who insisted on “no new taxes” at the expense of drastic cuts in those services, were predicted by demographic analysis two decades ago. The Republican Party has skillfully and cohesively deployed its legislative minority based in (a) a pro-incumbent legislative districting pact with the Democratic majority, and (b) the recall procedure directed at Democratic Governor Gray Davis to prevent investment by older generations in the young sufficient to maintain the infrastructure necessary for the young to become productive members of society.
In an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 3, 2003), I argued that a “generation war” lay behind California’s 2003 budget woes:
Long-term California Department of Finance figures detail older Californians' relentless tax-cutting even as our wealth ballooned. In 1970, Californians paid 14% of their incomes in state and local taxes; today, it's just 12%. Meanwhile, our real household incomes (adjusted for inflation) rose from $39,400 in 1969 to $48,500 today.
Californians' enrichment over the last three decades was very lopsided. Bureau of the Census reports show real incomes of Californians over age 45 surged 40%, while incomes of residents under age 25 dropped 11%. Older Californians owe our rising opulence in large measure to superior state education and other tax-supported services our
poorer parents and grandparents generously funded for us...We were privileged to attend less crowded, better staffed schools and to graduate from low-tuition universities largely debt-free, ready to buy homes, launch businesses, get rich.
Today's legislators who propose cutting education funding exemplify how generous school and university funding helped young people in their day. A few examples: Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox (U.C. San Diego, 1961, $206 in annual tuition); Assistant Republican Leader Keith Richman (U.C. Davis, 1972, $664); ranking budget leader John Campbell (UCLA); and Senate Republican Leader James Brulte (Cal Poly Pomona).
Yet, Republican lawmakers, led by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, propose boosting already high tuition paid by today's students to triple what older generations paid. When it came our turn to foot the bill for tomorrow's students, elders dealt ourselves huge tax relief instead. Census and U.S. Department of Education figures show we pay less than half as much of our incomes to support higher education as our counterparts of 1965.
As a result, California children today suffer the nation's most crowded classrooms in schools now funded in the bottom third nationally (and due to fall further). Two-thirds of college and university students carry education debts averaging $17,000 each. Four in 10 students--including 55% of blacks and 58% of Latinos -- bear “unmanageable'” education debt, the USDOE reports. Instead of buying homes and establishing businesses while in their 20s, they'll struggle to pay off loans.
How do we rectify this intergenerational rip-off? The math is easy. Restoring California primary and secondary schools' funding to its former high ranking would require additional expenditures of $1,900 for each of 6 million pupils -- $11.5 billion more than now budgeted, DOF comparisons show. Likewise, returning higher education funding to historical parity would require annual tuition cuts of $1,800 per university student, $1,300 per state college student and $500 per junior and community college student, requiring $1 billion more in state funding.
Where would this $12.5 billion in “intergenerational education equity'” funding come from? Well, today's elders incessantly extol our superior "moral values'' and "civic virtues'' compared to supposedly selfish modern kids. Let graying Californians match our pieties to our pocketbooks.
I propose an “intergenerational equity tax'” to erase the shortfall. Incorporating progressive schedules, it would impose an average 3% tax increase on the incomes of Californians age 45 and older, earmarked to restore education funding to levels sustained for a century before 1970. We can afford it. The total income of Californians 45 and older
($413 billion in 1999) equals the entire gross domestic product of Australia.
If appeals to morality, fairness and rescuing a state that enriched them don't sell older folks on an intergenerational equity tax, perhaps self-interest will. Younger workers and their employers pay a whopping 15% of their modest incomes and payrolls to help fund Social Security and Medicare -- welfare programs directly benefiting senior citizens and middle-agers relieved of having to support aging parents.
If younger generations continue suffering stagnating or declining incomes, they'll assuredly balk at paying high taxes for our senior welfare. Conversely, the more we codgers invest in education and jobs for today's young, the better they'll fund our beachside retirement condos tomorrow (March 3, 2003, p. B5).
The switch from the intergenerational compact into outright generation war has been building for three decades. Stanford University journalism professor Dale Maharidge, in The Coming White Minority, argues that white fear drove the state’s growing political conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s. The question is whether the compact will be restored as Latino and poorer groups vote in larger numbers.
To repeat: we ain’t seen nothing yet. Add to California’s growing volatility the fact that in crucial ways, this state is harbinger for a rising political order in which the aging, monocultural states of Western Europe and other affluent nations will necessarily become more diverse. These trends, being showcased by California’s unprecedented developments, are a worldwide model. The implications for young people are cataclysmic--which is why this class and book are called “Youth in Transition.”
California: Harbinger of the new world “global state”
Consider two kinds of nations/states I will call “Old World” and “New World.” Old world states are relatively homogenous in their citizenries, as they have been for centuries. “New World” states are newer and highly diverse, shaped by global migration, and are becoming more so.
In Old World states, minorities comprise very low proportions of the citizenry. Examples: Japan, Korea, and Denmark, 1%; Italy, Germany, and Sweden, 2%; Netherlands, 3%; United Kingdom, 4%. These states are characterized by high levels of social cohesion, extensive welfare systems, and low rates of internal violence--not much homicide, for example (but, strangely, high rates of suicide). However, homogenous states suffer high rates of warfare with neighboring nations, as Europe’s and Japan’s warlike histories indicate.
Europeans and Japanese, in particular, do not handle diversity well. Most nations have strict regulations on who can become citizens, usually requiring parents of the native nationality. Even so, concern about growing populations of Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Asian, and African non-citizen “guest workers”--necessary in Europe to fill jobs and support aging populations--has led to right-wing, anti-immigrant governments in a number of European countries. When Europeans of different ethnicities or religions are found in same nation, look out. We typically call those nations “the former”--as in the former Yugoslavia, or former Soviet Union. Fractious nations like Ireland and Lebanon, and divided nations with strongly autonomous local governance such as Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada, testify to the brutal interethnic wars that result when even mildly diverse populations (religious or language minorities) are found in the same Old World country.
There is also a group of what might be called intermediate nations--affluent countries with some diversity. These nations are former colonies and recently created nations such as Australia (8% minority), Israel (10%), Canada (13%), and New Zealand (25%). These countries are characterized by fractious politics, strong urban-rural splits, and lesser commitment to social welfare--though still stronger than in New World states.
Then there are the “New World” societies, which harbor great racial, religious, and ethnic diversity. These are the U.S., 31% (non-European, youth 40% non-European); Mexico, 40% (non-Mestizo); Colombia, 42%; Guatemala, 44%; Ecuador, 45%; Brazil, 45%. These nations suffer low social cohesion, great income disparity, deficient social welfare systems, and high rates of internal violence such as murder. On the plus side, war--which constantly ravages Europe--is virtually unheard-of among New World states and consists mainly of occasional border disputes. That may be because New World states have their hands full controlling conflicts among their own domestic populations.
In California is the world
And then there is California, the arch New World state, with no racial or ethnic majority--in fact, with large populations originating on all five major continents: 16 million ex-Europeans, 12 million ex-Latin Americans, 4 million ex-Asians, 2 million ex-Africans, 250,000 ex-North American natives (in the sense that virtually none of the state’s Native population are Native Californians), and growing more diverse and mixed every day. As befits our extreme position as the Arch-New-World State, California displays all the extremes of our category.
Note another categorization--all of the Old World states and the intermediate states are affluent, and all of the New World states are poor. The Exception is the United States (wealthy and diverse), and The Great Exception is California (very wealthy and very diverse). You would expect epic strangeness here, and California delivers admirably.
“Experts” in he press and academic forums run expound on “youth violence” and “teen suicide” as if we actually knew something about these. The beginning of
understanding is to toss these terms aside. Teens--even the fraction of suicidal or homicidal ones--are so diverse as to make generalization impossible.
What on earth do we mean by “teenage” murder, suicide, or pregnancy? The disparities between teen and young adult populations are staggering (see table on next page). Homicide rates are 30 to 70 times higher among black youths in Los Angeles than white or Asian youths in Alameda County (Oakland) or white youths in Santa Clara (San Jose). Murder rates are 9 times higher among LA black youth than San Jose black youth; 4 times higher among LA Latino and white youth than San Jose Latino and white youth, respectively; and 5.5 times higher among Asian youth in Sacramento than Asian youth in Oakland.
Suicide rates are higher among white youth but still vary by 400% (comparing Sacramento white youth to Alameda Asian youth)--and 230% even among whites (Sacramento vs San Jose). Teenage-mother birth rates vary eight-fold from richer coastal youth to poorer Central Valley youth. Asian teens in Sacramento are 4 times more likely to be mothers than Asian teens in LA; white teens show similar disparities.
California youth populations contain the extremes found among youth all over the world. The high murder rates among urban black youth in California (except for San Jose, where rates are low) are similar to those among youth in Latin America; the low rates among coastal white and Asian youth (except in LA) match those of Europe, Canada, and Australia. Low suicide levels among California Asian and Latino youth typically are lower than even the low rates found in Latin America. For what we call “teenage” birth rates, white teens in San Jose and Asian youth in LA are like German youth; Sacramento white teens, with birth rates two to three times higher, are like those in Canada, Australia, and the UK; California Latinas and blacks are in the range of Latin American teen birth rates.
It is crazy to talk about “teenage...” or “youth...” behaviors as if the terms described some reality. And the craziness has only just begun.
California youth (and adults) present an extreme form of American youth. Almost all patterns here are exaggerated. A few examples comparing major changes in the social conditions of California adolescents with those in other U.S. states outside California illustrate the unique youth developments here over the last three decades.
Racial change. U.S. teens have become less white and more of color over the last 30 years, a demographic change that is vastly more rapid and pronounced in California:
Economic change. While more youth are in poverty around the nation today, poverty rates have risen faster among California youth than those elsewhere:
Generation split. The income split between old and young has widened faster in California than elsewhere in the country, with younger age groups actually showing an income loss over the period:
California, once the Mecca for younger people to seek better fortunes, is now a dystopia of greater poverty and lower income for the young--but it continues to be a land of growing riches for the old. Go West, Old Man.
Education. A major reason for the declining fortunes of the young--and the wealth of the old, whose earnings today result from the quality, free public education they received in the past combined with cutting the taxes they pay to support schools today--is the decline of public schools. California was once a world leader in public education, spending well above the national average on schools for the first 120 years after statehood. Today, the opposite reality prevails: California is near the bottom in spending per pupil, the best index of public financial support for education:
While per-pupil spending rose, most of this increase was due to mandates to serve handicapped students in public schools, not greater funding for students as a whole.
more drastic budget cuts at the university level are making higher education
unaffordable for poor and middle-income students. California leads this dismal
trend. In 1970, the state’s commitment to provide higher education essentially
free to qualified high school graduates is reflected in in-state tuitions well
below those of universities nationally. By 2002-03 (the most recent
year for national figures,
reduced tax support left California universities charging higher average tuitions than those in other states, with even more gigantic boosts to follow:
Thus, the adult reaction to youths, especially that by the aging white population, is exactly as Hayes-Bautista’s worst-case scenario would predict--abandonment, defunding, poverty, diminished opportunity. As noted, per-pupil funding of California schools plummeted from fifth nationally in 1967 to 36th today, and tuitions to state colleges and universities quadrupled in real dollars, drastically diminishing educational quality for the new generation. Quality industrial jobs vanished from the inner cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, and nationwide such as in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Detroit, leaving unemployment rates among young minorities at levels topping 50%. Low-wage service jobs and illegal enterprises the only source of youth income, and urban youth poverty levels exceed 40%. Families became more unstable as divorce rates doubled from 1965 to 1975 and remained at high levels thereafter. Drug abuse, arrests, and imprisonments soared among adults in their 30s and 40s, adding immeasurably to the difficulties youths faced coping with disarrayed and absentee parents. Meanwhile, California’s teenage population mushroomed to a record 5.1 million in 2000, prompting every expert from police to health lobbies to transportation officials into apoplexies of alarm that raging mobs of predatory teenage killers, suicidal addicts, anorexic baby-makers, and crazed drivers would create bloodbath.
In short, every psychosocial factor predicted by social scientists left to center to right to promote teenage disaster worsened drastically over the last three decades. What actually happened as California’s teenage population became bigger, darker, poorer, more disinvested, and more hated?
Now the surprises
It is easy to presuppose that as schools are defunded, prisons are filling with younger people, mostly minorities, denied their rightful opportunities by a tight-fisted older white power structure. After all, we constantly hear that prisons are being stuffed with “young men of color.”
If you think that, you’re in for the first big surprise. There are limits to demography and sociology, and California’s ability to surprise defies them. California concentrates Americans’ hostility against adolescents and is home to some of the strangest, most unexpected trends in a country whose authorities compete to see who can distort reality the most.
The latest, 2002, 2003 and 2004, state statistics show teen problems of every kind plummeted over the last 30-40 years: suicide (now at its lowest level since 1958), homicide (lowest since 1964), felony arrests (lowest since 1959), drug abuse deaths (lowest since 1967), violent crime (lowest since 1967), births (lowest since 1949), HIV/AIDS infections (the fastest declining rates of any age group in the 1990s), accidental deaths (lowest of any time since statistics have been kept), and school dropout rates (lowest on record). Meanwhile, the fastest growing prison population is whites over the age of 30, exactly the population criminologists insist is least likely to commit crimes (and least likely to get arrested and go to prison when they do). The reasons for the explosion in middle-aged white convicts will be discussed in the chapter on drugs and crime.
Below is a brief summary of 30-year trends in major California and national (outside of California) teenage behaviors, beginning with one of the few negative ones. They show what a complex and astonishing endeavor the study of California youth is.
Homicide. In 1970, California teens ages 10-19 were about equally likely to be murdered as youths elsewhere in the country. By 2002, California teens were about 35% more likely to be murdered than teens in other states:
Suicide. Until the early 1970s, California teens showed much higher rates of suicide than teens elsewhere in the U.S. Today, after a remarkable decline in California and an increase elsewhere, California teens were far less suicidal than teens in other states. The discrepancies in suicide figures will be discussed later.
The result is that while California teens--the fraction intent on taking a life, that is--were much more suicidal than homicidal in 1970. After a 60% increase in murder and a 60% decline in suicide, the reverse is true today. Curiously, for all the furor over “teenage suicide” nationwide, no major researchers, health agencies, or institutions have explored why California youth of all races experienced such a dramatic decline.
Drug abuse. Drug abuse plays a major role in the death, suicide, crime, imprisonment, and other serious social statistics affecting both California teens and adults (see Chapter 8). Notice that California’s teenage drug overdose death rate, 5 times higher than the
rate among teens elsewhere in the U.S. in 1970, has dropped by an astounding 88% over the last three decades and is now substantially below the rate elsewhere:
Guns. In many ways, guns are the opposite of drugs. It may sound counter-intuitive that as California’s teenage drug death rate plummeted, gun deaths rose compared to teens in other parts of the country:
However, a moment’s reflection indicates why. Drug abuse deaths are indicators of self-destruction (suicide or accident). Gun fatalities, while including self-destructive categories (firearms suicide and accident), now are indicators of outside menace (homicide) rather than self-inflicted mishap. In California today, more than 4 in 5 teenage gun deaths are murders--most inflicted by adults over age 20, not other teens.
As California youth become less inclined to self-destruction and more at risk of outside harm (though rates of homicide peaked in 1994 and have since fallen), it is not surprising that gun risk should rise as drug risk falls. And there is another, more complex, tie-in between the two. Rising drug abuse by middle-aged Californians in the last 30 years generated huge markets for illicit drugs, which generated large inner-city drug supply markets at which teenage males served at the street level--raising their risk of being shot.
Crime. Another surprise is that California youth show enormous declines in rates of serious crime over the last three decades--larger decreases than both California adults and youths elsewhere in the U.S. The measure compared is Part I, or “index,” crime, which consists of arrests for four major violent felonies (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) and four big property felonies (burglary, robbery, theft, and arson).
California’s teenage crime decline, discussed in detail in Chapter 7, is not simply astounding in its size (down 57% by rate), but it firmly refutes the notion that a growing population of youth of color portends more criminal behavior. The complete failure of California authorities even to acknowledge, let alone discuss, these encouraging trends suggests that ideology and racism continue to be useful tools on all sides of the state’s emotional, ill-informed crime debate.
Births. While “teenage pregnancy” has been grossly misrepresented (see Chapter 6), teen birth rates (births to mothers under age 20 divided by the female population age 15-19) have declined faster in California than in other states:
The difference is not large--a 45% decline in teen birth rates in California, and a 39% decline nationwide. But it does indicate, again, that a rapidly growing population of youth of color does not portend rapidly increasing births to teenage mothers.
High school graduation. The proportion of California 17 year-olds graduating from public high schools on time is lower today than in 1970. However, the deterioration in graduation rates was from 1970 to 1985; in the last two decades, rates improved substantially. Note that the percentages below understate graduation rates, since some students graduate from private high schools, and others graduate later or earn GEDs.
What was the reaction of officials who predicted an adolescent apocalypse to this unexpected good news about young people? Most, dependent on scaring legislators and the public to win attention and funding, found it unwelcome. Interest groups and news reports ignored the good trends and continued to insist kids had never been worse, producing a barrage of scary publicity more bizarrely unreal than ever. New teenage “crises”--a suburban heroin epidemic, middle-school sexual revolution, teen hordes slaughtering the elderly, school shooters infesting every campus--were made up wholesale.
Studying adolescents: Research
Examining adolescent sociology demands not just scrutiny of teenage situations and trends, but of American institutions that affect and shape images of adolescents--most particularly, social science itself. The history of prominent American psychologists, sociologists, and medical authorities helping larger political and business interests beat up on officially-designated scapegoats--racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and now adolescents--is not a distinguished one. That scientifically-cheerled demographic scapegoating continues today amid so little dissent constitutes an indictment of American social science (especially its well-funded, media-publicized wing) as little more than a faithful branch of established interests.
Popular psychologists and criminologists are the worst offenders, but hardly the only ones. Today’s bookstore shelves brim with frantic treatises in which therapists violate professional ethics wholesale by sensationalizing stories of troubled teens in treatment to all adolescents. Authors’ breathless tales of adolescent boys at risk of mass violence to themselves and others, anorexic self-loathing Ophelias needing reviving, youths having sex with appliances, suburban teens leading secret lives of debauchery and murder, innocent parents and grownups assailed by generic teenage craziness and media corruptions--the popularity of this avalanche of psycho-silliness testifies to a hostile and defensive American adulthood. At the official level, criminologists and drug-war authorities profit from a constant drumbeat of fear by wallowing in outdated dogmas and misusing their own statistics in blatant ways that would be unacceptable for college undergraduate term papers. Never have the media been less questioning and more hyping of whatever fear of youth any interest seeks to exploit--including contradictory fears.
“Society in the new millennium is held hostage by fear,” lament sociologists Wayne Wooden and Randy Blazak in the second edition of their 2001 textbook, Renegade Kids: Suburban Outlaws. They then go on to add to that very fear:
But perhaps what shocks us most is the increasingly violent turn that our youngsters seem to be taking. It involves more than the senseless and unending drive-by shootings of urban ethnic gang warfare. And it is more than the mounting body count of runaway youths strung out and overdosed on drugs. It is the perception that society is no longer in control of its destiny--that this next generation of youths is not just dazed and confused; rather, they are armed and dangerous as well--the more unsettling suburban outlaws (p. 2).
When social science experts talk like this, how can journalists, lawmakers, and the public be held accountable for their fear? In fact, all three of the “alarming trends” the authors cite--urban gang killings, youths overdosing on drugs, and suburban gun crime--plummeted in the late 1990s to record lows, trends amply clear in standard references before the publication deadline of their 2001 text edition. Indeed, the teenage homicide rate fell by an astonishing two-thirds from the early 1990s to 1999, and it continued to fall into the new millennium.
And for Wooden and Blazak to declare--in the face of vital statistics showing homicide rates 30 to 50 times higher among inner-city youth of color than among suburban white youth--that “suburban kids are also at risk of many of the same social ills” as impoverished urban teens as proven by “the school shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, and Littleton, Colorado” (p. 3) is simply beyond belief. Social scientists should know how to calculate risks!
Of course, if the authors suggested the youth problems they identify were declining, occasional, individual in nature, and perhaps not very large after all, they would lose their justification for writing a book about them. Whether self-interest or too-credulous belief in secondary sources, it is important to recognize that the much-proclaimed “youth crises” don’t exist in apocalyptic or unprecedented form except in the fevered imaginations of the commentators themselves.
Other interests shifted their tone from clarions of doom to the gentle sound of self-backpatting. If teens got better, everyone from the governor’s office to corner programs and beer advertisers declared, then we adults deserve credit. Interest groups calling themselves “youth advocates” became less dedicated to the well-being of youth and more dedicated toward their own well-being--and if pushing more public and legislative fear of young people worked, then interests promoted more fear with gusto.
The commodification of American youth is a regular feature of politics, lobbying, and funding appeals. One of the newest fear lobbies is the National Association of School Resource Officers. which represents police hired to patrol school hallways and playgrounds. NASRO richly profits from depicting schools as havens of violence, even terror. Surveying itself, NASRO stated in an August 20, 2003, Associated Press story that “70 percent of officers reported what they regarded as a rise over the past five years in aggressive behaviors among elementary school children.” Said NASRO spokesman Chuck Hibbert, who “has seen more frequent fights among elementary school students in his district, as well as more staff members who are injured by children: ...‘Traditionally, schools have not been prepared to deal with these kinds of aggressive behaviors.’” NASRO presented no independent, objective evidence that elementary school students are more violent, which matters little to the press. Nor did their evident objective raise reporters’ skepticism: to oppose a proposed $50 million cut in federal funding for school police as likely to “contribute to schools’ being less safe.”
More embarrassingly, the hiring of academics to issue junk-science reports is a standard feature of fear lobbies. Why, with respect to youth issues, are social scientists so abjectly failing to do the one job we need them to do--accurately and carefully describing society’s developments to inform prediction and policy? What are their interests in promoting such monumental misrepresentations of American young people? Before we can discuss adolescent sociology, we have to ask: are the sources of information on teenagers credible? Normally, studies and expert statements are treated as authoritative. They should not be. It is not an exaggeration to say that accepting statements of American authorities on adolescents is like accepting Klan statements on Haitians. Adults, even the most august, harbor severe prejudices against adolescents.
A harsh statement? Consider an ingenious experiment conducted by Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer, editor of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, whose three decades of research on 30,000 adolescent and adult subjects make him the USA’s leading authority on teens--but one you likely have never heard of, since he is rarely quoted in the media or institutional studies. Offer was troubled at psychologists’ and doctors’ spate of books and popular claims that teenagers harbor crippling mental disturbances. ALL teens were simply assumed “to have the same basic conflicts as psychiatric patients or juvenile delinquents” that the clinicians had captive to study “even though normal teenagers were not studied by clinical investigators,” Offer reported.
This is a damning enough indictment; generalizing the problems of clinical populations to an entire population is a fundamental ethical violation warned against in Psych I textbooks. But what Offer’s further research on professional bigotry against adolescents found was even more alarming.
Offer and colleagues asked hundreds of psychologists, pediatricians, and other professional personnel with expertise on adolescent behavior to predict how normal teenagers would respond to a battery of standard tests for neuroses such as hostility, depression, anxiety, vulnerability, and other measures of mental instability. Shockingly, Offer found these professionals--typically quoted as objective experts on youth in media and official forums--believed the typical adolescent would rate themselves two to three times more mentally disturbed than normal teens, on real tests, do. In fact, professionals predicted normal teens would rate themselves twice as disturbed as teens clinically diagnosed as mentally ill, delinquent, and disabled!
That professionals falsely believe average teenagers are far more disturbed than even their most disturbed fraction has been confirmed in numerous studies. It is a troubling finding, given that professionals with wildly exaggerated fears of teenage craziness are the chief source of information for policy makers and the public as well as the diagnosticians deciding the fates of individual youths. Offer and other researchers found professionals were much more likely to misattribute pathological behavior to “developmental stage” in the cases of troubled teens than in the cases of troubled adults--that is, crazy adults are individuals, but crazy adolescents are typical.
Occasionally, serious researchers--by which I mean those who study average adolescents in the context of adult behaviors--speak out against the tide of authoritative prejudice against adolescents, but their warnings rarely make it to public forums. As will be shown throughout, the experts featured in the press and institutional reports cannot be trusted to provide reliable information on youth issues. Authorities’ shenanigans are so common that original source data must be subjected to original analysis. I believe the reader will be as astonished as I have been at how routinely the data experts claim to cite do not show--in fact, show the opposite of--what they told USA Today, Fox News, Congress, or the Carnegie Corporation panel on Adolescent Development. I invite readers to examine the statements in this book as well in light of original data sources.
Studying adolescents: original research
The difference between articulating opinions, even informed ones, and making sociological statements is the ability to generalize. There are youths who have drug problems, commit heinous crimes, are just plain obnoxious or just plain angelic, depending on which anecdotes and experiences one wants to cite. But from a social science perspective, the questions turn toward the most accurate information we can acquire about levels, trends, and qualitative descriptions that illustrate youth experiences generally, not emotional or singular anecdotes that dominate the media and policy discussions today.
Where can such information be found? Two major sources are statistics and research studies. Both are valuable, and suspect, sources. Bias against adolescents is rampant in grant-funded, institutional, advocacy-group, and government-agency studies, which typically concern themselves with pushing an agenda rather than providing fair and accurate pictures of youth problems and trends. This renders their reports worse than useless for the purpose of research papers. As such, the use of second-hand statistics and research is discouraged. Original statistics and research must be examined first-hand to arrive at accurate conclusions.
A special seminar on journals on youth issues will be held at McHenry Library in the first few weeks of the class, time to be announced. Sources of original statistics on California youth are abundant and can be found at such websites as:
California Criminal Justice Statistics Center (crime by age, state and local)
California Department of Finance (demographics--age, race, sex, state and local) http://www.dof.ca.gov/HTML/DEMOGRAP/Druhpar.htm
California Statistical Abstract (statistics on education, law enforcement, labor, etc.)
California Center for Health Statistics (birth, death, and injury statistics by age)
California Department of Corrections (statistics on prisons and prisoners)
California Youth Authority (statistics on youth offenders)
California Department of Education (student demographics, enrollment, scores, etc.)
California Postsecondary Education Commission (university students, tuitions, etc.)
California Legislative Information, laws (statutes and legislative information)
California Highway Patrol (statistics on traffic accidents by age)
Studying adolescents: Ethnography
Those who prefer studying people directly, rather than statistics or research generalizing about people, may prefer ethnography. Ethnographers let the people being studied describe themselves in their own words in interviews and focus groups, or through surveys, and observe them in their own settings. A succinct description of ethnography and its methods is found in the International Encyclopedia of Sociology (Volume 1, 1995, pp. 477-80), reproduced in Appendix A.
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