A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n


America today is struggling to maintain its standard of living and its prominent position among the countries of the world. How well it succeeds will depend on today's youth. They will be the leaders and the citizens of the 21st century.

Webster defines youth as "the period of life between childhood and maturity." It is a period in which physical, emotional, and educational changes take place. Children grow into adults, they become emotionally independent, many leave home and marry while others continue schooling well into their maturity. Couple the demands of these personal changes with the demands of a changing society and it is easy to see why youth might also be defined as a difficult time of life.

While suffering through the passage to maturity, each generation also faces unique challenges. In the world of tomorrow, citizens will conduct business in a global economy. Unprecedented amounts of technology will confront them with a continued barrage of new information. Citizens will need to be comfortable acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills. They will need to tackle educational and health-related problems and cultural differences in order to deal with economic and societal pressures.

Americans are committed to preparing young people for these challenges. The President and the Governors have pledged their support for educational improvement, for health care reform, for social actions that would actively involve youth in the improvement of society. Increasingly, policymakers and the interested public are turning their attention to issues of children, youth, and families and are trying to connect education policies with policies addressing welfare, job training, national service, employment, child care, and health, and with other policies that affect the lives of young people.

Youth Indicators was created to meet the needs of these policymakers who must establish a context for viewing trends in the well-being of youth. Such a perspective is essential for those seeking to understand the factors that enhance or diminish the future opportunities of our young people.

Youth Indicators cuts across disciplines and agency lines. It is intended to be of use to agency officials and others in public life concerned with integrating human services for youth and their families. It contains statistics that address important aspects of the lives of youth--family, work, education, health, behavior, and attitudes. When strung together, the data create an outline of the conditions under which young people live. Researchers and policymakers can look at the outline to see where it must be filled in. The data point to areas where added research is needed, where intervention might be beneficial, and where changes might be made. Ideally, these indicators will be used as catalysts for further study and action.

One important objective of the report is to present changes over time, rather than to deliver "snapshots" of contemporary conditions. Whenever possible, tables go as far back as 1950, or even earlier, providing needed historical context for today's issues. Some indicators cover only more recent years--either because they show key details or because data are simply not available for earlier years.

Each indicator contains a table, chart, and brief descriptive text. The indicators are grouped in sections that feature particular areas of youth experience. The tables provide current and trend information on a given topic. The charts are designed to illuminate the statistical tables, highlighting their most important aspects. Short paragraphs describe critical features of each indicator, showing the types of inference one might reasonably make. A short glossary defines key technical terms.

These indicators are representative but do not constitute the total body of knowledge about American youth. While the selection of indicators itself is open to debate, the assortment we have collected is intended to be full and fair in its overall portrayal of conditions facing young people. Because new data reveal changes in some of the trends we present, Youth Indicators is updated regularly, with the aim of maintaining its usefulness. We invite continuing dialogue with readers about the approaches taken and the indicators selected.

We have organized this report according to general themes reflected in some of its most important indicators. While the task of interpretation belongs with the reader, some comments on the nature and substance of the data are included. We hope the following passages will serve as reference points against which readers may compare and contrast their own views on the progress of American youth.


Demographics and Family Composition

Changes in birth rates profoundly influence society for decades as larger or smaller groups (birth cohorts) move through school, adulthood, the workforce, and finally into retirement. Larger birth cohorts can cause pressure for building schools, hiring more teachers, and expanding medical services; reduced cohorts can have the opposite effect. In recent years, demographic shifts in the youth population have placed great stress on schools, colleges, and the workforce.

The best-known of these population shifts is the "baby boom," the rise in births from the late 1940s through the early 1960s that created a large population bulge. This bulge caused elementary and secondary school enrollment to rise rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, which in turn created a surge in school construction and a demand for hundreds of thousands of new teachers. The boom's aftershock hit in the 1970s when sharply declining birth rates resulted in drops in enrollment that left schools underutilized and sometimes overstaffed. Meanwhile, the baby boom moved through society and unprecedented numbers of young people entered the labor market, causing heavy competition for entry-level jobs and depressing wage levels. Many demographers predict that this population bulge will create similar pressures on retirement funds and health care services as members of that age cohort move into their retirement years. It is worth observing that "baby boomers" will first become eligible to collect Social Security in the first decade of the new century.

Population shifts are responsible for major changes in school enrollment trends. From 1971 to 1984, total elementary and secondary school enrollment decreased every year, reflecting the decline in the school-age population over that period. Between 1985 and 1990 public school enrollment in kindergarten through grade eight rose, while enrollment in the upper grades declined.

By 1996, total elementary and secondary enrollments are projected to surpass the previous high set in 1971 and are expected to continue to rise into the next century. This expansion will force increasing demands for more teachers, school buildings, and social services.

Another long-term demographic trend is that fewer couples are getting married and doing so at a later age than in the recent past. In fact, this trend appears to be a return to the pattern of marriage prevalent in the late nineteenth century. Historically, the 1950s were a period of early marriages. Despite the decline in marriage rates, however, the United States still has a substantially higher marriage rate than do other developed nations. The divorce rate in the United States is also much higher than in other developed nations, although that rate, too, is declining.

The structure of families has also changed, with fewer married-couple families containing children. This change reflects both a decline in birth rates among younger families and an increase in the proportion of older married couples who are unlikely to have children under 18. In 1992, fewer than half of white families had children under 18, although the majority of Hispanic and black families did.

Moreover, women are waiting until they are older to bear children and are having fewer of them. In the late 1980s, women--particularly white women--seemed to wait longer to have children. Until 1985, the women aged 20 to 24 had the highest birth rate. In the late 1980s, 25- to 29-year-old women had the highest birth rate. Birth rates for 30- to 34-year-old women have risen 50 percent since 1975. Minority women continue to bear children most frequently in their early 20s.

One important exception to the pattern of declining birth rates has been the increasing rate at which unmarried women give birth. Since the mid-1970s birth rates to unmarried women of all ages and races, except minority teenagers, have risen. In the late 1980s, births to unmarried minority teenagers began to rise as well.

Families grew smaller over the past two decades, a pattern especially notable between 1970 and 1980. Even when single adults and couples have children they are having fewer of them. Since 1980, the average number of children per family has been less than two.

The growth in out-of-wedlock births, coupled with a high divorce rate, has fed another phenomenon: a rising proportion of children living with only one parent. The proportion of children under 18 living in married-couple families declined between 1970 and 1992, while the proportion living in single-parent families grew. In 1992, 24 percent of children lived in single-parent families. The figures for minority children are even higher. In 1992, 57 percent of black children lived in single-parent homes compared with 19 percent of white children and 29 percent of Hispanic children. These numbers represent children's living status during a single year. Many more children are affected over their lifetime by the impact of divorce. As social science examines the emotional and psychological consequences of single-parent households, the economic consequences are already clear. Single-parent families tend to suffer severe economic disadvantages.

A striking change in the youth experience is an apparent lengthening of the transition period from childhood to maturity. Several symptoms mark this phenomenon. Young adults are more likely to live with their parents. While high school completion rates have improved only modestly, more graduates are going to college. Attending college typically results in a higher paying job, but it also delays moving into the work force full-time and entails paying rising tuition. With all its benefits, this expensive lengthening of the education process makes it difficult for youths to become financially independent until they complete their studies. And even when they have full-time jobs, young people's incomes have not kept pace with those of other age groups.

Housing costs climbed faster than incomes between 1975 and 1985. Although the situation generally improved between 1985 and 1989, it may have contributed to youths living with their parents longer.

Prolonged education and economic dependency may contribute to the increasingly older ages at which people now marry and women begin childbearing. During the 1950s and 1960s, the average age of women at first marriage was about 20; between 1975 and 1988 this rose rapidly, reaching an average of 24. Viewed another way, marriage rates among 18- to 24-year-old women have dropped significantly; that is, the share of women in that population who are currently married is much lower than before 1975. On the other hand, marriage rates for older women, ages 25 to 44, remained stable between 1975 and 1988. This means that the average age at first marriage for women is now higher than at any point since 1890, when such data were first compiled for the United States.

Family Income

While the average size of the family has tapered off in recent years, its average income has stabilized. Between 1950 and 1970, median family income as adjusted for inflation rose significantly. Family income has, on average, been stable since 1970.

Because families are smaller and incomes have stabilized, American families are slowly growing more affluent. However, some changes in family life are caused by shifts in the labor force status of family members. Two factors have affected the family: the decline in constant dollars in men's salaries, and the increase in women's labor force participation.

Real income for all men who worked full time dropped by 5 percent between 1970 and 1982 and remained at the 1982 level in 1991. For young men who worked full time, income has fallen more: annual income, adjusted for inflation, for 20- to 24-year-old men in 1991 was 32 percent below what it had been in 1970. On average, young women's incomes also dropped between 1970 and 1991; 20- to 24-year-old women lost about 15 percent of their real income. However, for all full-time women workers, incomes rose by about 11 percent during that time. While the gain of women's income relative to men's suggests some improvement in pay equity, the income gap remains large. Incomes for all men remained 43 percent above those for all women in 1991.

The participation of more family members in the workforce, particularly married women, has served to buttress family incomes in spite of the decline in incomes for males. In 1960, only 39 percent of married women in families with children 6 to 17 years old were in the labor force; 62 percent were in 1980 and 74 percent in 1991. (A portion of the increased participation consisted of part-time workers.) Even more dramatic has been the rise in labor force participation of married women with children under 6--from 19 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 1991. This increase in employment of women is partially responsible for the stable family income figures. At the same time, with more mothers working outside the home, the pressures on society for better child care and after school activities for older children have increased.

Not all households are financially secure. Female-headed households continue to struggle with poverty, and it is in these households that child poverty is concentrated. In 1991, 46 percent of children under 18 in female-headed households were supported with an income under $10,000. In contrast, only 5 percent of children under 18 in married-couple families lived with these economic constraints. Poverty rates were relatively high for minority children. The proportion of poor children coming from female-headed households has risen dramatically, from 24 percent in 1960 to 59 percent in 1991 for all children, and from 29 percent to 83 percent for black children.

Most unmarried women with children work. About 85 percent of all divorced women and 75 percent of separated women with 6- to 17-year-old children were in the labor force in 1991.

The conditions of children in female-headed households are further exacerbated by the fact that absent fathers often do not meet their full financial obligations. In 1989, only about half of women awarded child support payments received their full entitlement. Less than one-fourth received partial payment, and one-fourth received no payment.


There were some 61.2 million students enrolled in education institutions in 1991 from the elementary to the college and university levels. Between 1985 and 1991, enrollment rates for 18- to 24-year-olds rose rapidly. The complexion of the student body has been gradually changing, with minority populations growing as a proportion of the total population. Between 1960 and 1991, the proportion of white students declined at the elementary and secondary levels, while the proportion of black students stabilized and that of Hispanic students grew.

A major influence on students' later educational and occupational opportunities is the type of high school program in which they enroll. In 1990, more 17-year-olds reported enrolling in college preparatory and academic programs than had reported enrolling in such programs in 1982. Correspondingly, the number enrolled in vocational education had declined from 12 percent in 1982 to 9 percent in 1990.

High school completion rates have improved. Black students are staying in school longer, with more completing high school and college. Hispanics complete less school than other groups and only 9 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Hispanics completed 4 years of college or more in 1991 as compared with 25 percent of whites.

A much higher proportion of students are completing high school today than in the 1950s. In 1950, barely half (53 percent) of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed high school, and only 8 percent had completed 4 years of college. In 1991, the figures had climbed to 85 percent completing high school and 23 percent completing 4 years of college.

College attendance is at an all-time high. Women's participation at all levels of higher education rose rapidly during the 1960s and has continued to increase. In 1959-60, women received 35 percent of all bachelor's degrees and 32 percent of all master's degrees. By 1990- 91, nearly 54 percent of all bachelor's and master's degrees were awarded to women. Moreover, the percentage of doctor's degrees received by women had climbed from 13 percent in 1969-70 to 37 percent in 1990-91.


It is problematic to judge student achievement during the 1950s and 1960s because we lack appropriate measures. Between 1971 and 1990, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test specifically designed to measure national trends, revealed no general improvement in reading performance. However, increases in the scores of black and Hispanic 17-year-olds suggest improvements were made in the education of our less-advantaged students. While the sizable gaps in test scores between whites and blacks, and between whites and Hispanics still remain, they have narrowed in reading, mathematics, and science.

NAEP science scores, which declined in the 1970s, improved in the 1980s. Science scores were at the same levels for ages 9 and 13 in 1990 as they were in 1970, but were lower for 17-year-olds. NAEP results in mathematics are more positive, with students' average mathematics proficiency significantly higher in 1990 than it had been in 1978.

International comparisons provide us with food for thought. In a 1990 international reading assessment, the United States performed in the top group for both 9- and 14-year-olds. However, in an international comparison of mathematics and science performance among 13-year-olds, United States students were not among the highest performing group in either subject. They performed at or near the average in science, and below the average in mathematics.

On the whole, however, student achievement seems to be rising slowly in elementary and secondary schools. But many educators doubt whether current achievement levels are sufficient to ensure American competitiveness in the future.

Out-of-School Experiences

How students spend their out-of-school time affects their success in school as well as their success in life. Some activities support learning; others siphon off valuable time from studies. Some activities enrich students' lives, help prepare them for the responsibilities of citizenship, improve race relations, and enhance students' self-image. Researchers continue to investigate the effects of athletic, aesthetic or expressive, and academic extracurricular activities on adolescent development.

In 1990 as in 1980, athletics remained the most popular extracurricular activity among 10th graders. In fact, teenagers and young adults were far more likely to participate in many types of sporting activities than older adults. Younger adolescents ages 12 to 17 tended to participate in organized group sports, while older youths ages 18 to 24 were more likely to participate in aerobics, exercise walking, or exercising with equipment. During the 1980 to 1990 period, extracurricular participation by 10th graders in academic clubs increased nearly 5 percent, while participation in hobby clubs and musical activities decreased.

Many high school students work while going to school. Some students help support their families, others need money for higher education, and still others want more spending money. Two-fifths of high school seniors said they spent most of their earnings on personal items. Black students were more likely to contribute their earnings to meet family expenses than were white students. Seniors planning to attend a 4-year college were more likely to save for their education than other seniors.

Students' employment opportunities appear to fluctuate with the overall economy. Between 1989 and 1991, employment rates declined for 16- to 17-year-olds, especially among black youth. Nevertheless, female students were more likely to be employed in 1991 than in 1970. Employment rates for whites were three times higher than those for blacks and unemployment rates for black students were correspondingly higher than rates for white students.

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed, rising 43 percent at public 4-year colleges and 67 percent at private colleges between 1979-80 and 1991-92 after adjustment for inflation. Compared with median family income, charges for students at public 4-year colleges dropped during the 1960s and 1970s, but increased during the 1980s to a level comparable to 1960. Charges for students at private 4-year colleges, as a ratio of family income, also declined during the 1960s and 1970s, but rose rapidly during the 1980s to levels much higher than those of the past 30 years. Understandably, households headed by young adults under 25 spent less than the average consumer in almost every category while spending more on education.


While people live longer than ever before, youths still suffer their share of health problems. More and more, these problems stem from behavior rather than disease. In 1990, the leading causes of death among 15- to 24-year-olds were motor vehicle accidents, homicide, and suicide. The number of deaths per 100,000 men 15 to 24 years old fell from 168 in 1950 to 147 in 1990. For young women, the rate fell from 89 to 49. These drops reflect advances in medicine and disease prevention which resulted in declining death rates from diseases during this time.

Health care often depends on the availability of health insurance. In 1989, about 69 percent of children under 18 and their families were covered by some type of health insurance. Children from families with higher incomes were more likely to be covered by health insurance than children from poor families. Children of more educated parents, regardless of their family income, were more apt to be covered than children of less educated parents.

Schools have taken up the task of educating students about health, particularly where behavioral changes can prevent problems. In 1990, more than four-fifths of 10th graders had received alcohol or drug abuse education in their current school, and more than three-fifths had received AIDS education and family life or sex education.

On the behavioral side, the rate of deaths from homicide and suicide rose between 1960 and 1990. White male suicide rates exceeded those for women or minority males. Minority male homicide rates exceeded those for other groups. Motor vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, although the rate has been declining in recent years and is lower now than in 1960. Illegal drugs remain a problem for youth, although the proportion of high school seniors who reported having ever used illegal drugs in 1992 (41 percent) was lower than in 1975 (55 percent). This fact is particularly significant when compared with the figures for 1980 when 65 percent of seniors reported ever using illegal drugs. Alcohol continues to be the most popular substance with 88 percent of seniors in 1992 reporting its use. It is followed in popularity by cigarettes (62 percent) and marijuana/hashish (33 percent).

Pregnancy rates for teenagers rose slightly between 1980 and 1988. About two-fifths of teenage pregnancies result in abortion.


How are American young people developing as citizens? Many youths volunteer for school and other organizations, although they are less likely to do so than older adults. Religious organizations and educational institutions are the two dominant areas in which they serve.

Nevertheless, religion is becoming less important in the lives of youth. A smaller proportion of high school seniors reported attending religious services every week in 1991 than in 1980--31 and 43 percent respectively. The proportion who felt that religion was important in their lives dropped from 65 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 1991.

High school students continue to believe in the value of work, marriage and family, and leisure time. However, sophomores in 1990 placed more value on money and having children than their counterparts 10 years earlier.

On the less positive side, crime among young people has been on the rise. In 1990, about 57 percent of those arrested for serious crimes were under 25 years old. The number of arrests per 1,000 young adults 18 to 24 years old more than doubled between 1965 and 1990, but most of the increase was between 1965 and 1980.


Youth should be a time of optimism and anticipation. Student aspirations and their modifications over time are intriguing topics for researchers. As youth consider their future economic prospects, the importance of higher education becomes apparent. Clearly, education adds to future earning power. Considerably more high school seniors in 1990 than in 1980, both male and female, hoped to complete college and beyond. More female students, in particular, were looking to attain a postgraduate degree. The increasing draw of women to higher education is not surprising given the trend of the past 20 years toward more women in the workforce. Between 1970 and 1992, the proportion of women 20 to 24 years old in the labor force rose from 58 to 71 percent.

Dropouts face dismal job prospects. In October 1992, only slightly more than one-third of those who had dropped out of school the previous year were employed. In contrast, high school graduates fared better. In 1992, more than three-fifths of that year's high school graduates not enrolled in college were employed.


On the previous pages we have tried to present the data in our charts and tables without interpreting them, limiting our narrative to illustration. We recognize it is never possible to succeed at this effort--as some of our most supportive critics point out, the mere selection of data and time periods suggests some interpretation. We wish, therefore, to be judged on the basis of our success at being evenhanded and at fueling in others the desire to examine and interpret the information in this book.

We recognize that this book does not report on many important dimensions of young peoples' lives. For some issues we have been unable to find reliable data. Figures on child immunizations, child abuse, runaways, and drug-addicted babies, for example, are of considerable public interest but difficult to obtain or verify.

Indicators of more subjective measures of human lives are also hard to discover. For example, three recent surveys charted the frequency with which families have dinner together and found the frequency relatively high. But documenting the effect of the family dinner or other family activities on a youth's behavior and performance is harder to do, and so is finding longitudinal data about family eating habits. Little wonder, then, that we lack hard information on the subtler aspects of the lives of American youth--their attachments to friends, their sense of control over their futures, their methods of coping with anonymity, their perceptions of how much adults care for their welfare.

We would like to think that the indicators that follow capture the essence of American youth. But we know how much more is left to be done. So our more modest goal is to sketch an outline others might fill in and suggest connections that others might develop. While this endeavor may inspire yet more questions, we trust it has also answered a few.

Acknowledgments Table of Contents Demographics and Family Composition

[ Home ]