The term young people generally refers to the segment of the population that ranges from the age of about 13 to that of about 19 or 20. Other terms include teenager, adolescent, youth, and young adult. Sociological aspects of the age group are discussed in this article, whereas the biological and psychological changes that occur in teenagers are discussed in adolescence. Sociologically, young people are in the life stage between childhood and adulthood, or, in most Western societies, between a state of dependence on their parents and the achievement of relative independence.
In the 1950s and '60s the United States saw an unprecedented increase in the number of teenagers as a result of the post–World War II >baby boom. The total number rose from about 17 million in 1950 to about 30 million in 1970 and reached almost 34 million in 1976. Thereafter, the number began to decline, a trend that continued until the late 1990s, when there was some increase in the teen population. During the first decade of the 21st century, levels may again approach those of the mid-1970s.
Traditionally, young people have formed an important link in the transmission and preservation of the heritage of a culture. Because some degree of tension between the generations and competition for status and power are considered more or less inevitable in all cultures, primitive and industrial societies alike have emphasized the duty of young people to parents and other adults and have required them to obey the rules of the social order. Marked contrasts between primitive and industrialized societies exist, however, in the means by which young people assume adulthood. In many preindustrial societies elaborate ceremonies of initiation mark the transition from childhood to young adult status. Such ritualizations, called rites of passage, foster among the participants a sense of continuity and ease the readjustment to changed roles and modes of behavior. By contrast, the transitions away from the relative dependence and lack of clear responsibility characteristic of childhood are less clearly defined in Western cultures, and this absence of formal definition has produced an ambiguous and often conflicting set of expectations for young people. They are told to behave maturely yet at the same time are denied access to the rights and privileges of adults. They are also prone to problems of peer pressure, perhaps most adversely in such inner-city situations as membership in gangs.
Furthermore, as Western society has become more urbanized, mechanized, and specialized, the number of roles in which young people's social and economic contributions are needed or valued has declined. This has resulted all too often in a lack of opportunity to engage in the very activities that prepare young people for the adult world and adult pursuits. Young people are unable to try out a variety of roles and values, a process that contributes to the healthy development of independent goals and a sense of identity.
The creative and dynamic potential of young people is often in conflict with pressures toward social and economic conformity, and this conflict has sometimes led to questions about the role of some traditional institutions—questions often raised by young people themselves. Recent examples of such questioning by young people of established values and institutions include the counterculture movements that arose in North America and Europe in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Although these movements largely failed as forces of social and political revolt, they nonetheless exerted considerable influence on evolving values and cultural trends within the traditional culture.
In all societies education has been viewed as a means of preserving and maintaining a culture as well as a means of laying the foundations of the future success of individuals. These traditional functions have been somewhat modified in the United States by current social realities. In recent years the role of the school as a primary agent of socializationhas been threatened by the increasing influence of the media and of peer associations on the lives of young people. As many young people became disenchanted with the sterility of the traditional classroom, efforts were made beginning in the 1960s to provide alternative learning opportunities. Such options, including out-of-classroom learning, work-study programs, open schools, and alternative schools, perhaps influenced school dropout rates in the United States, which peaked during the early 1970s but have since declined. Alternative schools today provide opportunities for at-risk students to complete high school.
The U.S. school system has traditionally segregated young people by age into junior and senior high schools. It has become apparent that such age clusters do not necessarily reflect the wide variations among young people, particularly of the ages 13 to 16, in physical, social, and intellectual development. Furthermore, individualized goals are often difficult for young people to develop or for teachers to encourage in classes with large numbers of students. Among other efforts aimed at coping with overcrowded classrooms, schools are developing methods to promote individual attention through the use of teacher's aides, volunteers, and peer tutors.
Despite the problems found in educational institutions that have prompted a movement toward home schooling and toward a voucher system whereby students can opt out of troubled schools into better schools, both public and private, education remains a means for many to personal success and social mobility. Universal high-school education has long been a major social commitment in the United States; in the mid-1990s about 90% of all high-school students graduated—the highest proportion in the nation's history. (It should be noted, however, that in 1997 the 2.7 million high-school graduates represented only about 70% of the 17-year-old U.S. population.) The number of young people participating in higher education also has increased. In 1996 nearly 14.3 million people were enrolled in college, more than double the enrollment in 1965. These educated and skilled young people are much needed, particularly in high-tech job positions, as the economy in the United States and other parts of the world experiences a technological revolution extending into the 21st century.
The participation of young people in the workforce has generally increased in recent years. In the late 1990s more than 50% of all young people from the age of 16 to age 19 were employed either full or part time. The most marked increase has been in the rate of young women entering employment.
Although large numbers of young people are employed either full or part time, unemployment rates remain higher for poor young people—particularly the minority poor—and school dropouts who lack minimal skills and education. Experts anticipate that employment prospects for unskilled young people will remain problematic in the face of continuing technological advances and the increased numbers of women entering and remaining in the labor force. Also, older workers may exercise their options for delayed retirement, and beginning in 2003, the retirement age for collecting social security will gradually increase to age 67.
The young can be handicapped by the quality of employment opportunities available to them. Much available work set aside for them is in what is called the secondary labor market—low-paying jobs with little prestige or security in which employers expect a frequent turnover in personnel.
The transition from school to work, whether full or part time, is significant in the lives of young people, yet almost no preparation is provided. Aside from the relatively recent introduction of work-study programs in some areas, little effort has been made on the part of society or the schools to integrate school and work as part of a total educational process. Ways must be found to place value on the contributions of young people to the labor market without exploiting their availability and lack of experience.
In recent decades concern has been voiced regarding persistent problems of young people that have long-term social consequences. One of these problems has been unwanted pregnancies among teenagers. A National Research Council study noted that in 1987 about 1 million teenagers became pregnant, resulting in some 470,000 births, 400,000 abortions, and 130,000 miscarriages. In 1995 about 853,000 pregnant teenagers (15 to 19 years of age) had 484,000 live births, 252,000 abortions, and 116,000 miscarriages. Of special concern is pregnancies among girls under the age of 15. Unwanted pregnancies in this young age group have serious implications for both the long-term development of the young mother and the normal development of the infant. The evidence indicates that early pregnancies handicap young women educationally and vocationally and limit their future options. While teenage pregnancy remains a problem in the United States, where teen birthrates far exceed those of other industrial nations, it significantly decreased from 1991 to 1997, reaching the lowest levels in 40 years.
Another area of concern is drug abuse among young people. Surveys indicate that nearly 10% (1997) of persons 12 to 17 years old are current users of marijuana, and another 19% have tried it; some young people also use a variety of other mood-altering chemicals and drugs. In the same age group, alcohol is currently used by about 20% (1997), and nearly another 40% had tried drinking alcoholic beverages. Evidence seems to indicate that drug use—including alcohol consumption—is experimental and transient for most young people and occurs most often in groups.
A third area of concern is the rate of violence among young people. In the United States in the mid-1990s violence was among the most common causes of death in this age group. Suicide alone was the third most common cause of violent death (in the group aged from 15 to 24). The peak ages among teens for suicide attempts are from 15 to 19. Estimates indicate that as many as 100 people may attempt suicide and fail for every one who succeeds. Suicide attempts by young people are often signals of distress and pleas for help with some personal crisis. Even when the attempt seems halfhearted or manipulative, it should be taken seriously. School violence—that is, violence occurring in or near schools—has been of increasing concern since the late 1990s. The deadliest example is the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where 12 students and 1 teacher were gunned down by 2 students, who then killed themselves.
Bock, R. D., and Moore, E. G., Advantage and Disadvantage: A Profile of American Youth (1986).
Brake, Michael, Comparative Youth Culture (1985).
Cregan, Christina, Young People in the Workplace: Job, Union, and Mobility Patterns (1998).
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, et al., Talented Teenagers (1993).
Edelman, Peter, and Ladner, Joyce, eds., Adolescence and Poverty (1991).
Erikson, Erik H., Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968; repr. 1995).
Finnegan, William, Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (1998).
Goodman, Paul, Growing Up Absurd (1960).
Handlin, Oscar, Facing Life (1971).
Hersch, Patricia, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (1998).
Hines, Thomas, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (1999).
Lester, David, The Cruelest Death (1992).
Milstein, S. G., et al., eds., Promoting Adolescent Health (1993).
Norman, Jane, and Harris, Myron, The Private Life of the American Teenager (1981).
Palladino, Grace, Teenagers: An American History (1996).
O'Donnell, Mike, and McNeill, Patrick, Age and Generation (1985).
Rapoport, Robert N., ed., Children, Youth, and Families (1985).
Rogers, D. E., and Ginzberg, Eli, eds., Adolescents at Risk (1992).
Winefield, A. H., et al., Growing Up with Unemployment (1993).