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TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY GENERATION: Report Compares Well-being of Today’s Teens With That of 1970s’ Teens

"Our analysis shows some areas of real improvement from one generation to the next, but the key measure for America's children is not where they've been or where they are, but where they should be."

After an upward trend from 1994 through 2002, improvements in the well-being of America’s children and youth have stalled, according to the 2008 Foundation for Child Development Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI). The index peaked right after September 11 but has dipped and risen by fractional amounts since then. Overall, the CWI shows less than a 3 percent improvement for kids over the past generation.

“The slow growth of recent years is troubling; we haven’t made enough progress to shield ourselves for the future,” said Kenneth Land, project coordinator of the CWI and sociology professor and director of the Center for Population Health and Aging at Duke University. “Our data show us that the economic recession and slowdown of 2001-2002 hurt children. We also expect that the current challenges in the housing, employment, energy and food sectors will have negative impacts on our children’s well-being in years to come.”

According to the report, the slight improvement in children’s quality of life in 2002 was because of a temporary reaction to September 11. “This year’s analysis shows that, rather than signaling an upward trend, the up-tick across indicators in 2002 was more likely a collective-and anomalous-reaction to 9/11,” the report reads. “As America united behind a common purpose, communities and families came together as well. This was reflected in the surge in the Social Relationships and Emotional and Spiritual Well-Being indicators. Those indicators declined in the subsequent years, contributing to an overall stall in children’s well-being.”

This year’s report also includes a special focus on the well-being of “echo boomer” teens in this decade and teenagers in the mid-1970s (at least some of whom are probably parents of the teens of today). In its analysis, the report finds that today’s youth have slightly better educational outcomes than did those of thirty years ago. For example, the percentage of youth aged eighteen to twenty-four who have earned their high school diplomas increased from 80.6 percent in 1975-77 to 82.7 percent in 2003-05. Similarly, the percentage of young adults aged twenty-five to twenty-nine who possessed their bachelor’s degree increased from 23.3 percent in the 1970s to 28.8 percent in the mid-2000s.

Regarding actual course work, the report finds little to no gain in reading scores among today’s thirteen- and seventeen-year-olds, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In math, today’s thirteen-year-olds score significantly better than teens in the 1970s, but seventeen-year-olds are only slightly better, as indicated in the graph to the right.

Today’s teens are also less likely to participate in risky behavior. For example, they are less likely than their counterparts in the mid-1970s to smoke cigarettes (24.2 percent to 38 percent), binge drink (28.1 percent to 37.8 percent), and use drugs (23.5 percent to 34.2 percent). They are also less likely to be teenage parents (22 percent to 34.7 percent) and victims of violent crime (15.2 percent to 33 percent). However, today’s teens are more likely to live in poverty (16.3 percent to 15.5 percent) and three times more likely to be overweight (17.6 percent to 5.7 percent).

“Our analysis shows some areas of real improvement from one generation to the next, but the key measure for America’s children is not where they’ve been or where they are, but where they should be,” said Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development. “It’s time for America to demand better for our children.”

The CWI calculates the overall status of American children for every year since 1975 and is based on a composite of twenty-eight key indicators of well-being that are grouped into seven quality of life areas: economic well-being, health, safety, educational attainment, and participation in schooling, economic, and political institutions.

The complete report is available at

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