As their elders deteriorate into social epidemics and reactionary nationalism, young Americans as a generation are avoiding crime, violence, prison, parenthood, dropout, and other major life determinants and adopting more inclusive, global attitudes.
This isn’t “kids are all right!” romanticism; it’s a confluence of hard facts and trends. As American politics seems increasingly hopeless, striking generation gaps in attitudes and behaviors have emerged. Leaders and experts don’t comprehend how seismic youth improvements have been or what’s driving them.
In California, nearly three-fourths of young people now are of color.
The gap begins with demography. The census finds Americans under age 25 (51 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 14 percent black, 5 percent Asian, 5 percent other/mixed) far more diverse than elders (age 55-older: 74 percent white).
In harbingers such as California, nearly three-fourths of young people now are of color, and half have at least one foreign-born parent. That’s what America’s future looks like.
And they’re leading a revolution. Statistics look like typos, but they’re real.
As California’s teenage youth population grew by 1 million from 1990 to 2015, Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control, and census figures show their murder arrests fell from 658 to 88 (in Los Angeles and notorious Compton, from 269 to 8 ), violent crimes from 21,000 to 7,000, property felonies from 54,000 to 7,000, total criminal arrests from 220,000 to 63,000, gun killings from 351 to 84, juvenile imprisonments from 10,000 to 700, births from 26,000 to 7,000, and school dropout rates from 16 percent to 6 percent. College enrollment and graduation soared (from 34 percent to 47 percent).
In the 1970s, 10 percent of youthful Californians were arrested every year; in the 1990s, 7 percent; today, 2 percent. These are the sunniest numbers ever reliably recorded.
While erudite magazines recycle tiresome railings against “terrible teens,” California teenagers are acting better than grownups by nearly all indexes. Not just privileged youth are doing so. Troubles plummeted in tough East Oakland and affluent Irvine alike. Not because authorities “got tough;” just the opposite. Very few youths get busted for pot, drinking, curfew, etc., anymore; arrests for “underage” this or that are fast disappearing.
While California’s trends are especially pronounced, FBI and CDC tabulations show major declines in youth problems are occurring everywhere—from Connecticut to Texas, Michigan to Arizona, Atlanta to Seattle, in localities with vigorous anti-violence measures and those with none, with strong gun controls or “gun rights” regimes, with lots of kids in prison or few. Since 1995, the FBI’s 40 reporting states saw juvenile violent and property crime declines of at least 55 percent; 23 had declines of over 70 percent.
The credit for improvements appears to lie with younger generations themselves.
That large improvements among youth occurred in areas with very different conditions and policies makes them difficult for ideologues and experts to explain. Analyses shows repressive measures that were supposed to make youth safer, like higher drinking ages, teen driving bans, and curfews, have either proven ineffective or made dangers worse. Little has been done to reduce staggering levels of poverty afflicting the young. College tuitions have soared, along with student debt.
The credit for improvements appears to lie with younger generations themselves. What experts like Princeton’s John DiIulio once considered the nightmare scenario—thousands more dark-skinned youth (“adolescent super-predators”) on the streets, less policed than ever—now looks like a beacon of hope in an America whose grownups, from exploding middle-aged drug and crime scourges to political regressions, act crazier every day.
Maladaptation to racial and social change appears to underlie real pathologies, particularly among aging whites. Middle-aged rural and suburban whites’ soaring death rates from drugs and guns are now higher than those of inner-city Black and Latino teenagers. America’s fastest growing prison population is middle-aged Whites, while younger people show big decreases. President Trump blames White malaise on drug-running immigrants and city-dwellers, but Whites are 75 times more likely to die from self-inflicted drug overdoses and suicides, and six times more likely to be murdered by other Whites, than to be killed by non-White assailants.
When it comes to America’s racial transition driven by immigration frightening Trump-voting Whites, California’s been there, done that. After 1980s and ’90s anti-immigrant/drug-war/crime-crackdown/school-defunding/prison-building panics, California’s new era of liberal reforms emerged—and California Whites (a 70 percent majority in 1980; a 40 percent minority today) are doing splendidly, richer than ever, safer than Whites elsewhere from deadly drugs and guns—and voting against Trump.
Younger Whites, particularly young White women, increasingly resemble non-Whites in social attitudes.
That most older Whites still refuse to accept a multiracial society accompanies a counter-reaction in which diverse associations contribute to young people’s positive trends. White youth living in and around immigrant-friendly Los Angeles and New York City are considerably safer from drug, suicide, and firearms death than White youth elsewhere in the country. Younger Whites, particularly young White women, increasingly resemble non-Whites in social attitudes, while older Whites remain far more reactionary.
Polls and surveys consistently show younger Americans strongly favor gay marriage (and universally accept interracial marriage), religious tolerance, a “welcome all” stance toward immigrants, personal association with diverse populations, scientific reasoning rather than religious faith, action to reverse climate change, proactive government action on the economy and health care, and liberal/left candidates who act on these agendas. Americans age 50 and older generally hold the reverse positions; older whites still oppose interracial marriage, would ban all immigration, and harbor intense “racial resentment.”
Exit polls in the 2016 election showed the under-25 (anti-Trump) versus 45-older (pro-Trump) split exceeded 35 points. In many states, especially in the South, young and old occupy different political and social worlds. In California, a triangulation of exit polls shows, young White men voted against Trump by 20 points, young White women by 40 points, older white women by 10 points, and all ages of color by 40-80 points; only White men 40 and older supported Trump. California maps the future of the American electorate.
A shrinking contingent of racist and violent young who occasionally generate deplorable headlines remains, but they’re not symptoms of mass depravity. Hard-nosed facts and trends show future-oriented Americans should look to young people as validating progressives’ faith in diversity and globalism. Incorporating younger ages into voting, office-holding, and civic leadership are keys to activating the potential of today’s remarkable youth revolution to reverse today’s destructive public fray.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.