Today’s Teenagers: Anxious About Their Futures and Disillusioned by Politicians

Today’s Teenagers: Anxious About Their Futures and Disillusioned by Politicians

Although it has never been easy to be a teenager, the current generation of young Americans feels particularly apprehensive, new polling shows — anxious about their lives, disillusioned about the direction of the country and pessimistic about their futures.

Just one-third of respondents ages 12 to 17 said things were going well for children and teenagers today, in a survey published Monday by Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group. Less than half said they thought they would be better off than their parents when they grew up — a downbeat view shared among teenagers in many rich countries, other data shows.

It’s not just about teenage angst. A different survey, by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, the latest installment of which was also released Monday, has asked questions of young people over time and looked at how their answers have changed. Members of Gen Z, ages 12 to 27, are significantly less likely to rate their current and future lives highly than millennials were when they were the same age, it found.

Among those 18 to 26, just 15 percent said their mental health was excellent. That is a large decline from both 2013 and 2003, when just over half said so.

An issue of prime importance to teenagers across surveys is education. Asked an open-ended question by Common Sense about the most important thing that could be done to improve the lives of children, a plurality, one in five, said improving or reforming the education system.

More than half of teenagers said public K-12 schools were doing a fair or poor job. Just 8 percent said they were doing an excellent job.

Sixty percent said pandemic learning loss was a problem. Margaret Spellings, the chief executive of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a secretary of education under President George W. Bush, said teenagers are “absolutely right.”

“We have to get these kids caught up or they’re going to have a world of hurt in their lives, and consequently in our country,” she said.

When Gallup asked teenagers for the three words that best described how they felt in school, the most common answers were bored, tired and pressured.

Just a quarter said they were very confident their current school was doing a good job preparing them for the future. They said they wanted more instruction focused on hands-on learning that prepared them for careers, said Romy Drucker, director of the education program at the Walton Family Foundation.

“Mental health in and of itself is a public health concern, and I think it’s also a signal of an overall sense of distress, uncertainty, dislocation,” Dr. Biel said.

Adults shared many of the teenagers’ concerns. In a companion survey of 1,000 likely voters by Common Sense, a majority said things were not going well for families.

Eight in 10 said they were concerned about children’s future economic opportunities, consistently across race, gender and party.

Together, Ms. Lake said, the surveys suggest that the causes of teenagers’ pessimism — their concerns about politics, education, mental health, social media and their financial futures — are interrelated, a message she said she wants the politicians she serves to understand.

“Right now, if I said to clients that investing in kids is the No. 1 issue, they would say, ‘No, the economy is No. 1,’” she said. “And what we would say to them is: You are missing what people want in this economy. Investment in children is central to the economy, both to young people and to adults.”

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