Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis of 10 million people whose violent youth culture has been legendary in pop culture, myth and media. In the past, this reputation was for good cause. In 1990 alone, nearly 500 L.A. teenagers died from gunfire and 730 were arrested for murder.
Today, L.A. is again at the forefront of a youth revolution – this time a positive one.
In 2015 – in stark contrast to 1990 – teen gun-related deaths totaled 57, while teen murder arrests numbered 65. Overall in California, the crime rate among teenagers has dropped by 80 percent since 1980 – at the same time immigration has fueled a growing, more racially diverse young population, now 72 percent of color. The school dropout rate has also nosedived, as have births by teen and young-adult mothers. College enrollment and graduation rates have soared. These trends, moreover, are not unique to California. They’re happening nationally.
The flip side of young Americans’ astonishing behavioral turnaround is an equivalently dramatic decline among older Whites. In California, for example, the number of arrests among people over 40 in 2015 was nearly double the number of arrests among Black and Hispanic teens. Nationally, in a shocking reversal of past patterns, a middle-aged White is at greater risk today of violent death (by suicide, accident, or murder, and especially from guns or illicit drugs) than an African American teenager or young adult.
These stunning reversals of fortune among the generations could help explain one of the central mysteries of this year’s election cycle: why two such starkly divergent views of America – Republican Donald Trump’s grim vision of an apocalyptically degenerated America and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s sunny affirmation of a diversifying country’s bright future – are finding equal resonance. The short answer is that both portraits reflect equally valid truths about Americans’ experience today – depending on who and how old you are. While Democrats’ younger, more diverse constituencies are experiencing dramatic improvements in their personal security and behavioral well-being, Trump’s older White demographic is suffering rising drug abuse, crime, incarceration, suicide, gun fatality, and disarray.
These divergent realities, however, have also led to an extraordinary level of mutual incomprehension, as even sophisticated insiders in both parties and in the media seem largely ignorant of the underlying statistical facts. Hence, progressives dismiss the rage of Trump’s supporters as artifacts of mere racial prejudice and bigotry, without seeing that the anger is rooted in the very real personal insecurity middle-aged Whites are living with. And conservatives mistakenly impute to darker-skinned young people the growing chaos they may be feeling without understanding that a huge, multi-ethnic generation of young voters has perfectly sound reasons for feeling confident and optimistic.
Conventional wisdom holds that improvements in the status of youth should not be happening. Greater diversity, weakening families, disappearing authority, rejection of religion, more explicitly pervasive popular culture, emboldened gangs and peer cultures, and internet freedoms combined with supposedly innate teenage recklessness should be breeding ever-scarier youthful killers, bullies, rapists, narcissists, and alienates – or so the theory goes. Yet today’s young people are both the most racially and ethnically diverse and the best-acting, most prosocial generation ever reliably assessed.
Consider crime. Once branded “a young person’s game,” young Americans are increasingly the least likely group to engage in criminal behavior. In California, for example, per-capita criminal arrest rates among the state’s racially diverse teenagers have plunged to the levels of supposedly staid middle-agers, while arrests of older residents have been rising.
In 2015, the population-adjusted arrest rate for California teens ages 12-19 was just 2.9 percent, slightly below the level for middle-agers age 40-59 (3.0 percent).
Gun violence among California youth also has plunged to record lows, with rates falling 72 percent among ages 15-24 since 1990, as have deaths from drug abuse. In 2014, just 1 in 14 of deaths from illicit overdoses involved young people ages 10-24. Nationally, youths now account for fewer than 9 percent of violent crimes, including 4 percent of all homicides.
Among older Americans, however, all of these trends are running in reverse.
In California, for example, over the last three decades, felony arrests have tripled, illicit-drug abuse deaths have quadrupled, and imprisonments have risen 700 percent among White middle-agers, far outstripping their population increase. Whites age 40 and older now account for half the state’s drug overdose deaths, a pattern replicated nationally.
Perhaps no other trend so graphically shows the generational and racial divergence in risk than violent death (fatal accident, suicide, and murder) rates per 100,000 population over the last two decades for older (age 45-64) and younger (age 15-24) non-Hispanic Whites and all other races (Nonwhites). Before the mid-1990s, being a middle-aged White was the safest demographic by a considerable margin. Then, in the last 15-20 years, violent death rates skyrocketed among older Whites (up 74 percent) while decreasing among all other groups (older Nonwhites, down 12 percent; younger Whites, down 18 percent; younger Nonwhites, down 47 percent). Today, older Whites are the most in danger of violent death by a large margin while younger Nonwhites are now the least endangered.
More than half of all gun fatalities are now people over age 40, mostly suicides, and more than half the gunmen in mass shootings are older than 35, the FBI reports. A Violence Policy Center analysis cited “the aging of the current-gun owning population—primarily White males—and a lack of interest in guns by youth.”
And despite scary official ads showing kids stealing parents’ medications and news reports of teenagers dying from heroin, the latest Centers for Disease Control figures show parent-aged adults ages 45-54 to be eight times more likely to die from illicit drugs than high-school-age teens. Nearly six in 10 violent deaths among White middle-agers now involve guns or illegal drugs, mostly suicides and self-destructive accidents. A White middle-ager is now twice as likely to die from gunshots or illicit-drug overdose than other ages and races, including youth and young adults of color.
The evolving old-young, White-color division is manifest even in America’s harshest sector: prison. While young black men used to be the population filling prisons, that’s no longer the case.
Again, California’s trends are an especially remarkable example of national trends. In 1980, nearly half of all new inmates admitted to state juvenile and adult prisons in the state were under age 25 while just 7 percent were 40 or older. Today, the proportion of new under-25 prison inmates has dropped to 18 percent, while 31 percent are 40 and older.
To understand how revolutionary California’s changes have been, consider that in 1980, a young Californian of color age 18-24 was 19 times more likely to be sent to prison than a middle-aged, non-Latino White age 40-69. Today – after 35 years of large declines in young-age crime and imprisonment and large increases among older ages – that age/race disparity has narrowed to three to one.
The Politics of Rising Youth and White Decline
Anthropologist Margaret Mead warned 40 years ago that “the alienation of the old,” rendered “immigrant(s) in time” by rapid technological, social, and racial change and yearning for the past’s insular homogeneity, would fear and reject diverse, worldly modern young people. “Teenagers gathered at street corners,” Mead lamented in 1970, “are to be feared like the advance guard of an invading army.” Today in 2016, to fight or welcome the invasion may be what this year’s election is ultimately all about.
From the widespread support for Trump to Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union, chasms are widening between the tribalism of the old versus the more global perspectives of the young. Today’s bitter divisions are amplified by an added personal dimension: opposite-trending racial and generational risks that contribute to opposite internalized perceptions of whether America is lost and decaying or great and getting better. Older, less educated Whites – Trump’s core constituency – may be particularly angry because so many today are afflicted with deeply personal difficulties or are close to someone in trouble. Trump’s grim vision of America teetering on the edge of disaster draws a visceral acclamation from older Whites because their personal troubles are real.
Yet the underlying truths behind these broader forces are neither acknowledged or appropriately understood.
Republican Trump angrily evokes social disarray even as the young and immigrant populations he blames show greatly reduced problems while his older White constituencies suffer rising troubles in the very areas he calls most alarming: drugs, violence, gun killings, and crime. Meanwhile, liberal candidates have not highlighted the massive improvements among the young and immigrants to forcefully validate progressives’ optimism.
Democrats and progressives would certainly benefit from championing youth success to chart a new, dynamic vision of young people and the future. Polls and surveys show voters under age 30 favor Democrats by substantial margins, even in swing states and GOP bastions. Young people have been saving progressives from electoral doom on multiple fronts. Without the support of young voters, Obama would not be president; Washington would be a three-branch rightist stronghold. Our analysis of surveys shows the young to be far more likely than the old to endorse liberal/Left positions on gay rights, immigration, climate change, activist government, science versus faith, globalism versus nationalism, and other major issues.
So why haven’t progressives embraced this story of youth success?
One reason modern youth improvements remain hidden from political discourse may be a holdover from past views of young people as a “problem population.” What’s happening with America’s young people does not fit the conventional view of how the world works.
Back in 1993, President Bill Clinton’s incoming administration inherited devastating social crises. During the Reagan and Bush Sr. presidencies, violence arrests soared 160 percent, lethal illicit-drug overdoses leaped 140 percent, and gun violence exploded to a record high of nearly 40,000 fatalities in 1992. Young people ages 15-24 comprised one-third of all gun killings back then. It was much easier to see young people as dangerous and the future as foreboding.
A second reason for silence on the revolution in youth behaviors may be concern over the crises in major institutions it is creating. Since 1995, the number of juveniles incarcerated in California state facilities has fallen by over 90 percent, from around 10,000 in the mid-1990s to just 700 in 2016. Local juvenile detentions have decreased by half. The result: large cuts in funding and personnel, the closure of eight of the state’s 11 juvenile facilities, and 7,000 empty beds in juvenile detention centers.
A third reason youth trends are ignored may be simple incredulity. These improvements in youth behavior are happening despite the failure of repeated policy initiatives to “fix” the young. School uniforms, zero tolerance policies, mandatory drug testing, boot camps for delinquents, adult-court sentencings, “Scared Straight,” and other 1990s cure-alls have similarly proven repressive and worthless. Youth curfews consistently have no effect on crime and safety, except possibly a harmful one.
Longer-term, large-scale studies find that raising the drinking age and imposing graduated drivers’ licensing restrictions cause more deaths among young adults than they save among teens. “Smoking ages” accomplish nothing at all, beyond hampering youth employment. Births by teen mothers fell sharply in states implementing sex education/contraception regimes and those touting abstinence-only preaching alike.
None of this is to say that the story of today’s young people is an unqualified success. The broad improvements we’ve seen in today’s youth have not been shared by all. In California, three in four youthful arrests, five in six gun homicides, and similarly huge disproportions of other youthful ills are concentrated in the poorest communities (areas where poverty levels are exceeding 20 percent). So stratified are serious youth problems that gun fatality rates are 300 times higher among Black 15-24 year-olds in impoverished Richmond, California, than among White 15-24 year-olds in affluent Marin County a few miles away. Poverty, disadvantage and inequality – the disturbing reality that the world’s richest middle-agers flourish alongside a child and teenage population one in three of whom live in poor or low-income households – remain major impediments to young people’s well-being and a key challenge for progressives to confront.
Nevertheless, the untold story of youth success – and the unacknowledged tragedy of older whites – present both opportunities and peril for both political parties. A proper understanding of these sweeping and generational changes may be the key to healing what is increasingly a fractured republic.