TCS Daily

Why Are the Kids Alright?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week, Jim Glassman wrote that the younger generation is doing quite well:

"Young people have become aggressively normal. Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

"The Mood of American Youth Survey found that more than 80 percent of teenagers report no family problems -- up from about 40 percent a quarter-century ago. In another poll, two-thirds of daughters said they would 'give Mom an 'A.''"

Glassman is right. The "teenager problem" has largely faded. (There's more good news here, too.) Lots of people want to take credit, of course. Both "traditional values" folks and birth-control supporters are taking credit for falling teen pregnancy rates, but the evidence seems to suggest that both deserve a portion -- but not all -- of the praise. In fact, it appears that the decline in teen birthrates to a record low results -- in just about equal proportion -- from both less teenage sex and an increased use of condoms among the teens who had sex. (And, on a broader scale, I think it's fair to credit welfare reform, which drastically reduced the appeal of pregnancy among some sectors of teenagerdom).

Teen crime -- like crime in general -- is down, too. And, as Glassman notes, teenagers seem happier, and possessed of more constructive values. (Though calling them "conservative" isn't quite right -- or at least, it's often a pro-gay-marriage, libertarian kind of conservatism, in which a heightened concern for personal responsibility doesn't always translate into a greater willingness to regulate the behavior of others).

The question is, why are teens doing better? I think there are two answers. First, people noticed problems, and tried a lot of different approaches. Private organizations, church groups, schools, and -- especially -- parents started taking a greater role in educating teenagers and encouraging better behavior. As with teen pregnancy, no single policy solved the problem, but multiple approaches tended to make it better until something seen as insoluble just a few years ago began to look, well, solved.

We saw the same thing with the reduction of crime (teen and otherwise) that started in the 1990s. Harsher sentences, community policing, laws making it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons -- all were enacted in response to crime, and all probably played a role in lowering it. No magic bullets, but multifactor solutions for multifactor problems.

The other reason for the improvement is simple learning. Parents -- who in the 1960s and 1970s thought they could pursue self-centered lifestyles without harming their kids -- learned that parenting isn't to be taken for granted. Likewise, teenagers gradually noticed things that were easy to miss when the culture of drugs and adolescent rebellion was new. However they look at age 17, the "cool" rebels tend to do worse later in life, and the geeks tend to do better. Just as smelly, desperate crackheads were the best anti-drug advertisement ever presented in the inner cities (far more persuasive than frying-egg commercials on television), so did unemployed loser guys and unwed welfare moms provide visible good reasons to stay in school, make good grades, and be careful about pregnancy.

We can take some lessons from this ourselves. One is that arguments over which policies are best sometimes miss the point. Multiple approaches have a lot of value, if they promote further learning and if they tend to reinforce one another.

Another -- and it's a lesson that policy wonks seem slow to learn -- is that people other than policy wonks are capable of learning, and of changing their behavior on their own. Given the chance, and the information, they observe things that work and things that don't, and adjust their lives in ways that seem most likely to get them what they want, if they are allowed to do so. This means that projections of catastrophic future ills are usually wrong, as people learn from experience.

Will we apply those lessons to future social problems? Maybe, depending on whether our governing classes learn as quickly as the population does. In fact, I think that these observations have important applications to the war on terror, but I will leave those as an exercise for the reader -- or as grist for a future column.


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