Wave of teens rolling in, but society isn't ready

April 12, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

The largest wave of teen-agers since Baby Boomers wore bell bottoms will come of age in America in the next seven years.

Nationally, the ranks of teen-agers are expected to climb 13 percent by the end of the century, when there will be about 27.6 million 13- to 19-year-olds, or 3.2 million more than in 1990, according to federal demographers.

In California, the youth population will grow a hefty 40 percent, according to state projections. By the year 2000, the most populous state in the union will have almost 4 million teen-agers, or 1.1 million more than in 1990. No other state's population will include as many teen-agers.

The implications for California's economy, schools and law enforcement system are expected to be profound, especially in a state where the recession lingers and funds for education and youth programs continue to be whittled down.

"We aren't ready for them," says Jim Steyer, president of Children Now, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. "There is a wonderful potential there, but there is also the potential for social disaster."

Mr. Steyer and other youth experts say the new crop of teen-agers is like no other, because it is the first to grow up in a new era for the American family:

These are the kids of the Home Alone Generation.

In two out of three families, the parents work and leave the care of their children to others, or allow older kids to look after themselves.

For the most part, young people today are more street savvy than the adolescents of the Baby Boom era, those born between 1946 and 1964, youth experts say.

Kids these days have never known a world without computers, compact discs, MTV, fast food or Nintendo. But their world has also been a place with drive-by shootings, AIDS and tough economic times.

"These kids are much more grounded in reality," says Peter Zollo, president of Teen-age Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill. "They have a high sense of personal responsibility, and they are coming from a very different place than those who are even just a few years older."

William Dunn, a demographer and author of a coming book on American youth, says, "What you are seeing is the creation of kids who are very independent -- they are survivors.

"Because the parents are working, teen-agers are being entrusted with a lot of money to take care of things like shopping and getting chores done that mothers would have done in another time. They know the realities of the American economy far better than the Boomers ever did."

Although teen-agers may be better prepared to deal with society, society may not be ready to deal with them.

The growing number of teen-agers will put more pressure on two key institutions that are already groaning under the strain of today's kids: public schools and the juvenile justice system.

"The students are coming faster than the money, that's what it comes down to," says Don Giellow, an assistant superintendent at the Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City, Calif.

"You have no choice but to house the kids, so you are left with some very difficult decisions about program cuts or tax increases," says Mr. Giellow, summing up the dilemma faced by the state's public schools.

The new wave of teen-agers will also pose a tough challenge to the law enforcement and juvenile justice systems.

"It is very sobering to realize that teen-age violent crime rates rose rapidly in the 1980s -- a time when the numbers of kids were going down," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

"Now, it looks like we are going to see even more kids coming into a system that is reeling from its current caseload and nearing collapse," he says.

Although only about 6 percent of all teen-agers are ever in serious trouble with the law, Mr. Krisberg says, historic patterns indicate that juvenile crime rates can be expected to rise as the youth population grows.

Mr. Steyer of Children Now urges that society prepare itself for sharp growth in teen-age population before the numbers peak.

"It's great that there will be more young people, if we plan for it," he says. "If we don't, we're going to have more problems."

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