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What Teens Really Think
A poll of Washington area kids gives us a piece of their minds

By Richard Morin
Sunday, October 23, 2005

Teens today.

They're a generation in a hurry, hurtling headlong to adulthood but not yet shed of youthful innocence or naivete. They're mixed up -- and the girls in particular are stressed out. They view the future through cracked rose-colored glasses, anxious about the direction of the country and the world. Most predict another terrorist attack as big or bigger than September 11 sometime in their lives. One in four expects a nuclear war.

At the same time, teenagers in the Washington area are brimming with youthful optimism and self-confidence about their own futures in the dangerous world they will inherit, according to a survey of high-school age teens and their parents conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Sometimes their confidence borders on delusional: The vast majority say it's likely they will be rich. Sometimes it is poignant: Most are convinced they will be married to the same person till death do them part. But more often their expectations are sensibly realistic: Most expect that just about everything, from a new house to a college education, will cost more when they are their parents' age.

Their world is good. Area high schoolers agree that it's a great time to be a kid. Looking forward, they believe the country's best years lie ahead. Big majorities predict the world will be more racially and sexually tolerant and accepting when they are in charge, a place where people will be more free than they are now to live and love as they wish. Few teens -- black or white, male or female -- see their race or gender as a roadblock to success. Many expect to have a richer, fuller, better life than their parents, a prospect particularly vivid for area teens who are first-generation Americans.

"My mom was born in El Salvador," says Blanca Pacheco, 17, a senior at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. "I have much more opportunities. I have so many doors open to me. I just have to work for it. It is there for me, if I want it and I try."

But she worries that the United States is drifting in the wrong direction, and fears another cataclysmic terrorist attack. "Life is very unpredictable. Anything can happen. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish in life, and that takes me past the bad things that are happening."

Like Blanca, and despite the general optimism, the majority of local teens say the country now is seriously off course. Most say pollution, AIDS, drug abuse, immorality and divorce will be worse, not better, by the time they are middle-aged. Majorities expect it will be harder for them to find a job, raise a family or buy a house than it was for their parents.

Are they conflicted and more than a little confused? You bet, says Rod Fisher, 17, who was born in Brazil and is a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

"It's a confusing time, rather than bad or good. I'm stuck in the middle of so many things -- college things, the war, the economy, other things that are going on," says Rod, who wants to postpone college to chase fame and riches with his punk rock band Anada ("Like 'Canada,' but without the 'C'," he explains).

"I think most teenagers 13 to 18 are very confused right now," Rod says. "It's hard to know what direction you want to go in when the country doesn't know what direction it wants to go in."

These views are far from unique to teens in the Washington region, according to a separate Post survey of teens nationally. While this region is richer, better educated and more diverse than the country as a whole, one of the biggest surprises of the surveys was how closely the attitudes of area teens mirror the views of high school-age teenagers across the country.

Similar majorities of teens say the country is headed in the wrong direction. But virtually the same proportion of young people locally and nationally confidently predict that the country's best years are ahead of it. More than six in 10 teens nationally agree it's a good time to be growing up, and about an equal proportion of area high schoolers agree.

Both groups have similar dreams and delusions. About two-thirds locally and nationally say there's a good chance they will be rich someday. Nearly one-third also predict they'll be famous, including a majority of local African American teens, who expect both celebrity and riches. Even many less affluent black teens foresee wealth and fame: a finding that may indicate reassuring confidence -- or media-fed delusions.

Washington teens differ from their peers across the country in one troubling way: The girls here are far more stressed out. More than four in 10 local girls say they "frequently" experience stress in their daily lives; nationally, fewer than three in 10 teenage girls feel similarly harried. Only about one in four boys locally or nationally says he is frequently stressed out.

Even so, when compared with their parents, Washington teens are consistently more optimistic on a range of issues -- or, more precisely, they are less pessimistic. Across the survey, local teens express broadly negative views about the future.

"This country is headed in the wrong direction," says Kristin Spring, a 10th-grader at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, echoing many of her peers. "There is more pollution. The population keeps growing. People are stealing. Crime seems to be getting worse." In the face of these problems, Kristin says, she relies on her "religious faith and my family" to sustain her. "They are always there for me."

It is puzzling that today's young people are so sour on these issues. In their lifetimes the violent crime rate has plummeted; so has the property crime rate. The divorce rate peaked in the early 1980s and has trended downward since. The story is more mixed on AIDS and on pollution. The advent of the "cocktail" treatment for AIDS has sent the AIDS death rate spiraling downward, though no cure seems on the horizon and the epidemic continues to rage abroad. On some key measures, the air and water are cleaner today than when these teens were born, though wetlands, old-growth forests and other natural areas continue to vanish, the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere continues to grow, and dirty water and foul air remain a growing problem in some parts of the world.

But in some ways, teens see the world improving. Kristin was born in South Korea and says race is not an issue for her and her multiracial, multiethnic group of friends. "I think those times are pretty much over," she says. "Most people in this generation know that race doesn't matter. And we'll pass [tolerance] on to our children."

Like Kristin, local high schoolers surveyed were optimistic about racial progress: Eight in 10 predicted that the races would get along better when they were adults. That's not surprising for kids a generation or two removed from the bitterness that festered in the wake of the battle for civil rights in the 1960s. Almost all say they have had a friend of another race, and 45 percent say they have dated someone of another race, nearly double the proportion of their parents, and a sign that racial barriers, once virtually insurmountable, slowly continue to fall.

Despite the number of teens who say race doesn't matter, teens' view of the world remains nearly as divided between black and white as their parents'. Three out of four white teens (76 percent) say now is a good time to be growing up, while slightly more than half of blacks (54 percent) agree -- among the largest racial difference found in these data and a gap that remains wide even among poor blacks and whites.

Nearly half of black teens (45 percent) say the country's best years are in the past; just over one-third of white teens are similarly pessimistic. Black teenagers also are far less trusting of major institutions than white teens, with one notable exception: organized religion. Here, a clear majority of blacks say they have great confidence in religious institutions while slightly more than one-third of whites are equally enthusiastic. (But even among blacks, the influence of religion is waning, with African American teens significantly less likely than their parents to say religion played a critical role in their lives.)

One feature cuts across the survey -- a yawning gender gap. Two-thirds of all boys say the country's best years lie in the future. Only half of all girls agree. A big majority of girls say it's harder growing up today than it was for their parents; fewer than half of all boys agree. Big majorities of boys say they have "a lot of" confidence in the military; just less than half of girls are similarly trusting. And girls are significantly more likely than boys to say there will be another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11.

It's always been tough to be a teen, perhaps even more so today, say a majority of area teens. Slightly more than half have a friend who has dropped out of school, and nearly as many have a friend who became pregnant. About half these teens say they know someone who is in a gang, and one in five report personally being the victim of crime or violence.

A similar percentage say they know someone who has been shot -- including nearly half of black teens.

"No doubt about it, it's hard for any teenager to grow up," says Ben Litoff, of Northwest Washington, a 10th-grader and varsity basketball player at Kingsbury Day School. "Any time is a hard time to be a teenager, only now drugs are a more serious problem, there are more diseases and crime, lots of bad things waiting out there. But you only have one life. I'd rather be optimistic than pessimistic."

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Of Local Teens ...

97% Have had a friend of a different race

65% Have taken an Advanced Placement class in school

58% Have visited or lived in a foreign country

57% Have had a friend who was openly gay or lesbian

53% Have had a friend who dropped out of school

48% Have known someone who was in a gang

47% Have had a friend who became pregnant

45% Have dated someone of a different race

21% Have had a friend who was killed or injured by gun violence

19% Have personally been a victim of crime or violence

"I have so many doors open to me. I just have to work for it. It is there for me, if I want it and I try." -- BLANCA PACHECO

"It's a confusing time, rather than bad or good. I'm stuck in the middle of so many things -- college things, the war, the economy, other things that are going on." -- ROD FISHER

"Any time is a hard time to be a teenager . . . there are . . . lots of bad things waiting out there. But you only have one life. I'd rather be optimistic than pessimistic." -- BEN LITOFF

"This country is headed in the wrong direction. There is more pollution. The population keeps growing. People are stealing. Crime seems to be getting worse." -- KRISTIN SPRING

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Percentage of local teens saying each is "very important."

75% ... Being successful in a career

65% ... Having a family of your own

65% ... Having lots of close friends

64% ... Making a difference in the world

62% ... Having enough free time to do things you want to do

Richard Morin is The Post's polling director. He will be fielding questions and comments about this issue Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

BLANCA PACHECO

"It's a confusing time, rather than bad or good. I'm stuck in the middle of so many things -- college things, the war, the economy, other things that are going on."

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