The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young people are committing much less crime. Older people are still behaving as badly as before.

Baton Rouge police rush a crowd of protesters July 9, after demonstrations broke out when Alton Sterling was shot by a police officer July 5. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

As the U.S. crime rate collapsed over the past two decades, the arrest rate declined by almost a third. Because criminality peaks in young adulthood, population aging at first blush seems a likely cause of the welcome drop in arrests, such that police today have less work to do because the legions of graying, rule-respecting, baby boomers and Gen Xers outnumber millennial troublemakers. As logical as that hypothesis may sound, a recent analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that it could not be more wrong.

The chart presents the research team’s calculation of the arrest rate for three age groups in 1993, 2003 and 2013. In absolute terms, arrests (like crime) are as expected consistently concentrated among the young at each historical time point. But surprisingly, the drop in the arrest rate over time is entirely accounted for by the current generation of young adults, who are busted 23 percent less frequently than prior generations were at their age. Remarkably, despite the national drop in overall crime and arrest rates, the arrest rate among older Americans is higher than it was 20 years ago. This holds for adults ages 40 to 54 (a 9 percent increase) and even more so for adults age 55 and older (a 12 percent increase). The baby boomers, who drove the American crime explosion in their youth, are apparently continuing to outdo prior generations in their late-life criminality.

The relatively law-abiding ways of today’s young adults are cause for optimism on multiple fronts.

First, those who fear that police consistently target people of color for arrest should take heart in the fact that the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history has a lower arrest rate than the more homogenous generations that preceded them.

Second, presuming that like prior generations millennials carry their crime-related habits forward as they age, the country could soon see an acceleration of the recent trend toward reduced incarceration as millennials replace their more crime-prone elders in the population.

There’s a lesson here for older Americans who worry about crime. Rather than pick up yet another think piece on what’s wrong with millennials, it would wiser to dig out a dusty vinyl rock album and consume a more accurate message: The kids are all right.