Wanted: New Words, New Policies

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This just in: “Tween” has been chosen as the 2001 Word-of-the-Year by “Webster’s.” Prepubescent 9- to 12-year-olds are enough of a market force that the term coined in 1966 by Harper’s Magazine has now been upgraded from popular slang to official English.

I expect that this is good news for program directors and advocates who have been working to distinguish programming for this age group from the programming for 6- to 8-year-olds, which builds heavily on early childhood care models.

Not on the radar screen, however, is a new word for the other end of the expanding journey between childhood and adulthood. In a Washington Post article last month (“Adolescence: Not Just for Kids,” Jan. 2, 2002), Laura Sessions Stepp exposed academic and pediatric associations at their silliest with their arguments to extend the definition of adolescence into the mid 20s or even 30s.

Yes, more young adults are living at home. But (as one expert notes) adults are people who are capable of living on their own, even if they are not currently doing so. As the young people interviewed – including an insurance agent, a business manager and a Marine – argue, they are not adolescents.

But Stepp misses a point. Between the level-headed middle class 25-year-old who is saving money by living cheaply with her parents, and the inspiring 20-year-old mother who lives on her own and is headed for management, stand many young people whose families can’t help and whose work histories are not as charmed. Recent findings from Child Trends suggest that in 1999, 4.9 million American youth ages 14 to 24 (nearly 10 percent of the youth population) are extremely “vulnerable.” That includes youth who were leaving juvenile justice or foster care, who were or had been homeless, who were out of school and had not graduated, and who had an incarcerated parent.

In support of her argument that extending adolescence is a silly idea, Stepp makes a toss-away statement that “the federal government’s efforts have been limited to those under the age of 19.” Language aside, government policies are a serious part of the problem. Whatever we call them, too many 18- to 24-year-olds get caught in an in-between space where basic things like housing and health insurance are out of reach, even for those working full time.

For young people who left school before graduating or who are transitioning out of foster care or the juvenile justice system, progress toward self-sufficiency is even more problematic. Westat, a leading survey research organization, followed up on the roughly 35,000 youth who aged out of foster care in 1991. Two to four years later, fewer than one in five were economically self-sufficient, 25 percent had been homeless, half had not completed high school, and 60 percent of the females had given birth.

Yet Congress only recently passed the Foster Care and Independent Living Act to extend transitional supports for foster teens.

Stepp mentions the fact that independent living isn’t the norm in other industrialized countries. In Italy, for example, the average age young people leave home is 34. What she doesn’t mention is that many of these countries also have policies that extend medical, educational, transportation and sometimes housing benefits to young people under 26, not because those young people messed up, but because the transition to independence takes that long.

There is no doubt that young people in their late teens and early 20s (or in their early teens for that matter) need to be taken seriously. Every story Stepp relates of a 25-year-old who has successfully transitioned to adulthood can be matched by a story of a young person who, in spite of his best efforts, does not have a firm foothold and is tiring of the struggle of holding on alone.

But the issue isn’t whether 18- to 24-year-olds are really ready for adult responsibilities; most are. It is whether older adults are really ready to help. The American patchwork of second-chance programs that help only after young people have failed has to be examined. By all means let’s fix the language we use in referring to these young people. But let’s also debate the policies that could better help them.