to themes of violence and heavy use and abuse of drugs and alcohol; and, in some cases, the deterioration and disorganization of neighborhoods and schools as a result of crime, drugs, and poverty. At the same time, today’s world has become increasingly complex, technical, and multicultural, placing new and challenging demands on young people in terms of education, training, and the social and emotional skills needed in a highly competitive environment. Finally, the length of adolescence has extended to the mid- to late twenties, and the pathways to adulthood have become less clear and more numerous.
Concerns about youth are at the center of many policy debates. The future well-being of the country depends on raising a generation of skilled, competent, and responsible adults. Yet at least 25 percent of adolescents in the United States are at serious risk of not achieving “productive adulthood” and face such risks as substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, school failure, and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Depending on their circumstances and choices, they may carry those risks into their adult lives. Public investments in programs to counter such trends have grown significantly over the past decade or so. For the most part, these efforts have targeted specific problems and threats to young people. Substantial public health investments have also been made to prevent such problems as teen smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and alcohol and other drug use. Major funding has been allocated to the prevention and control of juvenile delinquency and youth crime.
These efforts have led to some successes. On one hand, adolescent well-being and behavior have shown substantial improvement in some areas since the late 1980s. Serious violent juvenile crime has declined, teen pregnancy has decreased, and more young people are graduating from high school and participating in volunteer and community service. On the other hand, cigarette smoking, HIV infection, school violence, and obesity have increased during this period, particularly among youth in high-risk urban neighborhoods and very poor rural communities. In addition, many youth are entering the labor market with inadequate knowledge skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and prepare for and succeed in a job interview.
Continued efforts to prevent and control these and other problems are clearly needed. An exclusive focus on problems, however, narrows the vision that society should have for all of its young people. Many who study adolescent development and work with young people have increasingly come to believe that being problem-free is not fully pre-