Young adulthood, between the ages of 16 to 24, is a period of transition. Most enter this stage fully dependent on the individuals and systems around them for food, shelter, guidance, and emotional support. Most exit with the expectation that they are economically self-sufficient. It is a transition of sense of self—a time when young adults ask questions about who they are and test their relationship with family, community, and society. This period is also a transition between systems: from K through 12 education to post-secondary, or full-time employment.
While this stage can be full of hope and opportunity, for some it is fraught with anxiety about disappearing support systems. For example, for youth in foster care, an 18th birthday can mean an abrupt end to a home. For a young person who doesn’t have the option to stay on a guardian’s insurance, a 19th birthday means an end to health insurance. For young adults involved in the courts, it is a transition to a harsher, more punitive justice system. And for many under-skilled young adults, finding a job that pays a living wage can feel out of reach.
Of the nearly 40 million Americans between the ages of 16 to 24 in the U.S., approximately five million are neither employed nor in school. That translates to 1 in 8, more than double the rate of some Western European countries. In rural areas of the U.S., the number grows to 1 in 5. Often called “disconnected youth” or “opportunity youth,” many of these folks have experienced homelessness, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. Still others have dropped out of the mainstream school system or been tangled up in the courts or foster systems—all of which contribute to work-limiting mental and physical disabilities and unemployment. This disconnection is not only difficult for the youth themselves, it is also costly to society in the long run: Young people who do not connect to the workforce early on tend to remain more vulnerable and reliant on government programs on an ongoing basis.
But donors have a tremendous opportunity here to intervene. The odds may be stacked against them, but when given the opportunity and support, many of these disconnected young adults find their way forward. This period of young adulthood is a time when trajectories are much more susceptible to change. New research indicates that our brains are not fully formed until we reach our early 20s. This helps explain some dubious decision-making among teens and young adults, but also reveals their potential: a remarkable ability to rapidly learn and adopt positive behaviors, skills, and habits—literally rewiring their brains. Furthermore, if young adults are more stable, personally and economically, not only do they benefit, but so do their children, who have a better shot at growing up in a supportive environment.
THE AMERICAN GAP
The U.S. rate of “disconnected youth”—defined as those between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither employed nor in school—is twice that of some Western countries.
“When you invest in young people—when you support, mentor, and guide them—you can change the trajectory of their life. When young people have their eyes opened to experiences and opportunities they never thought were possible, they can dream bigger and their reality can be so much more.”
DISCONNECTION BY RACE/ETHNICITY
While rates of disconnection are in the double digits for all groups, they are particularly high among Native American and African American young adults.
THE CHANGING BRAINS OF YOUNG ADULTS
New research indicates that our brains are not fully formed until we reach our early 20s. This fact helps explain some dubious decision-making among teens and young adults, but also reveals their potential; a remarkable ability to rapidly learn and adopt positive behaviors, skills, and habits. While the brain’s ability to change declines with age, among young adults, the potential for change is still substantial.
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