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Adolescent Risk and Vulnerability: Concepts and Measurement
from few conditions that will kill them while they are still young. The formation in adolescence of certain health habits with long-term negative consequences (such as smoking tobacco products, use of other addictive substances, or sexual activity without protection from STD and AIDS) often does not produce morbidity or mortality in adolescence itself. Rather the effects, and the payoffs, develop over a lifetime. Other behaviors such as school dropout, running away from home, or criminal involvement also exert their most powerful effects in adulthood. Thus, when societies face decisions about where to invest significant health and other supportive resources, programs for adolescents often receive short shrift. This is true despite the fact that after early infancy, adolescence is the period of greatest vulnerability, during which patterns and habits affecting a lifetime are established and solidified.
In 1998, youth made up about one in every seven people in the U.S. population, whether the focus is on the younger end of the age spectrum (10–19 year olds were 14.3 percent) or the older end (15–24 year olds were 13.8 percent). These are the individuals on whom the future of this country rides. A strong argument can be made that we need all of our youth to develop into productive adults, with skills and attitudes ready to cope with twenty-first-century work, politics, and community and interpersonal relationships. The evidence suggests that for significant portions of our youth, seriously inadequate educational achievement, and life-threatening habits such as addictions, risky sexual behavior, involvement in crime and violence, and too-early childbearing foreclose the possibility that they will become contributing members of society.
With respect to adolescents, the focus of attention is far too often on individual behavior, with far less attention being paid to context. But context is critical for understanding, and perhaps altering, the choices that youth make about their own behavior. For youth to make prosocial choices, it is essential that communities create increasingly broad and rewarding economic and social opportunities. There is an important interaction between economic opportunity and the readiness of today’s youth to take advantage of it. Without the realistic hope of getting ahead economically, there is little incentive for youth to invest in education or refrain from some of the less healthy, or less legal, habits they may acquire during adolescence. But without the expectation that there will be a qualified workforce to fill newly created jobs, many employers will send jobs overseas or fill them with people trained outside the United States, while the jobs that remain will be the least challenging, interesting, and rewarding ones. To the extent