Student Well-Being

The Kids Are All Right? Teens Are Optimistic About the Future

By Arianna Prothero — September 08, 2022 3 min read
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It seems nearly every poll, study, and anecdote show that teenagers’ overall mental health is in a bad state. But here’s a bit of good news: A new survey of teenagers by ACT has found that despite all of the challenges thrown up by the pandemic in the past few years, teens are overwhelmingly optimistic about their futures.

More than 80 percent of students said they feel high levels of optimism that their lives will turn out well, according to survey results released by ACT, the nonprofit that runs the ACT college entrance exam. High schoolers see well-paying jobs, home ownership, and good health in their futures.

“The study shows that members of Generation Z are, on average, optimistic about their own futures, convinced that they will have financial stability, happy families, and positive social connections,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin said in a statement to the press. “Today’s high school students are hopeful of achieving the kinds of outcomes that define a successful life.”

Fifty-five percent of students said they were as optimistic about positive future outcomes in life and work now as they were before the pandemic, while 17 percent said they would have provided a more negative estimate of their future success pre-pandemic than they do now.

Black students were arguably the most optimistic among all racial and ethnic groups. The survey asked students to estimate how likely they were to achieve 17 different positive life outcomes. On nine of those—career that pays well, career you enjoy, steady employment, live where you want, hobbies you enjoy, financial resources to retire comfortably, better life than their parents had, better life for their own children than they had, and a life that turns out well overall—Black students were more likely to estimate they would achieve those outcomes than students of other races and ethnicities, and those differences were statistically significant.

White students were the least likely to believe they would do better than their parents and that their own children would do better than themselves. The same was true for students from high-income families, a finding that is consistent with other research, according to the ACT report.

White and Asian students were much more likely to indicate that they felt confident they would have the financial means to complete college than Black or Hispanic students.

Among students from low-income families, Black students were more optimistic about their futures than their peers in other racial and ethnic groups. Overall, the more money students’ families earned, the more likely they were to be optimistic about their futures and the less variation there was among racial and ethnic groups.

While teens’ optimism is running high, it doesn’t mean that the pandemic and all the stressors it brought hasn’t diminished many students’ outlook toward the future. Around one third of teens reported that they believe they would have been even more optimistic about their future outcomes had the pandemic not happened. These students tended to be less optimistic when it came to ranking their chances at attaining positive future outcomes compared with their peers who said the pandemic had not affected their outlook.

Other polling shows there are specific issues that teens are less optimistic about, such as political division, racial discrimination, and climate change.

Plus, even before the pandemic, mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, were on the rise among children and adolescents and many schools were struggling to keep pace with that demand. Suicide rates among children 10 and older had also climbed significantly since 2007, making suicide the second leading cause of death among adolescents before the pandemic. And the pandemic has not helped curb growing concerns about the mental health of young people.

Yet despite those challenges, “we found that the pandemic had little effect on optimism for most students. It did not affect most students’ outlooks on important events, like having a fulfilling career and being able to save, invest, and retire, and this was consistent across racial and ethnic groups and family income category,” said ACT lead research scientist Jeff Schiel, who conducted the study, in a statement.

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