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Meet the Gen Zers struggling to stay in work or school — and the parents who are at a loss for how to help

Juliana Kaplan,Noah Sheidlower,Madison Hoff   

Meet the Gen Zers struggling to stay in work or school — and the parents who are at a loss for how to help
  • A rising number of young Americans are disconnected from work, school, and a sense of purpose.
  • Disconnection rates have been increasing since the 1990s, affecting young people's futures.

Destiny's main goal right now is survival.

The 21-year-old grew up in foster care in Florida and left the foster-care system at 16. Retail jobs helped her save enough money for an apartment, and she eventually became a manager at Family Dollar. She enrolled in college and maintained straight A's — for a while.

But Destiny, who asked to go by only her first name for fear of personal and professional repercussions, began to suffer from overwork while having multiple jobs during the pandemic, and her mental health faltered.

"I feel for those who are in my shoes and don't have a connection or a home base," said Destiny, who now lives in a small apartment in Alabama with her boyfriend. "You think you're alone, but there are so many of us who are in this situation. We're hopeless, feel like a failure, and we want to get it together. We just need better resources and time."

Eventually, Destiny dropped out of college and quit her job. She's struggled to get medication for her OCD and find stable employment beyond part-time gig work. She knows she's not alone in feeling stuck when it comes to investing in education or finding the right job.

"When I was a general manager, when I would hire people, I was hiring people who had master's" degrees, Destiny said. "They just couldn't find a job that used that degree or jobs they just weren't qualified enough for with their experience. I think a degree now is just pretty much a baseline education for most people with jobs."

A growing group of America's young people are not in school, not working, or not looking for work. They're called "disconnected youth" or "opportunity youth," and their ranks have been growing for nearly three decades. Experts say it's not just work and school; this group is often also disconnected from a sense of purpose.

It's creating a tale of two Gen Zs: those who have followed traditional milestones and others who are increasingly getting left behind. These aren't all young people taking gap years — the disconnected youth Business Insider spoke with want education and good jobs but are partly victims of economic circumstances outside their control. And that might cost them.

'A long shadow across the whole life course'

Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas indicates the share of disconnected 18- to 24-year-olds has been on the rise since the 1990s. While it fell a bit in the 2010s, it spiked in the 2020s. In 2022, 13.2% of people in that age group were considered disconnected.

Measure of America, which looks at 16- to 24-year-olds who aren't in school and aren't working, found that nearly 4.7 million young people were disconnected in 2021.

Kristen Lewis, the director and cofounder of Measure of America, part of the Social Science Research Council, described ages 16 to 24 as consequential.

"Being disconnected from 16 to 24 can really cast a long shadow across the whole life course," Lewis said. It can even hurt someone's future earnings and likelihood of owning a house.

Just look at the wage progression as young people pick up degrees.

Using 2022 American Community Survey microdata from the University of Minnesota's IPUMS program, Business Insider found that 18- to 24-year-old Americans who were working earned a median income of $19,200.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that among 25- to 34-year-olds working full time in 2021, those who hadn't completed high school earned a median of $32,500, while those who had completed high school had a median income of $39,700. For those with a bachelor's degree, that jumped to $61,600.

"When kids become disconnected from school and work, there's just a downward spiral that is too often going to result," Sen. Tim Kaine, who's introduced legislation to help at-risk youths find jobs and receive job training, told BI. "Some people can figure their way out of that spiral, but many cannot."

Joseph, 21, is in that life stage. He said that while he doesn't want to be disconnected, mental-health challenges and a lack of a financial safety net or health insurance had left him in a lurch.

He said he grew up "very poor" in a trailer park in Indiana with his parents and three siblings. He excelled in high school and got a full scholarship to a four-year college. But after a year of remote learning, he struggled to keep up with schoolwork and often missed classes; he dropped out as he worked on improving his mental health. He said he regretted not being able to find a way to stay enrolled.

"I lost my scholarship, and I want to go back to college now and have a much better relationship with the concept and know myself and my needs better," he said. "But I can no longer afford it without the scholarship."

Joseph has been unemployed since October after struggling to hold down jobs at a warehouse, a summer camp, and a Walmart.

Despite having trouble finding a doctor to help him receive work accommodations for his disability, he's applied to various jobs, including substitute teaching and working in a kitchen, but he hasn't heard back from any. He's starting an online needlepoint-patch business to bring in extra income as he looks for his next job. He said he felt alone.

"I'd like to live in my own place, learn to drive so that I'm not dependent on my parents for transportation, and have a job that doesn't cause me more pain than I'm already in," he said.

This has contributed to feelings of severe anxiety and distress; he said he'd contemplated suicide. He's hoping to finally get evaluated for ADHD and autism spectrum disorder after months of having no health insurance.

Ashley Palmer, an assistant professor of social work at Texas Christian University who has written papers on this cohort, said disconnected youth fall along a spectrum of connectedness to work and school.

"I don't think that simply being in school or working means that you're doing OK or that you're going to have improved well-being," Palmer said.

She said that while there's a lack of research in predicting the long-term social and psychological effects of disconnectedness, she suspects a lack of purpose can erode mental and physical health and relationships with friends and community.

"When you lack that purpose, it is difficult for you to think about how or in what ways you want to contribute or can contribute to society," Palmer said. "Our society is a relational one where we depend on people to be able to contribute in various ways."

Lewis, the researcher, said that "youth disconnection is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon." Areas with high poverty rates and fewer community resources tend to have higher disconnection rates. Palmer added that those with limited access to transportation, people with disabilities, and young parents were also more susceptible.

In more affluent areas, Lewis said, "people are experiencing good health, access to knowledge, a decent standard of living — disconnection is rare in those communities."

"If you think about middle-class kids, they don't get just a chance or one second chance, they get a million chances," Lewis said. "They're in institutions where they can try and they can fail and they're protected to some degree from the consequences, and they can mess up and people can help them. Disconnected young people don't have that luxury."

Parents of disconnected youth are at a 'total loss'

Sarah Nunley, a Gen X parent of two disconnected youths in Silicon Valley, said kids in her area are often pressured to focus on academics and attend college.

But Nunley said she noticed a "dramatic shift" after the remote-school era of the pandemic, as her own kids dropped out of college.

"The top priority became this YOLO environment, or mentality that you only live once, where it was more important to spend time with friends and go on adventures, and education became secondary to that," Nunley said.

Veronica, a 43-year-old parent in Texas, recently watched one of her kids become disconnected. She thinks he became burned out after working relentlessly in retail during the pandemic and still not getting promoted.

"He was going full throttle," Veronica said. "I mean, my husband and I would make comments when we saw him coming downstairs in his work uniform, be like, 'You're going to work again?'"

Nunley said she was at a "total loss" about what she and her fellow parents could do to improve things. But she has hope that disconnected youths will come around.

"Everybody cares. There's not a single person that doesn't care about what's going on or doesn't have an opinion about what's going on," Nunley said. "So from that perspective, I think that there is a lot of hope that they will eventually figure it out. But I don't have any ideas of how they will figure it out."

DC Lucchesi, a Gen X dad of three, said that while parents want to give their kids the tools to do better, so much has changed about the path to success since parents were that age.

"Generationally speaking, the parents of this 'disaffected youth,' they're all my age," he said. "What we grew up learning or hearing or being told was you get a damn college degree and that's going to be your springboard to success. And somewhere along that space, the success of that safety net disappeared."

Instead, Lucchesi said, parents need to learn to be OK with telling their kids that they don't have to pursue an Ivy League degree or attend an elite school.

"It's OK to be doing something else that brings you joy and puts a check in the bank for you," he said.

But the pressure to help isn't only on parents. Palmer, the social-work professor, argued that policymakers interested in fixing the problem could implement programs like guaranteed income for disconnected youth, expanded social safety net initiatives like Medicaid, and universal preschool and childcare.

"The things that worry me are that we are not adequately addressing a growing mental-health crisis, and we are missing people with our social safety net — the lack of holistic supports for young people, things like not just making sure that they're enrolled or trying to get them placed in a job, but are there livable wages even with a college degree?" Palmer said.

Destiny aspires to attend law school, though her immediate goal is to find a stable job that comfortably pays her bills. She hasn't even begun to think about retirement or a mortgage. She's considering buying an RV and traveling around to save money on an apartment.

"I think the mental-health crisis has always been a big deal but just swept under rugs," Destiny said. "The only reason there's a true surge in mental-health crises now is because the newer generations are more outspoken about it. Trauma cycles get bigger with every new generation you introduce. I think it has finally hit its breaking point."

Are you or were you a "disconnected youth," or are you supporting one? Contact these reporters at nsheidlower@businessinsider.com or jkaplan@businessinsider.com.


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