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All grown up, but no place to go

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THE AMBITIOUS GENERATION: AMERICA'S TEENAGERS, MOTIVATED BUT DIRECTIONLESS By Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson Yale University Press 307 pp., $26

Youth, Oscar Wilde quipped a century ago, is America's oldest tradition. Now that tradition is undergoing profound change. Forget stereotypes of apathetic, unmotivated teen-agers. Think instead of young people with ambition - lots of it - and motivation.

Today's adolescents are the most ambitious teenagers ever, according to the authors of an insightful report, "The Ambitious Generation." Drawing on a landmark study of 7,000 teens, they explain that four decades ago, only 55 percent of high school seniors expected to attend college. Today, 90 percent do. Forty years ago, only 42 percent expected to work in professional jobs. Today, the figure has risen to 70 percent.

That's the good news. The troubling news comes in the book's subtitle: "America's Teenagers, Motivated But Directionless."

Too often, say Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, adolescents remain "drifting dreamers," unaware of the steps they must take to achieve their goals. This produces "misaligned ambitions" as students underestimate how much education they will need for their chosen occupations. As a result, the authors caution, many teenagers in the 1990s will not realize their goals.

These heightened ambitions stem in part from changes in the American economy. Real wages for high school graduates have declined, and job instability among white-collar workers has increased. To protect themselves, teenagers believe the way to create a "personal safety net" is through additional education.

Schneider and Stevenson fault two groups - parents and schools - for not doing more to help teens navigate the maze of choices. Many parents, they say, "do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their adolescents plan for their futures." Instead, parents depend on high schools and colleges to fulfill that role.

Well-meaning parents, teachers, and counselors also focus too narrowly on the college-admission process, the authors say, rather than preparing students to succeed once they are admitted.


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