New research delves into perception of life expectancy among adolescents

A new study of young people by Dr. Raymond Swisher, sociology, and Dr. Tara Warner, a recent BGSU graduate and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, finds that African-American and Hispanic youth (particularly those born in Mexico) are considerably less optimistic about their chances of surviving to age 35 than are white youth.

Titled "Adolescent Survival Expectations: Variations by Race, Ethnicity, and Nativity," the study, which is the first to document patterns of survival expectations across racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups, appears in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. It relies on data from the first three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health and considers the responses of 17,100 people who range in age from 12 to 25.

"Whites are not subject to the racism and discrimination, at institutional and individual levels, experienced by immigrants and U.S.-born racial and ethnic minorities that undermine health, well-being, and real and/or perceived life chances," said Warner, the lead author of the study. "Such experiences, including fear of victimization and/or deportation, can be a source of chronic stress for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as immigrants, that further undermines well-being, even among youth."

Swisher and Warner found that on average approximately 66 percent of whites were "almost certain" about their chances of surviving to age 35, while only 38 percent of foreign-born Mexicans, 46 percent of second-generation Mexicans (U.S.-born respondent and immigrant mother), and 50 percent of blacks were "almost certain."

Swisher said he was motivated to study the topic by an ethnographic study of disadvantaged youth called “There Are No Children Here,” in which Alex Kotzlowitz talked with two African-American brothers growing up in the Chicago housing projects.

“They were asked how they see the future and one of the kids said if he grows up, he wants to be a truck driver,” Swisher said. “It was the ‘if I grow up’ that hits you. It struck me that living in certain circumstances and thinking you won’t grow into adulthood isn’t something most of us would ever consider, let alone worrying that you might not make it until tomorrow.”

Swisher said the results of this most recent study confirmed what previous research suggested in terms of African-Americans and Hispanics being disadvantaged by living in poor neighborhoods and being more exposed to violence. “But, while we expected to find this pattern, it was more striking than we anticipated.

“Another thing that was surprising was that even after controlling for many of those risk factors—living in a poor neighborhood and being exposed to violence and having poor health care—those differences persisted and we couldn’t explain them away, which points to other inequalities that future research might examine. We speculated that the differences might reflect things we couldn’t measure, like concerns about discrimination or interactions with the police.”

Swisher said a pessimistic view of the future and fears of survival creates a short-term orientation to thinking and planning.

“It doesn’t make sense to have long-term plans—you’re dealing with daily survival and daily risks, and in that context and mindset staying in school doesn’t make much sense, or trying to figure out how to get into college,” he said. “For kids in a middle- or upper-class household, long-term thinking is more ingrained and that has consequences for later in the life course.”

"If young people don't expect to live very long, they may engage in risky behaviors that help make those survival expectations a reality," Warner said. "We should be thinking of ways to change that."