A Troubled Age: Tough Times For NYC Youth

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When New York City public schools let out next week, the tests will have just begun for many teens, who will face rising crime and the weakest young adult job market in history.

In its July issue—which hits newsstands this week—City Limits examines the challenges facing New Yorkers aged 16 through 24, from teens struggling to get a job flipping burgers to those trying to escape gang violence, from school health clinics caught in controversy over how to treat teen depression to community college students sweating the transition from high school.

New York has always been a tough place to grow up: The trials of coming of age in Gotham dominate the movies and music that have told New York’s tale, from “West Side Story” to “Do the Right Thing.”

Conditions today are better than when Jacob Riis wrote of the stunning lack of outrage over children’s bodies washing up on New York’s shores. Fewer young people are getting murdered and more are graduating high school.

But community college graduation rates are stagnant, in part because large numbers of city high school graduates need remedial work in math, reading or writing—or all of the above—when they reach CUNY campuses. In 2006, the only 10 percent of CUNY students obtained their two-year associates degrees within two years—virtually the same graduation rate as in 1999. The number of high school students needing remedial work when they arrive at CUNY community colleges is lower now than it was 10 years ago, but most students still need to take at least one noncredit course.

Nationwide, teenage unemployment is worse than ever: In May, 26.9 percent of teens who wanted to work and had looked for it were unable to find jobs. This is likely a symptom of weakness in the overall job market. But while the economy bounces back, teens might have a harder time recovering with it if they can’t find positions during their crucial first years in the labor force.

Youth suicide is down in New York but alarming percentages of teens—especially Latinas and gay youth—tell city health surveys that they are pervasively sad, and, in some cases, have attempted suicide. Some city political leaders want more schools to offer mental health services. But there is controversy over how best to treat depression in teens, and whether popular prescriptions do more harm than good.

The city has taken notice of a rise in crime but for young people in some neighborhoods, violence is not a newcomer: Many teens in Harlem or East New York have been personally affected by gun violence. And teens are also more likely than most New Yorkers to encounter aggressive police tactics like stop-and-frisks or trespassing arrests. These aren’t the only response to crime: We meet an anti-gang activist who defuses conflict before it happens by speaking the language of the street.

And while all teens face challenges, particular puzzles confront teenage women from immigrant cultures with conservative values that clash with the American way of life. Be it African girls considering a return to war-torn homelands or South Asian teens navigating their way through prom season, these teens are wrestling with more than most.

The July issue is available for order in print or digital format and will be at newsstands later this week.

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