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Disconnected Youth

The skyrocketing cost of higher education is causing some young people to opt out of college, which can affect their ability to find employment. Disconnected youth are young adults who are neither working nor in school. Reduced lifetime earnings, problem substance use, poor health and criminal behavior are some of the negative consequences of youth disconnection.

Young adulthood is a time of emerging independence. Even if they’re not pursuing higher education, young adulthood is a time to begin career-building and develop financial self-sufficiency.

Disconnected youth are becoming part of a growing trend.

Who Are the ‘Disconnected Youth’?

Disconnected youth (sometimes called “opportunity youth”) are young people who are neither working nor in school. Their ages range from mid-teens to approximately 24 years old. They often have only a college diploma, are involved in the justice system, or live below the poverty line. They might be homeless. Neither earning nor learning, disconnected youth face long-term disadvantages, and may also contribute to a less-skilled workforce in years to come. However, the term “opportunity youth” emphasizes the potential of disconnected youth to thrive if given the right opportunities. 

New research from the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s Institute for Economic Equity found that more than 1 in 3 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have no income at all. That’s an increase since 1990, when 1 in 5 young adults reported having no income. Some states have higher youth disconnection rates than others (Alabama topped the list at 18%, for example, while New Hampshire was the lowest at 7%). Florida and California have experienced sharp increases in youth disconnection rates over the last two decades. New York, on the other hand, didn’t experience an increase in youth disconnection until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other research suggests that the issue is more pronounced among people of color. In some metro areas, black youth and Latinos are three to six times more likely than white youth to suffer from disconnection. Young black adults aged 20–24 have the highest rates of disconnection (17%); for Latino young adults, the rate is 13.4%.

The Negative Consequences of Being Disconnected

The implications of entering adulthood without higher education, vocational training, or any source of income are significant. Moreover, they increase over time. Some of the negative outcomes include:

  • Protracted unemployment and financial stress

  • Lower-wage jobs and reduced lifetime earnings

  • Problem substance use

  • Poor physical and mental health

  • Criminal behavior and incarceration

Because of their lack of financial resources, disconnected Gen Zers are less apt to be able to save money, buy a home, or start a business. If they’re parents themselves, the consequences can be especially dire. The children of disconnected young adults, for instance, are more apt to grow up in poverty.

What Causes Youth Disconnection

Multiple factors cause youth disconnection. For one, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, large numbers of young people opted out of school and the workforce. On top of that, college enrollment has been declining steadily for over a decade. The soaring cost of tuition has led to rising student debt, forcing many Gen Z young adults to question whether higher education is really worth the cost.

Other factors that lead to youth disconnection include unstable housing, living in poverty, homelessness, having a disability, being involved in the foster care or criminal justice systems, becoming a young parent, or having a parent with minimal education. Problem substance use is another factor. But it’s debatable whether drug use leads to less workforce participation, or unemployment leads to increased drug use.

In addition, there appears to be less stigma around being out of work than in years past. One study found that young people who aren’t in the labor force have as positive a view of their life circumstances as those who are employed. Some experts theorize that the slower transition to adulthood (known as failure to launch) may contribute to this. Because living at home in young adulthood has become more acceptable post-pandemic, some young people may be less motivated to carve out fully independent adult lives.

How Mental Health Issues Impact Young Adult Connection

Mental health issues are one of the biggest factors contributing to the rise in disconnected youth. Young adults are experiencing mental health symptoms and substance use disorder more than any other demographic.


Gen Zers struggling with mental health challenges may find it hard to secure or sustain employment. They can also have difficulty succeeding in or completing school. Depression, for instance, is associated with a lower grade point average and a greater likelihood of dropping out of college. In turn, having less education can make it harder for young adults to find a job.

Furthermore, research shows that the pandemic has increased the prevalence of social anxiety. Some Gen Zers who returned home from school or work during the pandemic, for example, had difficulty re-entering society for school or work. And other young adults feel so anxious about their future that they experience a quarter-life crisis.

An analysis of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey finds that half of young adults ages 18–24 reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023, compared to approximately a third of adults overall.

What Parents Can Do for a Disconnected Young Adult

There’s no panacea that can magically put a disconnected young adult on the path toward schooling or employment overnight. And trying to change a young adult’s behavior is usually a recipe for conflict. Enabling their dependency is unhealthy, too. Instead, it’s best to support young adults’ feelings and instill confidence in their abilities. Some strategies include:

Stop Hovering

Being overly involved in a young adult’s behavior and choices can be a source of more strain than support. Helicopter parenting can cause young adults to feel controlled. Not wanting to be monitored, they can become oppositional. Instead of hovering, parents can allow young adults the space to make their own choices. Learning from mistakes helps them grow. 

Support Small Goals and Wins

For a young adult struggling with anxiety or depression, taking even one small step toward exploring school or job options can feel overwhelming. To help young adults take positive action, support them in taking small steps toward their goals. Examples of small steps might be exercising, getting adequate sleep, joining a support group, and making social plans to support their mental health. Or they could read about degree programs at schools, create a resume, or apply for a job. Acknowledge and celebrate these small achievements, without patronizing your young adult child or pushing them to do more. 

Applaud Exploration

Many young people feel they should have their lives figured out by the time they reach young adulthood. This notion puts a counterproductive level of stress on them. It’s important to remind Gen Zers that it’s okay to make a choice and then change your mind. Young adulthood is a time of trial and error. Rather than demanding certainty, encourage exploration.

Set Clear Expectations

To avoid resentment, it’s important for parents to set clear expectations and boundaries around the support they will offer. For example, set clearcut expectations around the financial assistance you can provide. If a young adult is living at home, spell out how they will participate in taking care of the home and the family. Creating a written agreement is a good idea so there are no misunderstandings.

Consider Family Therapy

Disconnected youth can have a draining effect on the family system. Likewise, the family system can contribute to youth disconnection. Family therapists can show parents how changing their behavior is sometimes the most effective way to spur a productive change in their adult child. Family therapy also helps heal longstanding wounds between parents and young adult children. As the family system heals, young adults are more likely to thrive.

Article courtesy of Newport Institute

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