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This is a teenager

This is a teenager.

We'll call him Alex.

It's 1997.

Alex is a 13-year-old Hispanic kid being raised by his dad and step-mom. His family's net worth is less than $2,000. And his parents are neither supportive nor involved in his life.

When researchers assessed his home and family life, they determined he was in a fairly risky environment.

Over the next 25 years, researchers will continue interviewing Alex regularly. He'll be bullied at school. He'll be held back a few grades. He won't go to college.

As an adult, he'll often live in poverty while struggling with his physical and mental health.

But, right now, Alex is a teenager. And there's only so much control he has over his life.

He thinks his teachers are pretty good. He'll soon go on his first date with a girl. And he's pretty optimistic about the future. In other words, he's like most other teenagers.

Let's meet everyone else.

In this story, we'll follow hundreds of teenagers for the next 24 years, when they’ll be in their late-30s.

They're among the thousands of kids who are part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This means researchers have followed them since their teenage years to the present day – and beyond.

(Click a kid to see details)

A notable portion of kids, including Alex, have parents who are uninvolved and "show less warmth."

A lot of kids are in high-risk environments.

Researchers determined risk by asking lots of questions. For example, they asked whether the kid has basic necessities, like electricity or a quiet place to study.

They also asked about factors that could destabilize the home environment – chaotic routines, parents who have disabilities, or relatives struggling with substance abuse.

And a lot of kids are growing up extremely poor – which, in and of itself, can be traumatic.

A year from now, in 1998, a researcher named Vincent Felitti will publish a paper that drastically changes the way we think about these kids – and their childhood.

The research will show that these childhood stressors and traumas – called Adverse Childhood Experiences – have a lifelong effect on our health, relationships, happiness, financial security, and pretty much everything else that we value. It will kickstart decades of research that shows that our childhood experiences shape our adulthood far more than we ever thought.

While we can't track everything about these kids' lives, we can track how many of the following adverse experiences each kid experiences:

  • Having uninvolved parents
  • Held back in school
  • School suspensions
  • Being bullied
  • Seeing someone shot with a gun

In addition, I'll add in the home/family environment risk score to calculate the total adverse experience number.

To make this easier to see, let's split the kids up into three groups – kids who experience…

No adverse experiences (0)
Some adverse experiences (1-4)
Many adverse experiences (5+)

Let's go forward in time. I'll check in at the end of high school.

Keep scrolling ↓

It's 2001 – senior year of high school for a lot of these kids.

Let's check in on the types of adverse experiences they've endured.

Here are the kids who grew up in a high-risk home and family environment, based on their latest interviews.

Some kids were held back in school. A few were held back multiple years.

Some kids were suspended from school, a few were suspended multiple times.

Many kids were bullied.

And these are the kids who witnessed gun violence.

Growing up around violence can lower a kid's attention, impulse control, and early academic skills.

When we look at their high school GPA, we see that kids who experienced adverse events are more likely to struggle in school.

Wooo! High school is over! Partayyyyy!!!

Let's look at who is going to college

It's now 2002.

Most kids are done with high school and figuring out what's next.

Kids who experienced adverse events were less likely to go directly to college. They were more likely to jump straight into the workforce or get stuck in the purgatory between high school and some version of adulthood.

College isn't just a place that teaches you how to do a job; it's also a safe, structured, and productive environment for people to continue growing up – and to fend off adulthood for a bit. In the last few decades, more people have taken this path:

Percentage of people 25 to 29 years old with a bachelor's degree

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Sure, these kids are now 18 – technically adults. But psychologist Jeffrey Arnett argues that, in developed countries, there is an era between ages 18 and 25 when we collectively agree to let people explore the world and figure out what role they want to have in it. He calls it "emerging adulthood". And college is an environment built for emerging adults – a place where kids can leave their family environment and finally have a chance to independently shape their futures.

It's 2003.

More kids will eventually go to college – but it'll be uncommon for kids who experienced many adverse events.

It's a cruel irony. Research has shown that even one year of college or technical school can mitigate some of the effects of adverse childhood experiences.


Let's check in on Alex.

He's 20 now. The last few years were tough. He was held back in high school, graduated with a 2.9 GPA, and didn't go to college.

But he moved out of his parents' house and he briefly had a job as a grounds maintenance worker. He's not employed now.


It's now 2010. About half of each group is now working.

But the type of jobs they work largely depends on their education.

Let's look at educational attainment

Some of them have college degrees and are working jobs that pay them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, the people with bachelor's degrees tend to be people who experienced fewer adverse events as kids.

Bachelor's degrees have become essential for well-paid jobs in the US.

Starting in the 1980s, people with four-year college degrees started earning more and more, while everyone else earned less.

Median income for people ages 25 to 34, by educational attainment

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, College Board, US Census

Meanwhile, for the last several decades, people with four-year college degrees have reported being happier than people without.

Happiness, by educational attainment

Source: General Social Survey

But in 2022, the average cost for first-time college students living in campus was $36,000 – nearly $10,000 higher than a decade prior. It's made college inaccessible for kids who need it most.


Let's look at annual income

It's 2013.

By their late-20s, we can already see the income gaps among these groups. Notice who is earning less than $15,000 each year and less than $30,000 each year.

The US poverty line is about $15,000 for an individual in 2024 – low enough that the government offers healthcare benefits for people who earn up to 4x the poverty line.

It's 2015.

In one year, the US will elect Donald Trump as president – a man who constantly insults poor people and calls them "morons."

This generation grew up hearing presidents say similar things. Ronald Reagan said people go hungry because of "a lack of knowledge," and that people are homeless "by choice." Bill Clinton said "personal responsibility" is the way to overcome poverty. We grew up in a country where most people believed the top reason for poverty was drug abuse, and half of Americans blamed poor people for being poor.


It's 2021.

The research participants are in their late-30s now, which means they've had plenty of time to shape their own destinies. But we can clearly see that the experiences of their childhood had a huge effect on their financial situation as adults.

It also has an effect on virtually everything else in their lives.

This is how many times each person was a victim of a violent crime.

This is how many parents, siblings, or partners have died thus far

Remember, these people are only in their late-30s.

This is the most recent answer each person gave about how often they were happy in the past month.

All of this affects Black and Hispanic people significantly more – something Felitti found in his initial study.

Ultimately, our childhood experiences affect our lifespan.

People who endure adverse experiences report more health problems. Research has found that adverse childhood experiences increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, mental illness – and all of this can lead to premature death.

The survey only asks each person about their health every few years, so this visualization shows their most recent response.

So, how is Alex doing?

He's 37 now, living with his partner and two kids.

After decades of working as a cook, he recently moved to a retail job. Over the last few years, his annual income was around $20,000. He has struggled with his weight for much of his adult life, and it affects his overall health. The last time he was asked about his mental health, he said he was depressed some of the time.

The world has a lot of compassion for kids.

When we're young, we have so little control over their lives. We play around, mess up, and get into trouble. We also endure dysfunctional homes, family chaos, violence, bullies, and whatever else comes our way. But we tell ourselves that, eventually, we'll get to shape our own lives.

Then we turn 18 and we're expected to be "adults" and figure things out.

If we fail, we are punished.

We are blamed for not going to college, for being unhealthy, for being poor, for not being able to afford healthcare and food and housing.

But it's not Alex’s fault.

This is the same person we met 24 years ago. The world we've built has shaped his life.

So he is our collective responsibility. They all are.

Explore the data

Select other factors to sort these people using the pulldown option on the top.

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