Recession Babies Grow Into Delinquent Teens

A new study shows babies born during recessions are more likely to grow into teenagers who exhibit delinquent tendencies. Photograph by David Sutherland

Recessions are stressful, even for babies.

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people born between 1980 and 1984—who were therefore infants during the 1980-81 and 1982 recessions—were more likely to smoke pot, drink, and engage in other “delinquent” behaviors as teenagers.

Researchers at SUNY’s Medical University, Syracuse University, and the University of Glasgow used a 1997 national survey of roughly 8,000 adolescents and correlated their answers about drug use, violence, arrests, and gang affiliation with the economic situation into which they were born. They found that a 1-year-old child living in an area that had 1 percent higher unemployment than the regional average was 11 percent more likely to steal, 9 percent more likely to use marijuana or join a gang, and 6 percent more likely to drink. The experiment controlled for variables such as financial stability (kids raised in affluent homes are less likely to join gangs) and age (older teenagers are more likely to drink than, say, a 12-year-old) but they couldn’t account for location. “We knew the general region where each child was from, but we couldn’t tell you if they were from the suburbs or the south side of Chicago,” says Dr. Natarajan Balasubramanian, assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management and co-author of the study. Still, it’s a pretty conclusive link between “macroeconomic problems in a child’s environment and subsequent behavioral problems,” Balasubramanian says.

Researchers are hesitant to point to specific reasons for this link. In the paper, they suggest that “periods of high unemployment disrupt the economic stability of the parents and therefore jeopardize the child’s growth,” and they mention previous studies that have related high unemployment to an increase in child abuse, but those are only possibilities. “Our study doesn’t produce any definitive results, it just tells you that there’s an association,” says Balasubramanian “What are the mechanisms that link these two? Is it that parents don’t have enough time? Is it stress?” He says further study is needed to figure this out.

So how does this study help us understand the impact of the recent economic downturn on kids? That’s a good question, Balasubramanian says. The recession will almost certainly affect delinquency rates when today’s babies are old enough to drink and smoke. But whether they’ll smoke more or less pot than their 1980-84 cohorts, he isn’t sure. Unemployment was higher in the 1980s than it is today, peaking at around 10.8 percent in December 1982, while the highest unemployment the U.S. has suffered recently was 9.9 percent in 2009. ”But unemployment came down pretty quickly in 1983, whereas we’ve had 7-8 percent unemployment for three to four years now,” says Balasubramanian. Families have felt financially strapped for a much longer time, which may cause even more stress. And possibly in 15 years, more underage drinking and drug use.

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