To Be Young and Happy

Lifes tough for the young. That's the conclusion of many current commentators on Western society. Young people often find it hard to get a job. Suicide rates are disturbing. Drug usage, divorce, and single parenthood are cited.

But two economists have come to a quite different conclusion. They report that young people - under 30 - in the United States and Europe seem to be getting happier. The research - done by David Blanchflower at Dartmouth College in the US, and Andrew Owald, University of Warwick in Britain - draws on surveys of young men and women over many years.

In 1972, 16 percent of young Americans under 30 reported themselves "not too happy" and 30 percent said they were "very happy." By 1990, only 9 percent were not too happy and 33 percent were very happy.

Eurobarometer Surveys has asked youths in 13 European nations for two decades about their satisfaction with life. It got positive results in all but two countries.

Explaining why youths appear to have become happier is difficult, according to Professors Blanchflower and Oswald. Their analysis finds no connection to the end of the cold war, declining discrimination against women and blacks, rising education levels, or the nature of work.

They did find much of the increase in youths' perception of well-being among the unmarried. "It may be that young men and women have benefited from society's recently increased tolerance of those living outside marriage," they write in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper.

Well, maybe. Sometimes people do bounce through those days before the responsibilities of a lasting, formal relationship. But that seems a stretch to us. Marriage, and family, have their own sustaining kind of satisfaction and happiness. We think there's abundant evidence that today's younger generation recognizes that fact.

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