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Demography Roundup #11
Homeschooling is holding strong post-pandemic + new data on teen life over the years and a troubling drop in girls' self-confidence.
FYI: Demography Unplugged will be taking a Thanksgiving break. After Signal & Noise is published this coming Monday (11/20), we will not be publishing for the rest of that week. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our U.S. readers. We’ll be back in your inbox the week of November 27.
#1: Homeschooling shows its post-pandemic resilience—especially in the blue zone.
We have written several NewsWires on the rise in homeschooling. (See “Is Homeschooling Holding Down the Labor Supply?” and “Demography Roundup #5.”) But one challenge has been the weakness of the numbers: There are no comprehensive data sets on the number of homeschooled children in America. The National Center for Education Statistics’s last official estimate was for 2019 (1.5M). And while the U.S. Census does conduct a household survey, it is little more than a yes-or-no questionnaire. It’s unclear exactly what parents mean when they check yes for “homeschooling.”
Now The Washington Post has developed its own methodology to estimate the growth in home education. Reporters mined state websites, requested public records, and spoke to education officials in every state. Ultimately, they attained homeschooling records in 32 states and D.C. between 2017-2023. This represents 61% of the school-age population.
The Urban Institute, which we cited in our last update, uses a similar methodology but only has data for 22 states through the 2021-22 school year. Not only is the Post’s analysis more comprehensive, but it includes 2022-23 figures. So let’s dig into the results.
Homeschooling has maintained most of its pandemic growth. In the 2022-23 school year, homeschool enrollment was +51% higher than 2017-18. While that’s below the 2020-21 peak (+63%), it’s still far above the pre-pandemic level. Extrapolating from the NCES’s 2019 figure (1.5M), the Post estimates there were between 1.9M and 2.7M homeschooled children last year. That puts the homeschooling rate between 3.5% and 5.0%.
When we last visited this topic, we wrote that the new crop of homeschooling families is far less likely to identify as Republican. And this is evident in the state numbers. Blue-zone strongholds have recorded some of the largest increases since 2017: California +78%, New York +103%, and D.C. +108%.
When people think homeschooling, what comes to mind is probably ultra-religious parents. But increasingly, it’s more accurate to picture moms and dads who are worried about bullying, school shootings, and their kids not getting personalized attention or even a challenging curriculum. More parents are saying to themselves: Heck, distracted as I am, I can still do a lot better than this.
#2: Today’s teenagers are not the stuff of classic teen movies.
If asked to name what defines the adolescent experience today, the average American would probably say “social media.” But the differences in teen life go much deeper than technology; there are significant social and cultural differences in how teens spend their time compared to earlier generations. Take a look at these results from the Survey Center on American Life, which asked adults both young and old to reflect on their teen years. (Note that the age range that this survey considers “Gen Z"—the youngest adults, ages 18-26—we consider late-wave Millennials.)
In addition to the experiences listed above, young adults also reported spending more time as teens in therapy and playing video games. Fewer report occasionally drinking alcoholic beverages or smoking cigarettes or weed. They spent less time doing outdoor activities. Young men have seen a sharp decline in the share who played competitive sports.
Also, fewer report regularly spending time with friends in person—though here we see a U-shaped trend. The share was relatively low for Boomers, rose for Gen X and Millennials, and recently has been in steep decline for Gen Z.
One aspect of adolescence that hasn’t changed over the years, apparently, is bullying. Comparable shares of Gen Zers, Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers (ranging from 30% to 45%) report being bullied as teens. (We would caution, however, that questions like this are easily influenced by memory; it’s one thing to recall if you held a job as a teen, but another thing to recall emotions you may or may not have felt decades ago like loneliness or feeling bullied.)
These data points are unlikely to surprise anyone with a teenager in their lives. Still, they underscore one of the basic tenets of generational analysis: Different generational cohorts have meaningfully different experiences. The stereotypical markers of adolescence that have defined many a teen movie—e.g., dating, sneaking alcohol and drugs, summer jobs, cruising shopping malls, hanging all weekend in person with friends—are less and less typical. A teen movie today would ring truer if it depicted its characters gaming, constantly using social media, seldom getting totally away from parents to be with friends, and often feeling lonely.
#3: Emotional distress is rising not just among teen girls, but also elementary-aged girls.
A new report from the nonprofit ROX sheds more light on the youth state of mind—and the results are troubling. Its survey, which polled 17K girls in 5th through 12th grade, found that self-esteem has plummeted among all but the oldest girls, with a particularly steep decline among the younger students.
Between 2017 and 2023, the share of girls who describe themselves as “confident” has declined by -13 pp. This drop was largest among elementary and middle schoolers: The percentage of confident 5th-grade girls has declined by -18 pp to 68%.
The oldest students in 2023 (born in 2006 and 2007, respectively) mark the transition from Millennials (born 1982-2004) to Homelanders (born 2005 and later). Thus, the widening confidence gap uniquely characterizes Homelanders. We have noted that in many ways, Homelanders can be regarded as the “endpoint” of Millennial trends—among them, increased risk aversion, declining confidence, and shrinking ambitions.
The survey also found that the share of girls who say they feel sad or depressed four or more days per week has risen among every age group. Again, the rise was much larger amongst the young (5th: +23 pp vs. 12th: +8 pp). In 2017, a 12th grader was nearly 3X as likely to report feeling depressed as a 5th grader. Now the difference has shrunk to just 6 pp. Today, levels of emotional distress are roughly the same across all grade levels, ranging from 35% to 41%.
Most media headlines and research about declining youth mental health focus on teenagers. (See “New Public Health Advisory on Teen Mental Health” and “Homelanders: In Mental Distress but Well-Behaved.”) There is far less attention paid to the mental health of Homelanders who are still in elementary school—despite the fact that, as evidenced by this survey, rising depression and self-confidence issues are also present among younger kids. In the coming years, we may see rising mental health interventions for teenagers expand to lower grade levels.
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