The Ambitious Generation

America`s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless

Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson

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Are today’s teenagers really slackers, the apathetic, baggy-pants wearing, unmotivated individuals so often portrayed by the media? This engrossing account—based on a landmark study of 7,000 teens—gives us good news and bad news about our teenagers. Contrary to prevailing notions, theirs is the most ambitious generation yet. But because schools and parents do a poor job of directing them, many take the wrong courses, choose the wrong colleges, and often finish college with neither job skills nor specific career goals. Their dreams of success are likely to remain just that—dreams.

Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson reveal that today’s teens are not only misdirected but often very alienated. They spend more time alone and are depressed about it. Fewer teens have best friends or solid romantic relationships. And at school they move from group to group, changing affiliations often. Schneider and Stevenson show how parents and teachers can take adolescents’ admirable raw ambition and provide them with direction and social support that they so sorely lack. As the authors demonstrate through many poignant cases, it is not enough to simply tell teens to work hard. We must also help them to figure out what they want to do and how to go about doing it.

Barbara Schneider is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and senior social scientist at the National Opinion Research Center. David Stevenson is a senior advisor to the deputy secretary of education. In his former role as deputy executive director of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, he was responsible for the report Raising Standards for American Education.

“A fascinating account of how the lives and dreams of American teenagers have changed in the past fifty years, this book uses rigorous data and telling case studies to weave a unique story that should be read by everyone interested in the future of children and of society.”—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, department of psychology, University of Chicago, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

"This well-researched, engaging, and thoughtful profile of American teenagers at the end of the 20th century identifies a profound problem that has received far too little attention in the school reform debate—the mismatch between adolescents' high occupational aspirations and their poor academic preparation. The Ambitious Generation persuasively shows that the current generation suffers not from a lack of ambition but from a lack of guidance. It demonstrates, once again, that adolescents need the active involvement of parents in their daily life in order to succeed. Parents, educators, school counselors, and policy-makers should read this book and follow the authors' sensible advice."—Laurence Steinberg, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology, Temple University and the author of Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do

“One of the challenges our society must confront as we move into a new millennium is that our children are being asked to prepare for a very different adult world than was the case for their parents a generation ago. Schneider and Stevenson discuss this dilemma with remarkable sensitivity in this important and compelling work.”—Kai Erikson, professor of sociology and American studies, Yale University

“There is an important message here for parents and teachers. Despite current stereotypes, our teenagers do have ambition and high aspirations. But they need our guidance to help them make their dreams a reality.”—Sandra Feldman, president, American Federation of Teachers

"The Ambitious Generation is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of contemporary adolescence.  Based on careful, systematic research, it illuminates the changing aspirations and frustrations of American adolescents.  It is an important resource for everyone interested in youth development."—David A. Hamburg, M.D. President Emeritus, Carnegie Corporation of New York

“Presenting a surprising portrait of American youth that contrasts with the conventional image of Generation-X slackers, this significant study finds that U.S. adolescents today are much more ambitious than teens of previous eras. . . . Straightforward and accessible, the book provides a useful roadmap for parents and teachers who want to help students match their abilities and resources to educational opportunities and the job market.  This worthwhile report should spark national debate and discussion.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Using case studies and well-documented discussions, the authors cite the failure of families, high schools, and colleges to engender “aligned ambitions” in students, helping them to see which educational pathways are most consistent with their dreams.”—Library Journal


“Schneider and Stevenson . . . give us the first in-depth look at America’s largest generation.  Written with laudable thoroughness. . . . There are finally data to support what some people have always suspected, that when parents involve themselves in their children’s schooling, children place a higher value on education.”—Jonathan V. Last, Washington Post Book World

“The authors draw interesting parallels between the social and economic conditions facing today’s youth and those of the 1950s, when young people married earlier and could earn a comfortable living working in a more industrialized economy.”—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"A useful call to adults who care about young people. Properly heeded, it could be a first step in turning the 'drifting dreamers' of a new century into more focused students whose education better matches their impressive ambition."—Marilyn Gardner, Christian Science Monitor

"[One of the] year's most intriguing books [on] generational issues. . . After studying 7,000 adolescents, [the] authors . . . concluded that they are the most ambitious generation yet—and perhaps the most poorly guided. . . . In their call for increased parental involvement, [they] join a chorus of experts on the same theme: Regardless of what they say, teens want and need more adult support and direction."—Sue Shellenbarger, "Work and Family," Wall Street Journal

“Schneider and Stevenson make clear how urgent it is to help youth set vocational goals, and to honor and nurture their gifts, passions and possibilities.”—Richard Rosengarten, Christian Century

“This book is accessible to read, exhaustively documented, and a gold mine of information-programming material for young adult librarians in any setting.”—Voya

Ambitious Generation offers a thoughtful and carefully researched view of American teenagers.  Despite negative stereotypes, today’s teens are ambitious and have high ideals and aspirations.  Those interested in working with today’s youth will find much information and insight.”—Susan Stewart, Public Library Association

“I found The Ambitious Generation an informative read. Some of the case studies alone are worth the price of admission, and the authors communicate a genuine understanding of and concern for America’s ‘motivated but directionless’ youth.”—Kenneth Kidd, The Lion & The Unicorn (John Hopkins)

“To better understand today’s adolescents, please read this book. If you need to know how to best guide your teens into a college or university and into the adult workforce, this book contains specific instructions backed by solid research. . . . I would like to make this book mandatory reading for all our policymakers, particularly for all state lawmakers.”—Larry R. Hamilton, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley

The Ambitious Generation offers solid research, examples, and suggestions for teachers, parents, counselors, and school administrators on how to best help our teens realize their dreams and aspirations.”—Tom Bowden, Tech Directions

Selected as an outstanding book by University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries.
ISBN: 9780300082753
Publication Date: April 10, 2000
336 pages, 5 1/2 x 8.25
13 b/w illus.
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