Most everyone did little things as a teenager that happily had no lasting consequences later in life. But what are the impacts of more fundamental teen choices? Recent research says that major life transitions in adolescence can have lasting effects on later political participation.
Julianna Sandell Pacheco and Eric Plutzer analyzed the effects of three important teen life transitions—adolescent parenthood, early marriage, and dropping out of high school—on later political engagement. In a paper published in American Politics Research, Pacheco and Plutzer report that the three transitions "can contribute to a pattern of cumulative disadvantage because experiencing one teen transition often leads to another." Teen parents are much more likely to drop out of school, which in turn sets of other chains of events that dampen political participation, making it unlikely they'll be able to advocate effectively for their needs and opinions.
Interestingly, the scholars find that the effects of these life transitions on voter turnout differ across racial and ethnic lines, with the impact of teen parenthood applying more to Whites than to Blacks or Hispanics. They suggest that the differences across racial groups may reflect divergent norms about educational achievement and early parenthood and marriage. This hints that providing the right kinds of social support to teens could offset the negative impacts of their life transitions. Further sociological research into the effects of varying sets of cultural practices could have very practical implications for helping adolescents cope with their choices.
The authors demonstrate that supposedly "nonpolitical" life events can have an influence on political behavior. From a harm reduction viewpoint, it may be possible to cut into the causal chain to prevent one bad choice from leading to another. Their results suggest that efforts to help teen parents in a way that makes it easier for them to stay in school could carry great benefits—both for their immediate educational success and their lifelong political engagement.
Reference: Julianna Sandell Pacheco and Eric Plutzer. "Stay in School, Don't Become a Parent: Teen Life Transitions and Cumulative Disadvantages for Voter Turnout" American Politics Research 35(1), January 2007: 32-56.