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Survival expectations predict socioeconomic status

Adolescents who express uncertainty about living past young adulthood are significantly more likely than optimistic individuals to face harsh socioeconomic realities more than a decade later, according to a new study conducted by a Northeastern University researcher.

The findings — which dovetail with Northeastern’s focus on use-inspired research that solves global challenges in health, security and sustainability — were reported on April 3 in the online edition of the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Quynh Nguyen, lead author and data analyst for the Institute on Urban Health Research in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, analyzed data from a nationally representative cohort of approximately 19,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12. The teens were surveyed in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in 1995 and then again in 2008.

Adolescents who initially reported a 50 percent chance or less of living to age 35 had a 73 percent greater chance of obtaining only a high-school education than their more optimistic peers.

Nguyen found that adolescents who initially reported a 50 percent chance or less of living to age 35 had a 73 percent greater chance of obtaining only a high-school education than their more optimistic peers. She also found that adolescents with low perceived survival expectations were significantly more likely to make less money.

“The findings are significant because they identify a novel and efficient predictor of future adult outcomes, independent of other important background characteristics,” Nguyen said, noting that the study controlled for characteristics such as sex, race and self-rated health. “Screening for these perceptions early in life, along with other psychosocial characteristics, may assist in the identification of at-risk youth.”

The study highlighted a discrepancy in survival expectations between black and white participants: Approximately 25 percent of African American adolescents reported uncertainty about living to age 35 compared to only 10 percent of their white, non-Hispanic peers.

Other correlates of lower survival expectations included living in an impoverished neighborhood, being involved in violence and experiencing depressive symptoms.

Placing adolescents in healthy environments in which they could thrive could boost survival expectations, Nguyen noted. “One way to optimize their future outlook is to connect them to role models through internships and summer programs that allow them to explore their interests and potential careers,” she said. “Where you start says a lot about where you will end up.”