An Opportunity to Do Better: Youth Pathways to Thriving

There are approximately 5 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States who are not in school or working and are at risk of surviving rather than thriving. These young people are sometimes referred to as opportunity youth because of the opportunity and potential they have to thrive and succeed as individuals, community members, and contributors to our society. But opportunity becomes an empty promise if we cannot provide access to equitable opportunities for learning and development, including opportunities to explore and develop career interests, build relationships and partner with adult mentors, and experience safe and supportive environments that offer ample tries and second chances.

Left unaddressed, the economic and social costs of youth disconnection are significant to individuals and to society.

The pathways to thriving are fraught with amplified disconnection. While communities have made progress in the last decade to reconnect youth to opportunities to thrive and build skills through school and employment, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens this progress. Increasing numbers of young people today are unemployed and not participating in school; as a result, they face a more uncertain future. This is the challenge, and now is the time to address this inequity through a learning agenda for opportunity youth.

In this brief, we:

  • Explore the opportunity of adolescence and the promise of adolescents as a force for good;
  • Describe opportunity youth;
  • Review the evidence on programs intended to support opportunity youth in their transition to adulthood; and
  • Identify a learning agenda to support opportunity youth on a path to thriving.

AIR reviewed the published research evidence on nine rigorously studied programs that serve opportunity youth to help inform our self-funded, equity-focused investments.