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Risk Factors of Young People and their Consequences on their Adult Lives

Background and aims

Young people who, on the basis of various indicators, may be regarded as "at risk" will be examined in terms of their further vocational and personal development. This is based on a multidimensional perspective: risk in younger years can be connected with specific personality characteristics (low productivity, low self-esteem, self-damaging behaviour etc.) or to the social environment (e.g. social origins). These risk factors are viewed in connection with further development in adult life.


Although longitudinal studies are frequently required in developmental psychology, they are seldom realised. Disabled and disadvantaged groups in particular are usually excluded for "reasons connected with investigation techniques". Thus the studies by Riedo (2000) and Blöchlinger (1991) are exceptions in the area of special education. As an alternative to self-conceived longitudinal studies, we have the possibility of secondary analysis of existing data.


By means of a secondary analysis of the ZLSE (Zürcher Längsschnittstudie "Von der Schulzeit bis zum mittleren Erwachsenenalter"(Zurich Longitudinal Study "From schooldays to middle Age") the further vocational and personal development of 15-year-olds was examined. The young people were at several occasions questioned and examined, finally as young adults aged 36 (Schallberger & Huldi, 2001).

The ZLSE comprises a more or less representative sample survey of 396 German-Swiss persons, although once again without special classes and special schools. The data with approximately 3,500 recorded features is characterised by its exceptional length and variety (Häfeli et al., 1988). Thus we have at our disposal records on cognitive ability, classical personality dimensions, self-concepts, locus of control, sensitivities, work and education situations etc. Evaluation of the teachers (9th class) was also included.


With regard to the effects connected with risk factors in young people, the following has been observed: almost two thirds (63%) of the persons examined had a problematic start in their youth in at least one of the following areas: "health", "abilities", "personality", "family and social origin" or "recreational behaviour". A large number (28% of the whole sample survey) of the persons examined as adults even had difficulties in several areas.

In spite of this evidence of the widespread effects of disadvantageous starting situations in younger years, the life situations of the persons examined are very good in adult years. During a survey carried out with the persons examined at the age of 36, the great majority expressed contentment in both their vocational (80%) and private (90%) lives.

The life situation of adults also appears satisfactory from an "objective" point of view. Most of the persons questioned have been able to acquire satisfactory jobs, and only 6% are employed in unqualified work (e.g. unskilled labour). In addition, the majority of them live in stable couple relationships (88%), and seven out of ten have children of their own.

These findings correspond with those of other longitudinal studies. The majority of the risk-affected persons evidence a positive development and successful adaptation in adult life. It seems that resilience and protective factors have a considerable influence on limiting the negative effects of risk factors.

Nevertheless, the starting position of the rising generation is by no means insignificant in terms of their further development. It is evident that persons who are exposed to risk factors in their youth are less successful, from both subjective and objective points of view, than those with a problem-free childhood.

This does not, however, apply to life situations in general, for it is more the case that specific risk factors in youth effect specific aspects of adult life.

Thus, for example, young people with very poor cognitive abilities are often employed in low vocational positions. However, they are by no means less content with their work than others, and no disadvantages have been observed in their private lives. Young people who have conspicuously less manual ability, on the other hand, tend to have fewer chances of success – not, however, in their vocational lives but in their private lives: they are less likely to have a stable partnership and their own children than their more skilful peers.

Risk factors outside the personal sphere also have their effects. Thus people who grow up with only one parent are less likely to have a stable couple relationship compared to those with an intact family of origin. In addition, social origins are an indicator of vocational success. It has also been observed that recreational behaviour plays a part: young people who spend their free time in structured groups – in a society, club or in courses – have better chances of a satisfactory career.

As a practical consequence, on the one hand the reduction of risk influences is important. On the other – as it were as a counterpart – protective factors and resilience must be promoted (compare Werner, 1997; Opp et al. 1999). The protective factors are both inherent in the person him/herself (e.g. temperament, problem-solving repertoire) and in the family of origin. During the course of development, however, the extended environment in the circle of relatives, neighbours, school, education and recreation can play an important compensatory role. And in adult life, further beneficial environmental conditions (partnership, vocation, societies, religious groups etc.) may be added. Resilience and protective factors can be specifically promoted through intervention programmes.


  • Häfeli, K., Spiess Huldi, C. & Rüesch, P. (2006). Einmal gefährdet – immer gefährdet? Risikofaktoren bei Jugend-lichen und ihre Auswirkungen im Erwachsenenalter. Panorama, 63(3), 4-5.(vgl. PDF)
  • Spiess Huldi, C., Häfeli, K. & Rüesch, P. (2006). Risikofaktoren bei Jugendlichen und ihre Auswirkungen auf das Leben im Erwachsenenalter. Eine Sekundäranalyse der Zürcher Längsschnittstudie „Von der Schulzeit bis zum mittleren Erwachsenenalter" (ZLSE). Luzern: Edition SZH/CSPS, Aspekte Nr. 89.



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