Ages & Stages: 11-18: Teens Feel Intense Pressure to Succeed — Even if it Means Cutting Ethical Corners

Young people are feeling strong pressure to succeed in school, no matter the cost, a new survey has found. More than two out of five teens (44 percent) say they feel either a lot or overwhelming pressure to succeed in school, no matter the cost. And more girls than boys feel this heavy burden to succeed. Those are among the findings of the fourth annual “Teen Ethics Poll” recently released by JA Worldwide (Junior Achievement) and Deloitte & Touche USA LLP (Deloitte).

The survey, designed to take the ethical pulse of teens ages 13 to 18, found a notable gender gap among those who reported “a lot” or “overwhelming” pressure to succeed in school at any cost: fully half of the girls — but only 38 percent of the boys — felt this burden to do well in school.

Teens also hold a dim view of the ethics of their peers. Many (44 percent) say high school students behave unethically, placing them, in their eyes, below doctors, teachers, professional athletes and business leaders.

The survey also raised an apparent discrepancy between how students define ethical behavior and what constitutes such behavior:
• In a seemingly positive trend, the percentage of students who say they would not act unethically to get ahead or make more money, even if they knew for sure they would not get caught (59 percent), has increased by 40 percent since 2003.
• However, this is juxtaposed against the fact that many teens admitted they had personally engaged in unethical behavior in the last year by lying (69 percent), downloading a song without paying (34 percent) and cheating on tests (22 percent).

Eight in 10 (81 percent) students who feel significant pressure to succeed, no matter the cost, think it’s going to remain the same or get worse when they join the workforce. And more than a quarter (29 percent) of all teens believe they are currently only somewhat or not at all prepared to make ethical decisions. “We have to take it seriously when students who are under so much stress tell us they think it’s not going to get any better, especially if they don’t feel prepared to make the right calls,” said Ainar D. Aijala, Jr., vice chairman and deputy chief executive officer of Deloitte Consulting LLP and chairman of the board of JA Worldwide.

Experts agree that these results raise a red flag. “The notion that large numbers of students feel somewhat unprepared to make ethical decisions, coupled with the fact that they feel pressure to succeed at all costs, is a troubling combination,” said David Miller Ph.D., executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Business Ethics.

As a result of the poll and their concern for teen ethics, JA Worldwide and Deloitte are collaborating on a multi-faceted educational program, which can be delivered as early as the 4th grade, to help students learn to make ethical decisions and alleviate the pressure to behave unethically. The “Excellence through Ethics” program includes classroom lessons that teach the value of ethical behavior, a $5,000 college scholarship essay contest that requires high school seniors to demonstrate their ability to apply ethical decision-making to real-life situations, expansion to the United States of an existing Global Ethics Challenge and implementation grants for U.S. Junior Achievement offices which use the program. The program is being underwritten by Deloitte, which has committed $2 million to the JA Worldwide ethics program.

The 2006 “Teen Ethics Poll” was commissioned by Junior Achievement and Deloitte and conducted by Harris Interactive during September 2006; 787 students between the ages of 13 and 18 participated.