December 11, 2009

Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America

I. Overview and Executive Summary

This is part of a Pew Research Center series of reports exploring the behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial Generation

Updated Edition, July 01, 2013

Hispanics are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States. One- in-five schoolchildren is Hispanic. One-in-four newborns is Hispanic. Never before in this country’s history has a minority ethnic group made up so large a share of the youngest Americans. By force of numbers alone, the kinds of adults these young Latinos become will help shape the kind of society America becomes in the 21st century.

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-01This report takes an in-depth look at Hispanics who are ages 16 to 25, a phase of life when young people make choices that—for better and worse—set their path to adulthood. For this particular ethnic group, it is also a time when they navigate the intricate, often porous borders between the two cultures they inhabit—American and Latin American.

The report explores the attitudes, values, social behaviors, family characteristics, economic well-being, educational attainment and labor force outcomes of these young Latinos. It is based on a new Pew Hispanic Center telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,012 Latinos, supplemented by the Center’s analysis of government demographic, economic, education and health data sets.

The data paint a mixed picture. Young Latinos are satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures and place a high value on education, hard work and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to drop out of school and to become teenage parents. They are more likely than white and Asian youths to live in poverty. And they have high levels of exposure to gangs.

These are attitudes and behaviors that, through history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience. But most Latino youths are not immigrants. Two-thirds were born in the United States, many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began coming to this country around 1965.

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-02As might be expected, they do better than their foreign-born counterparts on many key economic, social and acculturation indicators analyzed in this report. They are much more proficient in English and are less likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty or become a teen parent.

But on a number of other measures, U.S.-born Latino youths do no better than the foreign born. And on some fronts, they do worse.

For example, native-born Latino youths are about twice as likely as the foreign born to have ties to a gang or to have gotten into a fight or to have carried a weapon in the past year. They are also more likely to be in prison.

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-03The picture becomes even more murky when comparisons are made among youths who are first generation (immigrants themselves), second generation (U.S.-born children of immigrants) and third and higher generation (U.S.-born grandchildren or more far-removed descendants of immigrants).1

For example, teen parenthood rates and high school dropout rates are much lower among the second generation than the first, but they appear higher among the third generation than the second. The same is true for poverty rates.

Identity and Assimilation

Throughout this nation’s history, immigrant assimilation has always meant something more than the sum of the sorts of economic and social measures outlined above. It also has a psychological dimension. Over the course of several generations, the immigrant family typically loosens its sense of identity from the old country and binds it to the new.

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-04It is too soon to tell if this process will play out for today’s Hispanic immigrants and their offspring in the same way it did for the European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But whatever the ultimate trajectory, it is clear that many of today’s Latino youths, be they first or second generation, are straddling two worlds as they adapt to the new homeland.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s National Survey of Latinos, more than half (52%) of Latinos ages 16 to 25 identify themselves first by their family’s country of origin, be it Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador or any of more than a dozen other Spanish-speaking countries. An additional 20% generally use the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” first when describing themselves. Only about one-in-four (24%) generally use the term “American” first.

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-05Among the U.S.-born children of immigrants, “American” is somewhat more commonly used as a primary term of self-identification. Even so, just 33% of these young second generation Latinos use American first, while 21% refer to themselves first by the terms Hispanic or Latino, and the plurality—41%—refer to themselves first by the country their parents left in order to settle and raise their children in this country.

Only in the third and higher generations do a plurality of Hispanic youths (50%) use “American” as their first term of self-description.

Immigration in Historical Perspective

Measured in raw numbers, the modern Latin American-dominated immigration wave is by far the largest in U.S. history. Nearly 40 million immigrants have come to the United States since 1965. About half are from Latin America, a quarter from Asia and the remainder from Europe, Canada, the Middle East and Africa. By contrast, about 14 million immigrants came during the big Northern and Western European immigration wave of the 19th century and about 18 million came during the big Southern and Eastern European-dominated immigration wave of the early 20th century.2

However, the population of the United States was much smaller during those earlier waves. When measured against the size of the U.S. population during the period when the immigration occurred, the modern wave’s average annual rate of 4.6 new immigrants per 1,000 population falls well below the 7.7 annual rate that prevailed in the mid- to late 19th century and the 8.8 rate at the beginning of the 20th century.

All immigration waves produce backlashes of one kind or another, and the latest one is no exception. Illegal immigration, in particular, has become a highly-charged political issue in recent times. It is also a relatively new phenomenon; past immigration waves did not generate large numbers of illegal immigrants because the U.S. imposed fewer restrictions on immigration flow in the past than it does now.

The current wave may differ from earlier waves in other ways as well.  More than a few immigration scholars have voiced skepticism that the children and grandchildren of today’s Hispanic immigrants will enjoy the same upward mobility experienced by the offspring of European immigrants in previous centuries.3

PHC-2013-06-young-latinos-01-06Their reasons vary, and not all are consistent with one another. Some scholars point to structural changes in modern economies that make it more difficult for unskilled laborers to climb into the middle class. Some say the illegal status of so many of today’s immigrants is a major obstacle to their upward mobility. Some say the close proximity of today’s sending countries and the relative ease of modern global communication reduce the felt need of immigrants and their families to acculturate to their new country. Some say the fatalism of Latin American cultures is a poor fit in a society built on Anglo-Saxon values. Some say that America’s growing tolerance for cultural diversity may encourage modern immigrants and their offspring to retain ethnic identities that were seen by yesterday’s immigrants as a handicap. (The melting pot is dead. Long live the salad bowl.) Alternatively, some say that Latinos’ brown skin makes assimilation difficult in a country where white remains the racial norm.

It will probably take at least another generation’s worth of new facts on the ground to know whether these theories have merit. But it is not too soon to take some snapshots and lay down some markers. This report does so by assembling a wide range of empirical evidence (some generated by our own new survey; some by our analysis of government data) and subjecting it to a series of comparisons: between Latinos and non-Latinos; between young Latinos and older Latinos; between foreign-born Latinos and native-born Latinos; and between first, second, and third and higher generations of Latinos.

The generational analyses presented here do not compare the outcomes of individual Latino immigrants with those of their own children or grandchildren.  Instead, our generational analysis compares today’s young Latino immigrants with today’s children and grandchildren of yesterday’s immigrants. As such, the report can provide some insights into the intergenerational mobility of an immigrant group over time. But it cannot fully disentangle the many factors that may help explain the observed patterns—be they compositional effects (the different skills, education levels and other forms of human capital that different cohorts of immigrants bring) or period effects (the different economic conditions that confront immigrants in different time periods).

Readers should be especially careful when interpreting findings about the third and higher generation, for this is a very diverse group. We estimate that about 40% are the grandchildren of Latin American immigrants, while the remainder can trace their roots in this country much farther back in time.

For some in this mixed group, endemic poverty and its attendant social ills have been a part of their families, barrios and colonias for generations, even centuries. Meantime, others in the third and higher generation have been upwardly mobile in ways consistent with the generational trajectories of European immigrant groups. Because the data we use in this report do not allow us to separate out the different demographic sub-groups within the third and higher generation, the overall numbers we present are averages that often mask large variances within this group.

A summary of the major findings of the report:


Identity and Parental Socialization


Teenage Parenthood

Life Priorities and Satisfaction

Educational Expectations and Attainment

Economic Well-Being

Gangs, Fights, Weapons, Jail

About this Report

This report is the work of the entire Pew Hispanic Center staff. The overview (Chapter 1) was written by the Center’s Director Paul Taylor, who also served as overall editor. Chapters 2 and 5 were written by Associate Director for Research Rakesh Kochhar. Chapters 4 and 8 were written by Senior Researcher Gretchen Livingston. Chapters 3 and 7 were written by Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez. Chapter 6 was written by Kochhar and Lopez. Chapter 9 was written by Rich Morin, Senior Editor of the PewResearchCenter’s Social & Demographic Trends project (, and Senior Research Associate Richard Fry. Senior Demographer Jeffrey S. Passel tabulated immigration statistics and provided guidance on the demographic portions of this report. The topline was compiled by Daniel Dockterman and Gabriel Velasco. The report was copy-edited by Marcia Kramer of Kramer Editing Services. It was number checked by Daniel Dockterman, Gabriel Velasco and Wendy Wang.

Lopez took the lead in developing the survey questionnaire, assisted by the colleagues listed above and also by Ana González-Barrera, Jennifer Medina, Cristina Mercado and Kim Parker. The authors also thank González-Barrera for helping to compile demographic statistics and Mercado for helping to coordinate the focus groups and transcribe focus group recordings. Daniel Dockterman and Gabriel Velasco provided outstanding support for the production of the report.

About the Survey

The 2009 National Survey of Latinos was conducted from Aug. 5 through Sept. 16, 2009, among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 2,012 Hispanics ages 16 and older, with an oversample of 1,240 Hispanics ages 16 to 25. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish, on cellular as well as landline telephones. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error for respondents ages 16 to 25 is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points, and the margin of error for respondents ages 26 and older is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

Interviews were conducted for the Pew Hispanic Center by Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS).

A Note on Terminology

The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report.

The term “youths” refers to 16- to 25-year olds unless otherwise indicated. In this report, the terms “Latino youths,” “young Latinos” and “young adults” are used interchangeably.

All references to whites, blacks, Asians and others are to the non-Hispanic components of those populations.

“Foreign born” refers to persons born outside of the United States to parents neither of whom was a U.S. citizen. Foreign born also refers to those born in Puerto Rico. Although individuals born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens by birth, they are included among the foreign born because they are born into a Spanish-dominant culture and because on many points their attitudes, views and beliefs are much closer to Hispanics born abroad than to Latinos born in the 50 states or the District of Columbia, even those who identify themselves as being of Puerto Rican origin.

“Native born” or “U.S. born” refers to persons born in the United States and those born abroad to parents at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen.

Unless otherwise noted, this report uses the following definitions of the first, second, and third and higher generations:

First generation: Same as foreign born above. The terms “foreign born,” “first generation” and “immigrant” are used interchangeably in this report.

Second generation: Born in the United States, with at least one first-generation parent.

Third and higher generation: Born in the United States, with both parents born in the United States. This report uses the term “third generation” as shorthand for “third and higher generation.”

Language dominance is a composite measure based on self-described assessments of speaking and reading abilities. Spanish-dominant persons are more proficient in Spanish than in English, i.e., they speak and read Spanish “very well” or “pretty well” but rate their English speaking and reading ability lower. Bilingual refers to persons who are proficient in both English and Spanish. English-dominant persons are more proficient in English than in Spanish.

Recommended Citation

Pew Hispanic Center. “Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America,” Washington, D.C. (December 11, 2009).

About the Focus Groups

The Pew Hispanic Center conducted seven focus groups during the summer of 2009 to help inform the development of the survey questionnaire and to ask young Latinos about the issues that are important to them. Mark Hugo Lopez, Cristina Mercado, Ana González-Barrera and Jennifer Medina moderated the focus groups. Focus groups were held in Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; Chicago; Orange, N.J.; Silver Spring, Md.; Langley Park, Md.; and the District of Columbia. Diego Uriburu of Identity Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md., helped to organize the Silver Spring and Langley Park focus groups, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus helped to organize the one in Washington, D.C. All groups were composed of Latinos between the ages of 16 and 25. Focus group participants were told that what they said might be quoted in the report, but we promised not to identify them by name. The quotations interspersed throughout the report are drawn from these groups.

  1. In this report when we refer to the third and higher generations of Latinos, we are describing a group with diverse family histories vis-à-vis the United States. We estimate that 40% of this group are grandchildren of immigrants. The rest are more far removed from the immigrants in their families. And a small share comes from families that never immigrated at all—their ancestors were living in what was then Mexico when their land became a part of the United States in the 19th century as a result of war, treaty, annexation and/or purchase.
  2. These estimates do not include U.S. residents born in Puerto Rico. However, in the rest of the report, people born in Puerto Rico are included among the foreign born because they are from a Spanish-dominant culture and because on many points their attitudes, views and beliefs are much closer to Hispanics born abroad than to Latinos born in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
  3. See, for example, Gans (1992) and Portes, Fernandez-Kelly and Haller (2008).