When Michael Josephson frets about the hole in the ozone, he isn't worrying about sunbathing penguins in Antarctica.
Mr. Josephson's concerns are a lot closer to home -- right in the United States, where he says he has mapped "a hole in the moral ozone" that has blinded a generation of American youth to the age-old virtues of honesty, trustworthiness and personal responsibility.
In a two-year study to be released tomorrow, Mr. Josephson, the independently wealthy founder of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif., will report that large numbers of American youth admit to stealing, lying and cheating at school, work and home.
Billed as "the most comprehensive survey of American ethical attitudes and behaviors ever undertaken," Mr. Josephson will detail the findings in a speech at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club that will be broadcast by 147 public radio stations.
"We're setting up a kind of backward society where cheaters do prosper and honesty is not always the best policy," he said.
For example, the study found that 33 percent of high school students and 16 percent of college students admitted shoplifting within a year of being surveyed. The survey found that 11 percent of high school students and 4 percent of college students admitted stealing at least four to five times within the previous year.
Thievery also begins at home, according to the survey: 33 percent of high school students and 11 percent of college students say they have stolen something from parents or relatives at least once.
Other reported findings:
* One in eight college students admits to fraud, such as lying to an insurance company, lying on financial aid forms or borrowing money with no intention of paying it back.
About one-third of high school and college students say they are willing to lie to get a job. And about one in six admit they already have at least once. Moreover, about one in five college students say they would falsify a report to keep their job, while a similar number say they probably would cheat if it helped them compete on the job.
* A majority of high schoolers -- 61 percent -- and 32 percent of college students admit to cheating on an exam at least once.
* Large majorities of both high school and college students -- 77 percent and 78 percent -- listed "getting a job you enjoy" as their most important goal. Yet 71 percent of college students also say that their second most important goal was teaching "firm ethical values" to their children.
* The study found that many students also lied when answering survey questions. When asked by surveyors, about 40 percent of high school students and 30 percent of college students admitted they "were not completely honest" on at least one or two questions.
The survey's findings are based on a 100-question survey of 3,243 high school students and 3,630 college students from all regions of the country.
The report -- "Ethical Values, Attitudes and Behaviors in American Schools" -- expands an initial study released by the institute two years ago. While that study painted a similarly bleak picture of youthful morals, it relied on data gleaned from a wide variety of sources. This time, Mr. Josephson says, the institute gathered its own data. A similar survey of adults will be released later.
Mr. Josephson is especially appalled by students who say they would be willing to cheat or lie to get ahead on the job.
"Everybody's going to be hiring these people. . . . The willingness to do something [unethical] is a very important question because young people may not have had a chance to do it yet," he said.