Much Ado About Twentysomethings

Forget the hype - their attitudes aren't really much different from Baby Boomers

Richard Morin

They're the Twentysomethings, neck-deep in ennui and bobbing aimlessly toward a vacant future. And while their view of the world is decidedly cool, they're hot, hot, hot. In the past year, the plight of these Generation Xers - America's latest Lost Generation - has been featured in books, news magazines as well as on radio and television. Just one problem: They don't exist, or at least not in any way suggested by the hype and hyperbole of recent months.

First, the pop image of the Twentysomethings, then the reality.

As the name suggests, they're between 20 and 29, born in the baby bust the followed the baby boom. But being a Twentysomething is about much more than merely a birthday; it's an attitude.

Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, who wrote the recent pseudo- sociological best-seller, Generations, offer a serviceable definition of the belief structure - or lack thereof - that defines Twentysomethings (How and Strauss call them ``Thirteeners,'' but you don't want to know why.)

This generation, they wrote last year in the Atlantic, are the products of ``a counter-mood popping up in college towns, in big cities, on Fox and cable TV.... It's a tone of physical frenzy and spiritual numbness, a revelry of pop, a pursuit of high tech, guiltless fun.... A generation weaned on minimal expectations and gifted in the game of life.'' Card-carrying Twentysomethings gaze at their navels and offer a similarly apocalyptic, nihilist view of themselves. ``Those in power have practised fiscal child abuse. Our role... must be to stop the dumping of toxic policies on future generations,'' says Doug Kennedy, the 26-year-old son of Robert Kennedy.

Then there's the retro crowd, which acknowledge the existence of Twentysomethings by trashing them. ``It's the first generation to live so well and complain so bitterly about it,'' concluded Christopher Georges in a recent Washington Post story headlined: ``The Boring Twenties: Grow Up, Crybabies, You're America's Luckiest Generation.''

There's just one problem with all of this thumb-sucking on behalf of America's young adults. It seems that disaffected Twentysomethings appear to exist only in the fervid imaginations of a few writers and pop psychologists, claims political scientist Everett Carll [sic] Ladd in the latest issue of the Public Perspective.

A review of survey data suggests to Ladd that young adults aren't more or less optimistic than other generations about their personal condition or the future of the country, nor do they feel they've been given the short end of the economic stick by their greedy parents.

Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and Public Perspective editors gathered a basketful of statistics as evidence to dispute what he terms the ``myth'' of the Twentysomethings. ``We're told the Twentysomethings are dissatisfied and disinterested,'' he says. ``Our extensive review shows there is no significant national or personal mood differences separating the young and old.''

For example, they note that two years ago the Gallup Organization asked a random sample of Americans whether, ``in general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your own personal life?" Among those 18 to 29 years old, only 18 percent expressed dissatisfaction with their lives, compared to 22 percent of those 30 to 49 years old and 19 percent of those 50 or older.

And what about attitudes toward the overall direction of the country? Again, if anything, Twentysomethings were less dissatisfied with the overall direction of the country than their elders. When asked by Gallup last November whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country as whole, 63 percent of the Twentysomethings interviewed did express dissatisfaction - but so did 71 percent of those 30 to 44 years old, and more than 70 percent of those 45 and older.

Nor are these young adults particularly unhappy about their current financial position. Last February, The New York Times and CBS News asked a random sampling of Americans whether they were better or worse off financially than they expected to be.

The survey found that 31 percent of those 18 to 29 years old said they were financially worse off than the expected. But 42 percent of those 30 to 44 years old said they had expected to be better off than they were, a sentiment expressed by 38 percent of those 45 to 59 years old and 21 percent of those 60 or older.

It's true that these young Americans are turned off by government - just like everyone else. In fact, Twentysomethings appear somewhat more trusting of government than Boomers, as well as more desirous of ``growing'' government services.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last March, 27 percent of those respondents 18 to 29 years old said they expected government to do what's right all or most of the time, a view shared by 19 percent of those 30 to 44 years old, 20 percent of those 45 to 59 and 26 percent of those 60 or older. And more than half were desirous of big government with lots of services rather than a smaller government with fewer services, in sharp contrast to their elders.

There are, of course, differences in attitudes and beliefs between Twentysomethings and other generations. Younger Americans, for example, are more accepting of women working outside the home and interracial marriage. But these differences have nothing to do with any sense of disaffection or displacement.

But overall, Twentysomethings are in key ways very much like everyone else - except, of course, they're younger. ``Claims of sharp generational differences and conflict may make good copy, but they are rarely justified,'' Ladd concludes. ``A word to the wise, from social science to advertising: Beware of generation myths.''*

Richard Morin is director of polling for the Washington Post.
Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 31 January 1994, p. 27