The Age Of Indifference? Do They Care Less And Know Less? A Look At The Lives Of The Twentysomething Generation

March 17, 1991|By A. M. Chaplin

They certainly have acquired a fine collection of adjectives for themselves.

They've been called spoiled, brash, apathetic, ignorant -- and they've also been called fortunate, polite, careful and sophisticated. It seems they confuse their observers -- and when you talk to them, it seems they confuse themselves as well.

They are the baby busters, that small generation now more or less in its 20s that follows the vast demographic bulge of the baby boomers. In the looming shadow of their noisy predecessors, these twentysomethings exist uncertainly, almost tentatively. They are the wave of the future -- well, the wavelet of the future -- but they are still a mystery to their elders and often to themselves.

Their substance is elusive and self-contradictory, and for every story you hear about how awful they are, you can find evidence that seems to justify their behavior. They are not much like the rest of us, yet they are everything we set them up to be. They are a mirror of the history of the past 20 or 30 years, and they are, whether we like it or not, our future.

THE PROTOTYPICAL AWFUL BABY buster story comes from Barbara E. Kovach, professor of management and psychology at the Rutgers business school. Although it's obvious Dr. Kovach likes this generation and has a lot of sympathy for them, she can't keep the note of incredulity out of her voice as she tells her tale of youthful dreadfulness:

A smart young manager for a pharmaceutical firm got a call at home one evening because an assembly line had gone down, but he didn't go in to see about it because he was socializing with a friend. So the assembly line that wasn't working right threw off other assembly lines, and before long the initial episode had dominoed into a colossal mess. But when the young manager went into work the next day and found out that people were blaming him, he was neither apologetic nor ashamed. He was angry.

What did he have to do with the mess, he wanted to know. Since when was it written in his job description that he had to interrupt his private life to fix assembly lines after working hours?

It took her three weeks, Dr. Kovach says, before this able, bright and educated young man was able to see that what had happened was indeed his responsibility. And his behavior, Dr. Kovach says, is all too typical of people now in their 20s. She has done 200 formal interviews of people in this generation, and she has found the same kind of attitude again and again. An attitude of entitlement, some people call it, and it burns the rubber out of supervisors everywhere.

But, for all that it's an obnoxious attitude, it may not be an entirely surprising one, suggests Gabriel B. Fosu, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who works in demography and health. He guesses an explanation for it might be found in the size of baby buster cohort: small.

Their predecessors, the baby boomers, were a huge cohort. The oldest of them were born in 1946, when birthrates began to rise dramatically. There are no hard and fast rules saying exactly when the last boom year was, but many demographers opt for 1961, when the birthrate first began to decline again.

The people born in the years between those two dates grew up in an environment of crowding and competition -- competition for attention in the home and school, for placement in college and job market. In contrast, those born later, more or less in the years of the latter '60s and early '70s when birthrates were declining, grew up in smaller households and in emptying schools, at a time when colleges and employers were looking for warm bodies, not turning them away.

"All these things might give them the impression that there's some kind of security and that everything's OK," Dr. Fosu hypothesizes. That impression, suggest other observers, was strengthened by the mind-set of Reagan years -- the formative years for people now in their 20s -- which held that it was morning in America and that Americans could expect the moon without having to pay for it.

From there it's not too long a step to an attitude toward work

that older generations might consider cavalier. "We're much lazier" than previous generations, says 21-year-old Monica Meehan, a student at Towson State University who is majoring in advertising and communications. "There's other things we lean toward -- leisure time and always wanting to get out of work."

Young people now "want everything handed to them; they're not willing to work as much," agrees her brother, 20-year-old Robert Francis Meehan, a marketing major at Towson State University.

While older generations "were like get ahead, get ahead, we're like, just get by, get by," he continues. "I wouldn't do something I didn't like [for a living], and that's another thing about our generation. If they don't like it, they're out of it."

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