THE Repair Generation They feel a need to fix a world they never made

April 25, 1993|By Joseph P. Shapiro | Joseph P. Shapiro,Contributing Writer

Twentysomethings are a generation in need of a press agent.

Their elders think of them (when they think of them at all) as a generation of uppity, flesh-and-blood Bart Simpsons, so poorly educated they can't find Vietnam on a map or come within 50 years of dating the Civil War. With their MTV-rotted minds and sound-bite attention spans, they are a whiny cohort with the moral compass of street gang Bloods and Crips, a bunch of apathetic slackers who don't vote and couldn't care less.

So where does this post-baby-boom generation get off thinking it is going to save the world?

Because it has no other choice, says Bill Strauss, co-author with Neil Howe of "13th Gen." It is a new book that argues that Americans born between 1961 and 1981 will be left with the dirty work of fixing inherited problems that other generations -- the ones they see as selfish baby boomers and greedy seniors -- lack the vision and political courage to resolve. Members of this "sacrificial generation," says Mr. Strauss, will be the ones hurt most by fallout from the debt crisis, disintegrating families, a growing racial disharmony and a poisoned environment. They are ennobled by a sense that they are a Repair Generation who will make the world better, but embittered by a belief that they are fixing problems not for themselves but for the future benefit of their younger brothers and sisters or of their own children. Complains Robert Lukefahr, 29, of Diversity & Division, a spirited journal of twentysomething opinion and angst: "We feel like a generation of janitors."

The big misconception about baby busters is that they will have little impact on American society other than to give it their paltry youth culture of grunge music, grunge movies and grunge fashion. In fact, twentysomethings, unnoticed and uncelebrated, are quietly applying their own solutions to a wide range of issues domestic and international. They are bringing a new style to problem-solving and politics that is typical of their generation: pragmatic, non-ideological, high-tech, entrepreneurial and action-oriented.

These young innovators include people like Wendy Kopp, 25, who has drawn some of the best young college graduates into under-funded public schools by starting Teach for America; Alan Khazei, 31, and Michael Brown, 32, two classmates at Harvard Law School who started Boston's City Year, an urban Peace Corps that is the shining model for Bill Clinton's call for national youth service; and Gregory D. Watson, 30, who literally changed the U.S. Constitution, almost single-handedly spurring ratification of the 27th Amendment, which limits the ability of members of Congress to raise their pay.

End of the dream

What most motivates the baby busters is their dread that the American Dream is over, at least for them. They fear they are likely to be the first generation to fail to match their parents' economic success. Already, they are the adults most likely to live with their parents (58 percent of all unmarried singles ages 20 to 24, according to a new Census Bureau report), the least likely to own a home (home ownership among those under age 25 dropped by 35 percent between 1973 and 1990) and the least likely to see their income keep up with inflation. If others dismiss the twentysomething alarm of economic backsliding as the disquietude of youth, economic trends say the buster future-phobia is right on target. In the economic growth decade between 1980 and 1990, the median income of Americans under age 25 declined by 10.8 percent. For all others, however, income grew by 6.5 percent. Today's college students graduate with the nagging fear that a good and expensive education may not be enough to keep them out of low-pay, low-skills McJobs.

Most annoying to twentysomethings is their belief that a massive redistribution of wealth is taking place. It is not so much a gap between the rich and poor, says Ron Crouch of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, as it is a widening gulf between young and old. For people age 65 and older, income grew by 21 percent in the last decade, in part because Social Security checks are indexed for inflation, while the minimum wage failed to climb with inflation.

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