In search of the 'twentysomethings'

October 21, 1993|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Contributing Writer

They're lazy. Uncommitted. Tube-boobed. Dumbed-down. Turned-off and tuned-out.

They're the Blank, X or Slacker Generation -- teen-agers who've overstayed their welcome into adulthood, unambitious twerps who don't care, won't work and shouldn't be coddled.

With all the insults being flung at the "twentysomethings," the 40 million Americans aged 20 to 29, you'd think the only raison d'etre of this much-dissed demographic enclave was to be judged by its elders.

But as anyone who regularly watches "My Three Sons" reruns on Nickelodeon (as many twenty- somethings do) could tell you, youth-bashing has been a participatory sport since Socrates railed at those spoiled, pudgy coming-of-age Greeks more than 2,000 years ago (as Steve Douglas explained to an angry Uncle Charley).

Furthermore, Michael Lee Cohen writes, "Society's older members have the inalienable right to feel that the succeeding generation is the most barbarous horde of ingrates since the Vandals sacked Rome, but intellectual integrity requires at least an effort to understand the other side of the story."

Mr. Cohen, a 27-year-old Harvard Law graduate, decided to check things out for himself, investigating first-hand the "clobbering" his peers were taking in the media. Adding grant money to what was left over from his bar mitzvah, he traveled across the country (Hot Publishing Angle No. 1) in search of a few good young'uns from today's media "trouble group" (Hot Publishing Angle No. 2). ("Twentysomething" books are the '90s answer to "Why Johnny Can't Read.")

The resulting interviews with 42 young adults show Mr. Cohen to be a good journalist, tough questioner and sometimes mystified correspondent. He also uses their ideas of what the current state of the American Dream (Hot Publishing Angle No. 3) is or isn't in an attempt to unify them.

The range of types among the interviewees immediately achieves one of Mr. Cohen's goals: to overturn stereotypes. There's Paul, a hateful and homeless drug addict from an upper-class background; Vicente, an artist and migrant farm workers' organizer who doesn't believe the American Dream exists in his Texas border county; and, Billy, a gulf war veteran who is trying to turn his life around by becoming a teacher and confronting his homosexuality.

There's LaVonda, a shoe shiner at an East St. Louis strip joint, who believes the Dream has become too "individual"; Brian, a black lawyer, who agrees that the country has become too fractious for the Dream to have collective meaning; and, Dirk, a dope-dealing rapper who thinks "the system" is keeping everyone at each other's throats.

Recurring themes paint twentysomethings as heroless, leaderless cynics who value "normal" lives and abnormal conspiracy theories. While understandably distrustful of politics, religion and corporatism, they inexplicably have an almost Pollyanna-ish faith in the economic order's ability to provide for them -- despite forecasts that say exactly the opposite.

Although many say they eschew the crass consumption of the go-go '80s, Mr. Cohen figures that most of his subjects (like most of their forebears) aspire to a "comfortable" life. In this case, that means something in the top 20 percent bracket, thank you. Mr. Cohen is not ironic when he cites mental floss like "The Brady Bunch" as a contributor to this level of expectation.

Mr. Cohen may not have the open-hearted spirit of a Studs Terkel, but he proves to be an empathetic and quick-witted listener, one whose intellectual vigor leads him to point out his generation's many contradictions.

His closing analysis is especially trenchant, as he defines what it is that makes this group unique: the constant wash of popular culture, a sense of being overwhelmed by the world's problems, the lack of a war to fight for or against (the gulf war was nothing more than a "video event" to those who weren't there), and a lack of involvement in politics or community.

In other words, Mr. Cohen affirms as many stereotypes as he shatters.

Still, his closing comment is curious in its exclusiveness: "The people in this twentysomething generation see the challenges, but they do not have a clear vision of how to overcome them."

That statement (and quite a few others here) makes twentysomethings sound like your average Americans -- of any age group.

Mr. Anft, alas, is a few years removed from the twentysomething generation.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Twentysomething American Dream"

Author: Michael Lee Cohen

Publisher: Dutton

Length, price: 307 pages, $20

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