The Next Generation

Move over Gen Xers and Boomers, the Millennials are coming -- and they're 70 million strong.

January 10, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Kids born after 1979 live on the Internet, play extreme games or none of the above. They listen to 'N Sync, or maybe the Beatles. They wear cargo pants or dress like disco queens. They think the world is worth saving -- or, on the other hand, don't care that the hole in the ozone layer is growing and the Third World is getting poorer.

The teen-agers of this generation hate the idea of being lumped together but are already being labeled Generation Y, or the Millennium Generation or the Millennials (because they'll come of age during the early years of the 21st century).

So why should the rest of us care? In a word, numbers.

As in, 70.2 million. As in, staggeringly large. That's how many Americans are under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What's significant is that there aremore Millennials than there were Baby Boomers at their peak. This makes market analysts, advertisers, trend forecasters and politicians extremely interested in them.

"The size of this group will have two effects," says Susan Mitchell, author of "American Generations" (New Strategist, 1998). "They will draw more attention to a youth culture, and they will have a greater sense of their own power."

No, these teen-agers don't vote yet. But their Baby Boomer parents do, which is one important reason there's been such an emphasis on child safety and education issues in the '90s.

And blame the Millennials next time you want to go to the movies and have to choose from "Star Trek: Insurrection," "A Bug's Life," "The Waterboy" and "Rugrats."

This enormous group of young Americans is not only watching "Dawson's Creek" and drinking Mountain Dew, they are also controlling a great deal of money. In 1997 teens spent $122 billion of both their own money and the family's dollar, says Michael Wood of Teenage Research Unlimited, a national market research firm based in Illinois.

"Directly or indirectly they influence what brands are being purchased in the family," he says. "And they have become experts on some purchases, such as anything technological."

Researchers say the under-18s are the most analyzed, dissected, categorized and agonized-over generation ever. So who exactly are they?

The experts don't even agree on what period of years this generation spans. That may not be clear until after the fact, when events have formed the Millennium Generation into a cohesive group with a common culture. But, roughly, analysts start with Americans born in 1980, the first who will turn 21 in the next century. Some close the generation with those born in 1995; others leave it open-ended.

Here are some of the characteristics that supposedly differentiate the Millennials from their older cousins the Xers and their parents the Boomers, with the caveat that for every generalization there is someone saying, "That's just not so."

Plugged In

It's hard to overestimate the degree of comfort the Millennium Generation has with technology that their parents never dreamed of as teen-agers.

"I have to teach my dad about new electronics," agrees 16-year-old Kevin Spence, a junior at Towson High School who's interested in journalism, not science. "I usually understand it way before he does."

This comfort level is true of even the youngest. Just take a look at the hot toys this holiday season: If it didn't have a computer chip, as the Furby did, Santa could just leave it in his workshop.

The Yers communicate effortlessly by e-mail and use cell phones, VCRs and CD-ROMs without thinking about it.

"Even Generation X wasn't as techno-savvy," says Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Partners, a marketing firm that surveys 12-to-17-year-olds every two years. The Xers are fascinated by technology, she says; the Yers take it for granted.

One result is that this generation is getting its information in an unfiltered way. And not only through the Internet. The last Yankelovich survey found that 81 percent of teens had their own bedrooms, and 63 percent of those had their own TVs.

"Their opinions are being formed without discussion," Clurman says, which may be a problem for their parents if not for the kids.

The information is not only unfiltered, it's coming at them hard and fast. The zap and surf generation is used to processing fragmented images and having lots of quick hits. Catch their attention quickly or they won't wait around to see what you have to say.

Echo Boomers

Another way the Millennium Generation differs from GenX is that it gets along with its Baby Boomer parents. They even listen to some of the same music.

Entertainment from all eras is readily available to them, so they think of Dave Matthews, Bob Marley and the Beatles as being as much "theirs" as their parents'.

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