Living: Proceeding With Caution

The twentysomething generation is balking at work, marriage and baby-boomer values. Why are today's young adults so skeptical?

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The twentysomething generation has been neglected because it exists in the shadow of the baby boomers, usually defined as the 72 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Members of the tail end of the boom generation, now ages 26 through 29, often feel alienated from the larger group, like kid brothers and sisters who disdain the paths their siblings chose. The boomer group is so huge that it tends to define every era it passes through, forcing society to accommodate its moods and dimensions. Even relatively small bunches of boomers made waves, most notably the 4 million or so young urban professionals of the mid-1980s. By contrast, when today's 18-to-29-year-old group was born, the baby boom was fading into the so-called baby bust, with its precipitous decline in the U.S. birthrate. The relatively small baby-bust group is poorly understood by everyone from scholars to marketers. But as the twentysomething adults begin their prime working years, they have suddenly become far more intriguing. Reason: America needs them. Today's young adults are so scarce that their numbers could result in severe labor shortages in the coming decade.

Twentysomething adults feel the opposing tugs of making money and doing good works, but they refuse to get caught up in the passion of either one. They reject 70-hour workweeks as yuppie lunacy, just as they shirk from starting another social revolution. Today's young adults want to stay in their own backyard and do their work in modest ways. "We're not trying to change things. We're trying to fix things," says Anne McCord, 21, of Portland, Ore. "We are the generation that is going to renovate America. We are going to be its carpenters and janitors."

This is a back-to-basics bunch that wishes life could be simpler. "We expect less, we want less, but we want less to be better," says Devin Schaumburg, 20, of Knoxville. "If we're just trying to pick up the pieces, put it all back together, is there a label for that?" That's a laudable notion, but don't hold your breath till they find their answer. "They are finally out there, saying 'Pay attention to us,' but I've never heard them think of a single thing that defines them," says Martha Farnsworth Riche, national editor of American Demographics magazine.

What worries parents, teachers and employers is that the latest crop of adults wants to postpone growing up. At a time when they should be graduating, entering the work force and starting families of their own, the twentysomething crowd is balking at those rites of passage. A prime reason is their recognition that the American Dream is much tougher to achieve after years of housing-price inflation and stagnant wages. Householders under the age of 25 were the only group during the 1980s to suffer a drop in income, a decline of 10%. One result: fully 75% of young males 18 to 24 years old are still living at home, the largest proportion since the Great Depression.

In a TIME/CNN poll of 18- to 29-year-olds, 65% of those surveyed agreed it will be harder for their group to live as comfortably as previous generations. While the majority of today's young adults think they have a strong chance of finding a well-paying and interesting job, 69% believe they will have more difficulty buying a house, and 52% say they will have less leisure time than their predecessors. Asked to describe their generation, 53% said the group is worried about the future.

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