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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Until they come out of their shells, the twentysomething/baby-bust generation will be a frustrating enigma. Riche calls them the New Petulants because "they can often end up sounding like whiners." Their anxious indecision creates a kind of ominous fog around them. Yet those who take a more sanguine view see in today's young adults a sophistication, tolerance and candor that could help repair the excesses of rampant individualism. Here is a guide for understanding the puzzling twentysomething crowd:


"Ronald Reagan was around longer than some of my friends' fathers," says Rachel Stevens, 21, a graduate of the University of Michigan. An estimated 40% of people in their 20s are children of divorce. Even more were latchkey kids, the first to experience the downside of the two-income family. This may explain why the only solid commitment they are willing to make is to their own children -- someday. The group wants to spend more time with their kids, not because they think they can handle the balance of work and child rearing any better than their parents but because they see themselves as having been neglected. "My generation will be the family generation," says Mara Brock, 20, of Kansas City. "I don't want my kids to go through what my parents put me through."

& That ordeal was loneliness. "This generation came from a culture that really didn't prize having kids anyway," says Chicago sociologist Paul Hirsch. "Their parents just wanted to go and play out their roles -- they assumed the kids were going to grow up all right." Absent parents forced a dependence on secondary relationships with teachers and friends. Flashy toys and new clothes were supposed to make up for this lack but instead sowed the seeds for a later abhorrence of the yuppie brand of materialism. "Quality time" didn't cut it for them either. In a survey to gauge the baby busters' mood and tastes, Chicago's Leo Burnett ad agency discovered that the group had a surprising amount of anger and resentment about their absentee parents. "The flashback was instantaneous and so hot you could feel it," recalls Josh McQueen, Burnett's research director. "They were telling us passionately that quality time was exactly what was not in their lives."

At this point, members of the twentysomething generation just want to avoid perpetuating the mistakes of their own upbringing. Today's potential parents look beyond their own mothers and fathers when searching for child-rearing role models. Says Kip Banks, 24, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Michigan: "When I raise my children, my approach will be my grandparents', much more serious and conservative. I would never give my children the freedoms I had."


The generation is afraid of relationships in general, and they are the ultimate skeptics when it comes to marriage. Some young adults maintain they will wait to get married, in the hope that time will bring a more compatible mate and the maturity to avoid a divorce. But few of them have any real blueprint for how a successful relationship should function. "We never saw commitment at work," says Robert Higgins, 26, a graduate student in music at Ohio's University of Akron.

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