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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Marketers are confounded as they try to reach a generation so rootless and noncommittal. But ad agencies that have explored the values of the twentysomething generation have found that status symbols, from Cuisinarts to BMWs, actually carry a social stigma among many young adults. Their emphasis, according to Dan Fox, marketing planner at Foote, Cone & Belding, will be on affordable quality. Unlike baby boomers, who buy 50% of their cars from Japanese makers, the twentysomething generation is too young to remember Detroit's clunkers of the 1970s. Today's young adult is likely to aspire to a Jeep Cherokee or Chevy Lumina with lots of cup holders. "Don't knock the cup holders," warns Fox. "There's something about them that says, 'It's all right in my world.' That's not a small notion. And Mercedes doesn't have them."

The twentysomething attitude toward consumption in general: get more for less. While yuppies spent money to acquire the best and the rarest toys, young adults believe they can live just as well, and maybe even better, without breaking the bank. They disdain designer anything. "Just point me to the generic aisle," says Jill Mackie, 21, a journalism major at the University of Illinois. Such a no-nonsense outlook has made hay for stores like the Gap, which thrives on young people's desire for casual clothing at a casual price. Similarly, a twentysomething adult picks a Hershey's bar over Godiva chocolates, and Bass Weejuns (price: $75) instead of Lucchese cowboy boots ($500).


Down deep, what frustrates today's young people -- and those who observe them -- is their failure to create an original youth culture. The 1920s had jazz and the Lost Generation, the 1950s created the Beats, the 1960s brought everything embodied in the Summer of Love. But the twentysomething generation has yet to make a substantial cultural statement. People in their 20s have been handed down everyone else's music, clothes and styles, leaving little room for their own imaginations. Mini-revivals in platform shoes, ripped jeans and urban-cowboy chic all coincide with J. Crew prep, Gumby haircuts and teased-out suburban perms. What young adults have managed to come up with is either nuevo hipster or ultra-nerd, but almost always a bland imitation of the past. "They don't even seem to know how to dress," says sociologist Hirsch, "and they're almost unschooled in how to look in different settings."

Many critics dismiss the new generation as culture vultures. But there is another way of looking at them: as open-minded samplers of an increasingly diverse cultural buffet. Rap music has fueled a fresh array of clothing styles and political attitudes, not to mention musical innovations. A new, hot radio format has evolved to provide exposure for such urban dance-music acts as Soul II Soul and Lisa Stansfield. On television, MTV has grown from an exclusively rock-'n'-roll outlet to one that encompasses pop, soul, reggae and even disco. Like Madonna in her hit song Vogue, this generation knows how to "strike a pose." Eclecticism is supreme, as long as the show is authentic -- as camp, art or theater.

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