Plucky Confidence Marks Latest Crop of College Grads

June 2, 2003 | By Amanda Paulson

Northeastern University senior Greg St. Plice in Boston doesn’t have a job but he has a plan. Entering into one of the worst job markets in years, he is unfazed over pursuing his dream of acting. But as he angles to make it big time on the big screen, he also plans to methodically pursue screenwriting classes in Los Angeles and use his business degree as a fall back. “I may not graduate with the best [grade point average] in the world,” he says, “but just being practical with the real world—that’s what’s key.”

Even as newspaper headlines bemoan the abysmal job climate for college grads, what they fail to mention is that many of those grads are the least perturbed of anyone. America’s latest crop of seniors, including Mr. St. Plice, is part of a new breed that might be called Generation C. They’re confident, capable, and often more conservative than their parents. In spirit, they’re more Sydney Bristow of “Alias” than Ally McBeal.

Their beliefs were forged long before 9/11, before the dot-com bubble burst and signing bonuses dried up.

And although many of them wear tattoos or tongue studs, this generation believes in playing by the rules and plotting their own course in life, say experts on social trends and demographics.

“These kids perceive themselves to be special,” says Neil Howe, a historian, demographer, and coauthor of “Millennials Rising.” They’re as concerned about the economic and political challenges facing America as anyone, “but they actually think the country can do something about it, that they can play an active role in the formation of that policy, and that they can plan ahead.”

For the class of 2003, life began in the 1980s—the decade of minivans, child-friendly laws, and “Baby on Board” stickers. The cold war was fading and the economy was prospering. Society showered its attention on kids, sheltering them, discussing them, and filling their high school years with team learning and community service projects.

One result of all this nurturing: More people are graduating not just with résumés but with five- or 10-year plans.

Advanced Planning

Todd Campbell is a case in point.

The Northeastern senior has known he wanted to be a physical therapist since his junior year in high school. He has a job lined up for the summer, a year of grad school at Northeastern after that, and has already received two job offers from physical-therapy clinics for his post-grad-school life. “I always plan ahead,” he says simply, kicking back in a cafeteria chair after his last class.

But all of that is simply prep work for Mr. Campbell’s real dream: running his own clinic, which he claims would be radically different from anything out there now. He says he has envisioned every detail, but refuses to elaborate. “That would be like Bill Gates giving away the secrets to Microsoft,” he says.

Even if they don’t have such detailed plans, many 2003 grads sound upbeat despite the dearth of jobs.

When Andria Hernandez graduates from Northeastern, she’ll have no job and over $100,000 in college loans. But the senior is far from worried. “Everyone’s telling me about how the job market’s really bad, but I think everyone just says that,” says Ms. Hernandez, seated on a campus bench. She plans to move back to her family’s home in Queens, N.Y., and look for a job with an ad agency.

Definition of a Generation

Defining an entire generation, of course, is far from a precise art.

Plenty of the people in Generation X (born in the late 1960s and 1970s) lack cynicism, for example. And not all baby boomers wore flowers in their hair. But certain characteristics do seem to tie generations together. Those traits may spring from a crisis like the Great Depression or the Vietnam War, say demographers, but they’re often simply due to the climate in which an generation grew up.

American society’s focus on kids and parenting since the 1980s helps explain why so many of today’s young adults tend to trust the adults and institutions around them, says Mr. Howe, who calls the current generation “millennials.”

Pundits have commented on the lack of campus outrage over war with Iraq, or the fact that students at Rockford College in Illinois went so far as to boo off their commencement speaker when he criticized US policy. Howe was intrigued by stories he heard about the few protests that did take place: Often they were organized by faculty members, with students agreeing to participate only if they could leave five minutes before their next class started.

“That speaks volumes about how differently they perceive the world,” Howe says.

Another surprise, for adults convinced that college campuses are hotbeds of liberalism, is that young people are slowly becoming more conservative. One long-term survey of incoming freshmen has seen a decline over the past decade in the proportion of students supporting abortion, casual sex, and gun-control laws

Another survey last month by students at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics showed college students today as 29 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican, and 41 percent Independent—not exactly young Rush Limbaughs, but much more evenly split than campuses used to be. The survey also found that college students supported Iraq war by more than 2-to-1.

“They’re a well-informed generation, and they’re increasingly patriotic,” says Jonathan Chavez, a Harvard sophomore who helped conduct the IOP survey.

Sept. 11 versus Vietnam

Mr. Chavez is bothered a bit, though, by people who want to make Sept. 11 the Vietnam of his generation. “The problem is, you still have the impression the older people are out there taking leadership,” he says. “There still hasn’t been something that affects us, that makes us step up, or say this is our time to lead.”

Demographers tend to agree with him. The events of the past few years may have been jarring, they say, but it takes something sustained to truly shape a generation. The economy could have that potential if job opportunities are depressed for a while.

“These kids are going to college in record numbers, with the expectation that their degree—that investment of time and money—will pay off for them, but with the reality that it may not right now,” says Susan Mitchell, author of “American Generations.”

“If it’s a prolonged disappointment, it could influence their outlook for some time to come,” she says.

Maybe so, but that’s a disappointment that has yet to hit for many of this spring’s graduates. “I have the apartment and the interview suits,” says Bess, a chatty communications major with a curly ponytail and funky sunglasses, who is enjoying one of this spring’s few sunny days near the Northeastern library. She’s moving to Manhattan on June 18th—a place chosen because “it’s the young, professional, single-life place to be.” Now, she adds lightly, “I just need a job.”

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