‘Greatest Generation’ May be the Newest

July 6, 2004 | By James K. Glassman

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you’ll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

The Mood of American Youth Survey found that more than 80 percent of teen-agers report no family problems—up from about 40 percent a quarter-century ago. In another poll, two-thirds of daughters said they would “give Mom an ‘A.’ ”

“In the history of polling, we’ve never seen tweens and teens get along with their parents this well,” says William Strauss, referring to kids born since 1982. Strauss is author, with Neil Howe, of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

In an article in the latest issue of City Journal (www.city-journal.org), published by the Manhattan Institute, Kay S. Hymowitz writes:

“Wave away the smoke of the Jackson family circus, Paris Hilton and the antics of San Francisco, and you can see how Americans have been self-correcting from a decades-long experiment with ‘alternative values.’ Slowly, almost imperceptibly during the 1990s, the culture began a lumbering, Titanic turn away from the iceberg.”

Adults are changing, but kids seem to have changed most—and they may comprise the new “greatest generation,” as Tom Brokaw called the World War II cohort. “What is emerging,” writes Hymowitz, “is a vital, optimistic, family-centered, entrepreneurial, and, yes, morally thoughtful, citizenry.”

That’s trouble, I believe, for the Democratic party, at least in its current anchored-to-the-’60s version. It’s possible that John Kerry will win in November because of the war in Iraq (though the smart money is on George Bush), but the long-term trend is clear. College freshmen who call themselves liberals outnumbered conservatives by about three to one in 1971; now the figures are roughly even. “Young voters are also more supportive of President Bush than the public at large,” writes Hymowitz.

The changes in politics are rooted in changes in values. Last year, the rate of teen pregnancy dropped to a record low. Better birth control is not the sole explanation; the proportion of teens who had intercourse fell from 56 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001.

Kids don’t want casual sex; they want families. Harris Interactive reports that 91 percent plan to marry and, on average, they’d like three children.

Already, Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) is more traditional than its parents. “The number of married-couple families, after declining in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” writes Hymowitz, “rose 5.7 percent in the ‘90s.” More brides are taking their husbands’ names, and in 2000, the number of women in the workforce with infants dropped for the first time in decades. A study by Yankelovich found that 89 percent of Gen Xers think modern parents let kids get away with too much.

Twice as many Gen-X mothers as baby boomer mothers (born 1946-1964) spent more than 12 hours a day “attending to child-rearing and household responsibilities,” according to a new survey by Reach Advisors, and roughly half of Gen-X fathers spent three to six hours daily on such tasks, another big increase.

Meanwhile, student marijuana use, which rose sharply in the 1990s, is on the decline, as is binge drinking. The juvenile murder rate fell 70 percent between 1993 and 2001; burglary is down 66 percent. Schools are safer, too.

What’s going on here?

Hymowitz offers four explanations: 1) a “rewrite of the boomer years,” with young people reacting critically to the world of sexual experimentation and family breakup and “earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture,” 2) the trauma of 9/11, which has made kids more patriotic and turned them inward toward the comfort of family, 3) the information economy, which has given young people greater faith in their own chances to succeed, especially through self-reliance and entrepreneurship, and 4) immigration, which has produced what she calls a “fervent work ethic, which can raise the bar for slacker American kids, as any higher schooler with more than three Asian students in his algebra class can attest.”

Whatever the reasons, the change in young people and their parents is very, very good news—which is precisely why so much of the media is ignoring it.