The Millennials: Focused on achievement and raised on technology, babies of boomers are ready to make their impact

May 18, 2005 | By Meg Kissinger

Like many baby boomers, Sally and Peter Lautmann held their breath and hoped for the best when their daughter, Jessie, started high school four years ago.

The angst, rigors and temptations of these emotionally volatile years have vexed parents from the days of “Romeo and Juliet” to James Dean to Kurt Cobain. The Lautmanns’ own high school years were rocked by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, so they knew how unsettling adolescence could be.

“We were braced for the worst,” Sally Lautmann says, recalling Jessie’s first few months of high school.

Now, as Jessie gets ready to graduate this month from Nicolet High School in Glendale, her parents are pinching themselves. Jessie—yearbook editor, volleyball captain, National Honor Society member, radio station intern, community service club coordinator and actress—has done them proud. After a trip to Appalachia this summer to repair houses for the poor, she’ll start at Northwestern University, where she vows to “do something to make the world better.”

Make the world better? What happened to “Whatever,” the Generation X anthem of the 1990s? Or “turn on, tune in, drop out” a 1960s standard? Jessie is part of a new generation, born after 1980, known to some demographers as the Millennials. They are the largest, most diverse and most techno-savvy generation in American history.

Just as the baby boomers, born between the end of World War II and roughly 1964, have dominated the landscape, their children will set the cultural, political and economic agenda for the next 50 years.

This generation, the first to be counted at 100 million strong, promises to be the most talked about and catered to in history. Shaped by the end of the Cold War, the explosion in technology, a new global economy, Sept. 11 and terrorism that continues, they tend to be more sober-minded than those who came before them, and more willing to work within the system to effect change.

Very soon they will be in charge, deciding issues such as Social Security reform, abortion, environmental protections, foreign policy, gay rights and prayer in school.

“Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America,” Neil Howe and William Strauss write in their book, “ Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

‘Much more mature’

With their emphasis on teamwork, achievement, modesty and respect for authority, today’s high school graduates bear little resemblance to their more nihilistic Gen-X siblings and even less to their self-indulgent baby boomer parents, academics and sociologists say.

“They’re much more mature than we were, that’s for sure,” said Debbie Kraft Heffron, a member of the Pulaski High School class of 1975, whose son, Dustin, graduates this year. “These kids have plans. We were a bunch of screwballs.”

Indeed, studies show that today’s high school graduates are less violent and less inclined to risky behavior than their parents were at the same age. Binge drinking is down from 1975, as are casual drug use and cigarette smoking, according to the Foundation for Child Development. Today’s high school graduates are more likely to go on to college, up from 46.6% in 1973 to 65% in 1996.

Still, today’s teenagers have a host of endemic problems. The number of children with obesity has tripled since 1980. Today’s kids are more prone to asthma, attention deficit disorder and depression. Since 1990, Ritalin prescriptions have risen eightfold, with some 3 million school-age children—roughly 80% of them boys—believed to be taking the drug regularly, federal health statistics show. Under intense pressure from their parents to succeed and faced with a new, more competitive world economy, today’s high school graduates are feeling stress, some of it debilitating. Cheating is on the rise. So are casual sexual encounters. So are reports of self-mutilation and eating disorders, by both girls and boys, according to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I don’t ever remember kids under as much pressure as they are today,” says Mark Kuranz, who has been a teacher and guidance counselor at Racine’s Case High School for the past 30 years.

Millennials were destined to have an impact by sheer virtue of their numbers, born as they were to baby boomers, previously the largest generation in American history, said Steven Mintz, director of the American Cultures Program at the University of Houston and author of “Huck’s Raft,” a book that explores the consequences of coddling today’s kids.

As baby boomers gained power, their children did, too. During the 1990s, federal spending on kids rose faster than spending on seniors or working-age adults for the first time since the 1920s, reports Reason, an online magazine.

Before the 1980s, child-rearing had been a relatively private undertaking. But because baby boomers with children wanted to go out to restaurants and movies and shows, the country witnessed an explosion in child-friendly entertainment, restaurants, books and stores. “It’s all about me,” the unofficial baby boomer motto, became, “It’s all about my kids and me.”

Hovering ‘helicopter parents’

Hyper-engaged parents started scheduling their children’s playtime as they would a corporate workshop. Ballet lessons, soccer practice and youth symphony concerts replaced impromptu neighborhood games of ghosts in the graveyard and whiffle ball. Today’s children have one-third of the unstructured playtime that their parents did at their age, Mintz found.

Bringing up baby has become a frenetic, sometimes frightening proposition.

“We’ve become obsessed with safety—bike helmets, car seats, higher drinking ages, graduated driver’s licenses,” he said. “Children are viewed as extensions of themselves, and anxiety is the hallmark of modern parenting.”

Thus was born the era of the “helicopter parent,” so named because they tend to hover over their kids.

Baby boomers are much more demanding of their children than they were of themselves at that age, expecting better grades, better behavior and more accountability. It is as if the baby boomers set out to create a generation of “Mini-me’s,” children who will not only complete them but improve on their own record, Mintz said. With their own egos overly invested in their children’s performance, parents are doing more than they should, Mintz said. They fashion their children’s Pinewood Derby racers and design their science fair posters.

“This is a new generation of kids whose mothers write their college entrance essays,” Mintz said.

At the same time that parents are pressuring their children to succeed at unrealistically high levels, they paradoxically also tend to overprotect their kids, Mintz said.

“We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So, today, every kid gets a trophy,” he said.

This isn’t healthy, Mintz said. After a while, these parent-child relationships grow to be so symbiotic that it can be nearly impossible for either side to let go.

Roger Casey, dean of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., said one of every five students on that school’s honor roll reports calling his or her parents an average of three times a day. Psychology Today magazine calls cell phones “the eternal umbilicus.”

Another toxic side-effect: narcissism by proxy. Kids get instilled with a sense of false pride.

“Because they have always been told they are special, they tend to overestimate their abilities,” said Pam Boersig, dean of student affairs at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., and co-author of a report on today’s incoming college freshmen.

With overinflated views of what they are capable of, many of today’s college students are setting exceedingly high goals for themselves, Boersig said. It’s not enough to finish college in four years, she said. Now, you have to get out in three with a double major.

Under intense pressure from their parents and fiercer competition from students all over the world for spots at the most selective colleges and universities, today’s high school students are turning against one another in Machiavellian proportions.

“Kids today can tell you who is number one in the class, who’s thinking about dropping calculus and exactly what they have to do to move up in class rank,” Kuranz said. “It worries me that, by focusing on getting the best grade, we are moving away from the purpose of learning.”

Indeed, high school teachers are awarding more “A” grades than ever, 31.6% of the grades given in 1997, compared with 12.5% in 1969, according to “Essential Demographics of Today’s College Student,” published in the American Association of Higher Education Bulletin.

“Cheating is huge now,” Kuranz said. “That’s been a big shift over the years. Look at how they require identification to take the ACT and SAT. They have to lock the tests up. I don’t think it ever dawned on me that you could cheat on a standardized test.”

Howe and Strauss found in their research that many high school students today don’t see cheating as a moral breach. This is especially true of so-called “soft cheating,” collaborating with friends on take-home tests or asking friends what is on a quiz, as opposed to “hard cheating,” plagiarism or copying from another student.

“They live by the philosophy that ‘cheating is OK if you do not get caught,’ “the authors write.

Several high school vice principals in the Milwaukee area report that plagiarism cases are up as technology makes it easy for kids to copy essays off of the Internet.

Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland, said colleges are reporting a spike in the number of cases of academic dishonesty.

Fifteen years ago, his school investigated between 50 and 60 allegations of cheating and plagiarism, Pavela said. Last year, the school investigated some 300 cases and found 70% of them to be substantiated.

“Kids live what they learn,” Pavela said. “Cheating in school is a reflection of cheating in society.”

Increasingly, high school kids say that they are made to feel like little trophies for their parents. Still, in survey after survey of today’s high school seniors, they name their mother and father as the people they most admire.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30” is the adage many baby boomers lived by. But today’s high school kids spend much more time with their parents, consulting with them on all manner of decisions, from what clothes to buy to which movie to see.

“My mom is one of my best friends,” said Jessie Lautmann. “She has such a zest for life. I admire her so much. She’s perfect.”

Poverty alters phenomenon

Like so many other cultural phenomena, the experiences of baby boomers and their children tend to be radically different in less privileged parts of town. There, it seems, the problem is not that parents hover too much. It’s that they are not around at all.

Willie Jude, principal at Custer High School on Milwaukee’s north side and an educator for the past 32 years, said the biggest change he has seen in high school students over that time is the lack of responsibility that adults in their lives are willing to assume for them.

“We baby boomers plant our seeds, but we don’t like taking care of the harvest,” he said. “I’ve been at football games with hundreds of seats in the stadium and only a few parents are there. Now, what message is that sending?”

Parents are too afraid of their children to do what they need to do to make sure they grow up right, Jude said.

“At no time in history did we ever tell young people that they had to raise themselves until now,” Jude said. “That’s not right. That’s the adults’ job. Someone has to be the grown-up.”

Colorblind on race issues

More than any other generation in history, Millennials know that the Walt Disney motto was right: It’s a small world after all.

Today’s high school graduates are part of the most diverse generation in America. They were learning to walk at the time when the Berlin Wall was tumbling down and streams of new immigrants came pouring into America. Today, in the United States, one person is added to the population every 12 seconds: a baby is born an average of every seven seconds; an immigrant arrives on average every 24 seconds, according to U.S. census data. The U.S. population, now at roughly 296 million, will measure some 419 million by the year 2050. In that year, there will be as many minorities as there are whites.

In 1999, 8.8 million children in America spoke a different language in their homes than English, more than twice the number of kids who did so 1979.

Today’s high school graduates are much less concerned about race, ethnicity and sexual orientation than their parents’ generation was.

When Gavin Jenders, a senior at Milwaukee’s Hamilton High School, started dating a girl of Asian descent this year, it was no big deal to his mother, Jane.

“I think it would have been cool for me to date someone of a different race back then,” she said of her own high school days of 1971-’75. “But, I don’t really know. I was brought up in South Milwaukee, and who was there? Pretty much no one but white people.”

Scott Beale, the 28-year-old author of “Millennial Manifesto,” said that for his generation, love is colorblind.

“Millennials have been shaped by an age of multiethnic Benetton commercials, open sexuality on television and two decades of politically correct language,” Beale said. “The 1990s witnessed a decade of liberalized immigration laws, and the year 2000 ushered in the first census accounting for multiracial children.”

This is also the most technologically savvy generation in history, with billions of facts literally at their fingertips, thanks to the Internet, hand-held computers and cell phones. Three-quarters of American children ages 8 to 18 have access to a computer at home, and 61% use the Internet on a typical day. More than 2 million American children ages 6 to 17 have their own Web site.

One-third of all kids ages 1 to 3 have a television in their bedrooms now, and they watch between 20 and 25 hours of television a week, according to the Pew Research Center’s project on the Internet and American life. Nearly half of all children age 7 and older have their own cell phones now.

With the Internet, iPods, DVDs, video on demand and literally hundreds of television channels, today’s high school graduates have many more choices than their parents.

“We’d put on a Jackson Browne album and sit back and fantasize,” said Jane Jenders, a member of the South Milwaukee High School class of 1975. “These guys don’t need any imagination. It’s all right there—bam!—on the screen.”

Educators have to keep up with the appetite for hands-on, interactive learning or they will lose the students’ attention, said Marty Lexmond, director of Milwaukee Public Schools high school redesign.

“Learning can’t look like kids in five neat rows reading from books,” he said.

But what of those kids who can’t afford computers at home? How much technology is too much?

Kuranz, the Racine guidance counselor, worries that all the instant technology doesn’t leave much time for kids today to reflect. Are they too busy text-messaging one another to consider what they are saying, he wonders.

“I think kids demand instant gratification,” he said. “I don’t know if they know how to be patient anymore, or how to be alone.”

Corporate loyalty lost

Perhaps the most subtle but most meaningful difference between the class of 2005 and the class of 1975 is the intense competition from the new global economy, said Terry Ludeman, Wisconsin’s chief labor economist.

It’s a dramatically different economy, with few if any career ladders, he said.

“Thirty years ago companies had more of an association with the city where they were headquartered,” Ludeman said. “They might call up the industrial arts teacher at the local high school and say, ‘Send me your top 10 students.’ Then, the company would groom those kids for lifetime careers. Today, most of those headquarters have moved out. The jobs might be sent out of the country.”

The era of corporate loyalty—from employer to worker and worker to employer—is all but dead, Ludeman said.

“Kids graduating from high school today need to be their own agents,” Ludeman said. “You can’t count on the company to carry you along. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but you have to come to grips with it.”

Today’s high school graduate can expect to change jobs at least 12 times in his or her lifetime, said John Pritchet, career counselor at Waukesha County Technical College.

“Many of these kids have watched their parents get downsized,” Pritchet said. “They know that they have to be more economically independent.”

Jane Jenders worked on the assembly line at her old job for 22 years before she was laid off in August 2003. She says she tells her two children, “Whatever you do, don’t go into manufacturing.”

“I don’t want them to have that kind of a life,” she said.

Her son, Gavin, who graduates this month, is headed to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study engineering.

“I’m going to make three times what you do,” he says to his mother, smiling.

‘America’s new conformists’

As these kids head off to college and careers, it is tough to pin down where the majority of them stand politically. They are more conservative than their parents on a host of issues.

A 2002 survey by the University of California at Berkeley found that teens are far more likely than adults to support prayer in school, federal aid to faith-based charities and restrictions on abortions. At the same time, the Harvard Institute of Politics found that kids of the same age embrace environmental reforms, gay rights and affirmative action.

Howe and Strauss call today’s young adults “America’s new conformists.”

They believe in security rather than radicalism, political order rather than social emancipation, collective responsibility rather than personal expression.

“They feel that they need to correct what they consider to be excesses of baby boomers: narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm and the constant focus on talk—usually arguments—over action,” they write.

Both political parties have lost ground with this group, said Julian Sanchez of Reason Magazine. More college students are declaring themselves independent.

Their sexual politics are no easier to label. High school kids today are much more accepting of gay and lesbian lifestyles, surveys show. They also are much more likely to talk candidly about sex with their parents. As sexually transmitted diseases grow ever more virulent, schools are hosting more information sessions for parents and teens on the science of these diseases. Federal programs tout the virtues of chastity and being sexually responsible on billboard campaigns. After all, this is the generation that learned about oral sex from news coverage of then-President Clinton and sexual impotence from TV ads by his Republican challenger Bob Dole.

Today’s high school and college students are more inclined to socialize in big groups than pair off as “steady” couples. They talk about “hooking up” and “friends with benefits,” having a physical relationship with someone without dating exclusively.

But some studies suggest there’s more talk than action. The rate of births to teens and adolescent mothers fell 59% from 1990 to 2004, according to the Foundation for Child Development. Abortion rates have fallen in recent years, too. Half of all high school boys now say they are virgins, up from 39% in 1990, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As they head into adulthood, the frenetic pace of the world is more likely to energize kids in today’s high school graduating class than overwhelm them. They have a confidence about the future that is unparalleled, educators, sociologists and kids say.

Jessie Lautmann is heading off to college filled with optimism, certain that she will thrive. She looks back on how scared she was those first few months of high school, the time she tripped on the stairs and spilled all of her books.

“So embarrassing,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Those humbling episodes only strengthened her resolve, like so many of her classmates, to make her mark on the world.

“I want to make a difference,” she said.

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