The American Teen-ager

Why Generation Y?

They are ardent environmentalists. They adore technology and understand it as no generation before them did. They practically invented the Internet. They don’t vote: They distrust politics and prefer voluntarism. They’re skeptical of corporations and impervious to traditional advertising. They’re less racist and more multiracial than any group of Americans in history.

They are, of course, Generation Y, as trend-mongers describe them today. But they are also Generation X, as trend-mongers described them six years ago. And no doubt they are Generation Z, as trend-mongers will describe them in 2015. Generalizing about a generation is always bogus, especially when most of its members aren’t out of short pants yet. But no matter. Fifty-five million Gen Xers, once hailed for their iconoclasm, have been discarded as “cynical” and “sour.” Supplanting them are the 77 million sunny children of Gen Y. (Generation Y–a ridiculous–includes those born since 1981.) Gen Xers were in their 20s when they became media darlings. The oldest members of Gen Y have just entered college, which means that for the first time since the baby boom, America is obsessed with teen-agers.

Teens (and 25-year-olds masquerading as teens) have kidnapped pop culture. Their movies–from Titanic to Scream to Cruel Intentions–have swallowed multiplexes. Their melodramas own the networks and have turned their nymphs–Dawson’s Creek’s Katie Holmes, Party of Five’s Jennifer Love Hewitt, Felicity’s Keri Russell–into superstars. Their music rules, from Kid Rock to Eminem to Backstreet Boys. Even adults have been bewitched by the teen invasion. The New York Times Magazine is fretting about teen-age boys’ body image problems. U.S. News just ran a cover story on “The Teen Brain.” (Why are your teen-agers sullen and irrational? Because the parts of the brain that develop last are those that regulate judgment and emotion. Also because they hate you.)

The United States is global HQ for teendom, but Americans have not always fixated on teens or even been aware of them. As Thomas Hine reports in his new book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, the teen was invented in the 20th century. For most of American history, adolescents (also a modern creation) inhabited the adult world as laborers and apprentices. No one claimed that teens were incapacitated by raging hormones or needed an eight-year respite to find themselves. The Great Depression minted the American teen by exiling kids from the labor force to high schools. Only after World War II did high school become the universal, defining experience of youth. For the first time, adolescents were artificially segregated from adults, and developed their own culture of cars, dating, and rock ’n’ roll. America was fascinated by teen-age boomers not only because there were so many of them, but also because they were so alien: The country had never seen teen-agers before.

We, however, have seen and been teen-agers. So what explains our tyromania? Demography is part of it. Generation Y is huge, 50 percent larger than Generation X. By 2010, 35 million teen-agers will haunt malls and chat rooms, more teens than there ever were during the baby boom. The media cycle has also boosted Generation Y. Trend-spotters need trends. Yuppies were the stereotype of the ‘80s. The bleak early ‘90s were defined by the allegedly darker and less materialistic Gen Xers. Now the media need a new plot line, and Gen Y is providing it.

Generation Y is also booming because it is a cheerful story for a cheerful age. Just as the slump of the ‘90s has been replaced by the eternal boom, the cynical pessimists of Gen X have been vanquished by the cheery Ys. In the ‘80s, writing about teen-agers meant writing about rising pregnancy rates, drug use, and crime. Today, teen pregnancy, drug use, crime, dropout rates, and sexual activity are down. Church-going is up. Racism is out. The “New Earnestness” and the “New Familism” are in. Rebellion is passé. At last, commentators gloat, kids are having real childhoods again. The school massacres in Littleton, Colo., and Jonesboro, Ark., have barely soured the mood. The media have focused on kids’ passionate, unified response to the killings.

This incessant cheer is inspiring inane predictions about what magnificent adults these Gen Yers will be. Commentators opine that their childhood prosperity will make them generous and idealistic. According to polls, teens are optimistic. Pop prophets William Strauss and Neil Howe call them a “Hero” generation. But young people, especially teens, have always registered optimism. Even Gen Xers were optimistic when they were polled five years ago. Of course Gen Yers are peppy now: Who wouldn’t be? Let’s see what they say when the economy dives the year they graduate from college. And let’s wait until most Gen Yers are capable of rational thought. Most of them haven’t reached puberty yet, and many are in diapers.

The most important reason for today’s tyromania is economic. America seems obsessed with youth because corporations are obsessed with youth: If they catch kids early enough, they can cement their brand preferences for life. Networks are producing teen dramas so that their advertisers can reach this impressionable audience. Movies are pitched to teen-age sensibilities because only teen-agers go to movies again and again and again. As far as marketers are concerned, Gen X is over: It has aged out of the consumption game. But Generation Y kids are up for grabs: They are young, they have monstrous amounts of cash to spend–the average teen has $94 a week of disposable income!--and they’ll be even richer when they grow up.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the people pushing the Gen Y boom hardest are not sociologists, journalists, or activists but market researchers. The most quoted Gen Y pundits are folks who work at companies such as Youth Information Network and Teenage Research Unlimited, which collect data on trendy brands. (TRU is the Ford Foundation of Gen Y analysis.) Stories about Gen Y tend to shortchange kids’ views on family, school, and politics, and dwell instead on their favorite clothing stores.

(To cynical Gen Xers such as myself, this marketing talk seems both contradictory and fatuous. The market researchers instruct that Gen Yers are brand-conscious yet skeptical of established brands, independent-minded yet conformist. They say things like “This is the coolest generation ever.” If you can use “viral marketing” and “Abercrombie & Fitch” in the same sentence, you too can be a Gen Y pundit. Then again, if you could use “grunge” and “Social Security reform” in the same sentence, you could have been a Gen X pundit.)

The final reason for the teen renaissance is boomer self-obsession. A pervasive theme of Generation Y is that it is growing up just as the boomers did: prosperous, happy, well-adjusted. If you consume teen culture at all, you have surely noticed the remarkable number of sympathetic parents around. Today’s TV parents are wisdom figures, not the adult buffoons we have grown accustomed to. Similarly, articles about Gen Y–many written by boomer parents–are fulsome about how well boomers are raising their tots, how intimately parents and kids communicate, and how much kids admire mom and dad. The “surprising fact” that pops up in almost every Gen Y story is a survey in which teens named parents as their favorite role models. (I would bet that every survey of teens taken since Cain and Abel found that they named parents as their favorite role models.)

Boomers, whose self-absorption has long been ridiculed, have finally managed to get over themselves. They have found a new object of their affection. They don’t need self-love anymore. They’ve got Mini-Me.