November 2, 1995 in Features

Life’s Lessons Take Early Toll

Gail Sheehy Universal Press Synd
 

This confused Hip-Hop Generation, those born between 1966 and 1980, has hidden its heart behind a cult of indifference. Its motto is: Whatever. Its members are pragmatic, skeptical, unwilling to be pinned down, and desperately, secretly, longing to belong and to believe in something.

Why do I call it “Endangered”? Because the most important element today’s young people are missing is safety.

What’s the first thing young people ask about in job interviews today? What are the health benefits? When I asked a savvy focus group of New Yorkers in their mid-20s, “How safe do you feel - about sex, money, relationships, marriage, street violence, job security?” the responses were unanimous: “None of the above. Unsafe on all levels. At all times.”

And they have good reason. Their universe is not a playground for experimentation but a corridor of epidemics they have to dodge before they even reach the door to adulthood. Consider:

Adolescent suicide has quadrupled in the last 25 years.

Teenage pregnancy in the United States is the highest of any country in the Western world.

One in five American high school students carried a weapon to school by 1993.

The Endangered Generation, however, is racking up a record of education achievements. By 1990, the rate of high school graduation among 19-year-old women was 82 percent - almost four times the education level reached by teenage girls of the 1950s.

The fact that more than half of America’s young men and women - 53 percent of men age 20 to 24, and 58 percent of white women the same age - are gaining a college education is without precedent in any society. Nevertheless, their lives seem to be on hold.

Today, in the absence of any clear road map on how to structure their lives, and facing an economic squeeze and the terror of unlimited choice, many members of this generation have a new goal: Stay in school as long as you can. The 20s have stretched out into a long Provisional Adulthood. Most young people don’t go through the transition of Pulling Up Their Roots - detaching from the family and initiating the search for a personal identity - until close to 30, thus moving all the other stages off by up to 10 years. Consider:

Of unmarried American men between 25 and 34, more than one-third are still living at home.

This is the highest rate ever recorded.

This new breed of Mama’s boy shows strong signs of continuing as a norm with unintended consequences. It is soon going to be just as hard for young men to find wives as it has been for older women to find husbands. Consider:

In 1992, there were 121 unmarried men to every 100 single women age 30 to 34.

“Take a guy born in 1967,” says Vivian Young, director of strategic services at the Ammirati & Puris/ Lintas advertising agency. “By now (1995) he’s 28. If he waits until he’s 35 to think about getting married, most of the desirable younger women will be gone. … Who’s this guy going to marry? He could be single for a long, long time.”

American women who are between the ages of 27 and 35 in 1995 have the advantage, and they will keep it. For these women, there will always be marriageable men.

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The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate

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