The baby boomers took to the streets and vowed to change the world. Then came generation X, which saw a world that wasn’t much different. Now, a new generation is emerging in America - less starry-eyed than the boomers, more secure than the X’ers.
They’re called the echo boomers. Born roughly from 1977 to 1994, the overwhelming majority are children of baby boomers. The oldest turn 21 this year, but most are in their teens. Their generation is much bigger than generation X and almost as big as the post-World War II boom.
Weaned on video games, echo boomers are the first generation to claim the computer as birthright. They trouble-shoot the home PC and teach their parents the fine points of e-mail and Internet navigation.
Ethnically, they are more diverse than baby boomers. They believe education is a lifelong endeavor. They have no problem looking to women as leaders. They know about family breakup and the tragedies of drugs, guns and gangs. For the most part, they have not rebelled against their parents.
In many ways, echo boomers seem ideally suited to carry America forward in a wired world, where the pace of technological change and economic competition ever accelerates.
“Even when I was small, I was never afraid of technology,” said Francisco Farrera, 17, a high school senior from Houston. “It was always our baby-boomer parents who had some fears about breaking the computer.”
“Something that will define our generation is the assimilation between computers and people,” said Farrera, who plans to study computer science.
“We are going to be so connected with computers, we won’t even think about it.”
Peter Morrison, a demographer at the Rand think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., agreed: “The latest data show that two-thirds of non-adults are using computers on a regular basis - a really big formative experience is the notion of a connected generation.”
The baby boom generation commands attention because of its size, and the same will hold true for the echo. It accounts for 26 percent of the U.S. population, compared with the original boom, which accounts for 29 percent. Generation X represents just 16 percent.
“Attention is going to shift to this younger generation as it emerges into adulthood,” said Susan Mitchell, a Mississippi-based demographic researcher and author of “The Official Guide to the Generations.”
“The generation of today’s children and teens is going to be almost as important as the baby boom was,” she said.
The echo boomers’ impact is being felt in record school enrollments, most notably in the South and West, the parts of the country that have grown most rapidly in population. Their influence will spread steadily throughout society, with consequences for the family, politics, the economy and the American lifestyle.
While baby boomers self-consciously tried to break with their parents, the generation gap is less relevant for echo boomers.
A survey of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds last year for Drexel University in Philadelphia found 63 percent rated their parents’ generation positively, 29 percent were neutral, and only 7 percent held a negative view.
“My mom is strict, but she’s also pretty open in the way she treats me,” said Trina Koppang, 16, a high school sophomore from Minneapolis who thinks she might want to go into the clergy. “It closes the generation gap.”
Walker Smith, who tracks consumer values and attitudes for the Yankelovich polling company, said there is a solid tie between echo boomers and their parents.
“There are lot of convergences in tastes and preferences,” Smith said. “If you have a product that appeals to baby boomers, then your challenge is to spread that product from one end of the house to the other.” He calls it “the boom-boom phenomenon.”
Mitchell, the author, said the generations that followed World War II have much in common, from rock ‘n roll to the belief that education determines the future. Many echo boomers took on responsibility early, helping out their single mothers or working parents, which also might explain the greater generational closeness.
Charles Leen, 17, a senior from Dearborn Heights, Mich., said the difference for him is that he’s able to “come to the table” with his parents - something his father could not do with his grandfather.
“My father’s father came over from Ireland, and for them, kids were seen and not heard,” Leen said. “My parents are a lot more into how their kids feel and think. You can come to the table and talk about it. It happens a lot more often than not, more than it did in the 1960s.”
Cynthia Kress, 17, also a senior from Dearborn, said instead of clashing with parents, kids nowadays withdraw.
“I know a lot of people who totally reject their parents’ ideas,” she said. “It’s not as obvious as it was during the ‘60s, but it’s still there. They just block their parents out of their lives - cut them out.”
When President Clinton signs college tuition tax credits into law and urges more spending on day care and schools, he’s reaching out to the two “boom-boom” generations. Republicans in Congress are doing the same when they pass tax breaks for college savings.
Echo boomers put a very high value on education as the key to economic security. In the Drexel survey of high school students, half said they planned to get at least a four-year college degree, and another 18 percent, a master’s.
“It seems like in this economy, in this generation, everybody is defined by whether they go to college,” said Madeline Gage, 16, a high school junior from Dearborn.
But even though politicians are trying to attract them, echo boomers are not tuned in to the political process. Not yet, anyway.
In 1997, the American Council on Education’s annual survey of college freshmen found a record low of 27 percent believed it was very important to keep up with political affairs. That compares with a high of 58 percent in 1966. Of course, at that time there was a war in Vietnam and a historic struggle against racial discrimination at home.
The echo generation “is going to behave more like generation X than like their parents’ generation,” said Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a GOP pollster. “They are unanchored from institutions like government and the media.”
Politically, 55 percent of the freshmen identified themselves as middle of the road, while 24 percent were liberal and 21 percent, conservative.
Yet levels of political involvement are not fixed. The economy, foreign clashes and social concerns influence public interest. Something that could draw echo boomers into politics would be a woman candidate with a good chance of winning the White House.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we haven’t had a woman president,” said Joe Hamlin, 18, a senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., who wants to study history. “It’s incredible. I look at England, and they had Margaret Thatcher. She was awesome.”
Where baby boomers dreamed of changing the world, echo boomers seem to be focused on things closer to home: neighborhood and family.
Volunteerism is at an all-time high among college-bound students.
And as far as the family, kids of divorced baby boomers might be anxious to avoid that experience themselves.
“There is a generational view of the world shaped by growing up in a time of family turbulence,” said Morrison, the Rand demographer. “Lots of people will have grown up in families where there has been a divorce. They will be marrying later, maybe cohabiting before getting married.”
Eric Ward, 17, a junior from Grand Rapids, says his family life is good now. Even though his parents are divorced, they share custody, and he is much happier than when the family was in conflict.
“We’ve seen our parents rush into marriage,” Ward said. “I want to avoid getting into a situation where I think divorce might result. If I’m not sure I want to make big changes to my life, I think I would hesitate to get married. I would be less eager to take a chance.”
Leon Bouvier, a demographer and Baby Boom expert, sees the two booms as waves passing through the country’s history. In different stages of life, these big generations fill the schools with kids or put pressure on retirement programs.
“The echo is going to have an echo, too,” Bouvier said. “There will be more waves, and the waves will get smaller and smaller.”
xxxx ECHO BOOMERS Besides their ease with technology, there are other distinctive characteristics of echo boomers: One-third of echo boomers are from minorities particularly Hispanics and African Americans compared with one-fourth of baby boomers. More echo boomers are children of mixed marriages. Baby-boomer women overturned gender stereotypes by streaming into the work force. Some experts predict that for echo boomers, the most significant change in gender roles will come with men picking up a bigger share of household chores. Class divisions are clearer among echo boomers, even as racial and ethnic lines are somewhat more muted. A significantly higher proportion of echo boomers is living in affluence. But the share living in poverty also has grown, while the middle has shrunk.