Portrait of a Generation

A generation that is in transition struggles to reconcile modern lifestyles with traditional values

BY DAVID SHEFF | May 5, 1988

From the start, they were a generation to which much was given, from which much was expected. Born in the decades following the end of World War II, they were brought up to feel that they were the chosen generation – something new and promising under the sun. They were, literally, the future for which the war had been fought.

As they began coming of age, they challenged virtually all the social mores and political values that had come before. With them emerged a radical new musical form, new roles for women, a sexual revolution, unprecedented drug use and extraordinary social and personal upheaval. The old rules were thrown out, but that didn’t matter. Affluence and a sense of unlimited opportunity filled this generation with confidence, even self-righteousness, as it headed into uncharted territory.

As the youngest members of this generation reached adulthood and the oldest became candidates for midlife crises, the editors of Rolling Stone decided to attempt a group portrait that would bring into focus the values and lifestyles of Americans aged 18 to 44 and, in doing so, determine where this group might be taking the culture as a whole. The magazine commissioned Peter D. Hart Research Associates to conduct a survey probing the attitudes of these people about many aspects of their lives. In RS 523 their views on political and economic matters were explored. In this issue social and personal areas will be covered.

This generation is defined by more than age; both the younger and the older members are united by certain common experiences that shaped their lives. As reported in RS 523, two such events were the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War – even for those born too late to have participated in protest marches or served in combat. The first established in them the ideals of tolerance and equality; the second was the catalyst for the isolationist views they hold today. Two events that crippled their idealism were the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, who, the poll shows, are this generation’s most admired public figures of the last 20 years.

A crucial element in how this generation experienced key events is television. No previous generation had experienced its milestones in such an immediate and collective way. This is the world’s first television generation. They have spent as much as a third of their waking hours in front of a tube, hypnotized by images of war casualties and the Beatles landing upon American soil and Americans landing on lunar soil. Their prime source of news was a six-inch-high figure named Walter Cronkite, sponsored by Pepsi and Handi-Wipes. A prime source of their values was the homilies of families called the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Petries, the Bunkers, the Ewings. The tube both expanded and defined their world.

And it was television alone that could enable them to experience the event they said had more effect on them than any other: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Thirty-two percent selected it as the event of the past 20 years that had the greatest impact on them personally, placing it ahead of the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic and the holding of the American hostages in Iran – the second, third and fourth most frequently chosen events.

It is possible that they selected the Challenger disaster because it occurred more recently – January 1986 – than most of the other events on the list. And the dramatic television footage had unforgettable impact. But additional factors probably added to the significance of this event. With Christa McAuliffe on board – the first average citizen to be sent into space – the Challenger exemplified the nation’s optimism that technology would make accessible new frontiers of knowledge and space exploration. The disaster occurred when the nation was perhaps at its most hopeful point since the election of John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan had begun his second term as president the year before, after being reelected by an overwhelming majority. Economic indicators were relatively healthy. After more than a decade of America-bashing at home and abroad, the Challenger was an important symbol – a national slap on the back confirming that America was still on top. The explosion burst the bubble of national optimism. Since that disaster, the nation has witnessed the decline of the Reagan presidency, the Iran-contra scandal, the worst stock-market crash since the Depression, the plummeting of the dollar and an uninspiring presidential race.

Remarkably, those polled expressed a strong sense of personal contentment. Sixty-one percent said they are quite or extremely satisfied with their lives. The vast majority of them – regardless of race, age, sex, income, marital status or political ideology – said, to varying degrees, that they are optimistic. They also said, through their responses to questions about tolerance and openness and ideals, that they are at heart an ethical generation – and that their values will prevail.

But a closer look suggests this is a generation at odds with itself. Pressed on specifics, they express concern about subjects ranging from the quality of family life to disillusionment with their own high expectations for themselves. Their avowed optimism, in the face of their specific concerns, resembles a refrain from the Randy Newman song “My Life Is Good,” in which the protagonist cheerfully ignores all evidence to the contrary.

After a dimly remembered Camelot, these Americans lived through the turbulence of change, of inflation and economic insecurity. It must have hit them hard, partly because hard times were not what they expected. Their parents struggled during a time when Americans were brought up from an early age knowing that struggle was essential. This generation was prepared for something else entirely.

They were raised with unprecedented choices. Whether they were directly or peripherally affected by the Sixties (the youngest members of the group cite, in general, the same major influences as the oldest), they acknowledge that the changes of that period yielded more options than any generation has ever had. One man in his early thirties who participated in the survey said, “My parents believe in doing what you are told to do. I believe you should be able to do what you want to do.”

Doing what they wanted to do turned out to be more thorny than the idea of being able to do what they wanted to do. They may have been far less restricted by society’s codes of morality, but in the absence of these, they were also completely unprepared for what they encountered. They expected economic security for themselves and their children in a time of economic uncertainty. Their new permissive attitudes about sex didn’t take into account the arrival of a deadly sexually transmitted disease. They were able to choose alternatives to traditional family structures but unable to develop ways to ease the economic and emotional hardships faced by single-parent households or foresee that having both parents work might become an economic necessity instead of a personal choice.

“I don’t think we’re emotionally equipped to live with so many options,” said one woman who participated in the survey. Another man similarly said, “There’s just too much freedom.” The result is summed up by a woman in her early thirties who said, “Everyone my age that I know is going sort of crazy.”

Indeed, they seem conflicted in almost all aspects of their lives. Yet even as they express their disappointment – in the world and in themselves – they maintain they are content. They believe that the availability of increased opportunities represents a substantial leap forward. They feel it’s a positive change that they are not bound by the constraints of the traditional family. And they’re not. Less than a fifth of them are in traditional marriages in which only the husband works. The majority of them are single (33 percent), divorced or widowed with children (16 percent) or in a marriage in which both the husband and the wife work (26 percent). And yet they are divided over whether having both parents work is a positive or negative trend. Forty-nine percent said the fact that there are more working mothers today is a change for the worse, while 37 percent said it’s a change for the better. (The remainder said they either see no change or aren’t sure.) While 52 percent said they believe it is a change for the better that couples don’t feel pressured to stay together for the sake of their children, the results – more reliance on child care and the increase in the number of single parents – are changes they view for the worse. Fifty-five percent said it is a change for the worse that more children are in day care, and 67 percent said the increase in single parenthood is a change for the worse.

They revere the model of the nuclear family but don’t live it. Sixty-nine percent said they are more family oriented than they had expected to be. Yet asked if the phrase “put emphasis on having a close-knit family life” better describes their generation or their parents’ generation, 66 percent said it better describes their parents’. Twenty-two percent said their marriages have no difficulties, and 70 percent said they experience only the usual ups and downs, yet statistics show that almost half of their marriages end in divorce.

Less than half reported a high degree of satisfaction with their jobs, and less than a third expressed satisfaction with their financial condition. Perhaps some feel that jobs and money just aren’t as important as other factors in finding satisfaction, but it seems that many simply want to believe they’re better off than the evidence shows. Money is their top concern, behind staying healthy. Forty-four percent said they are worried about having enough money to live on when they are ready to retire; 41 percent said they are worried about being able to afford to send their children to college; and 38 percent said they are worried about having enough money to make ends meet. Clearly, this is not a matter of growing materialistic; these people are seriously afraid of going under. This concern has contributed to the change in family structure. Forty-eight percent said that a family needs two full-time wage earners to make a comfortable living. That means parents must use more day care and spend less time with their children. Though most who work would like to retire by age 65, only 22 percent felt that social security will be available for them.

Members of this generation are much less active in their communities than they expected to be. Asked whether the phrase “being a concerned citizen, involved in helping others in the community” better describes their generation or their parents’, only 21 percent chose their generation, while more than twice that number chose their parents’. In the younger age groups, there is even less identification with social concern; only 14 percent of those under age 25 said the phrase better describes their generation.

Asked how they would spend an extra hour in each day if they were magically granted one, 45 percent said they would pursue recreational activities. Twenty-six percent said they would spend the time with family and friends. Not a single person said he or she would spend the hour on community service or political work.

Asked to choose which two or three causes they would be willing to become involved in – they could select from 26 liberal or conservative social and political concerns – they chose only two in any significant numbers: 32 percent said they would be willing to take an active role in a campaign against drunk driving, and 30 percent selected a neighborhood crime watch. It is as if they were saying that they care only about their families and their homes and that they fear for their security.

They may be willing to admit they are less involved in their communities, but they are also willing to pass judgment on themselves: 77 percent said the trend toward less involvement in community activities is a change for the worse. And so a generation born with high expectations is giving itself a mixed review. When it comes to political activism and social tolerance and working to make the world a better place, past generations may have done no better. But they never claimed as much for themselves, either. This generation was born high on itself and feels guilty that it hasn’t lived up to its own billing.

So in the end is it all failed expectations? The members of this generation still view themselves as ethical and moral people. They still have values of which they are proud. But their big dreams exploded like the Challenger. Perhaps one statistic implies their acknowledgment that something in their thinking is unresolved: The members of this generation, unlike their predecessors, embrace psychiatry as something to be relied on. In part, that may reflect their strong view that they are more open and willing to share personal feelings, which 83 percent said is a change for the better. But it also may reflect their view that life today is not easily manageable and that help in finding solutions is almost essential.

From The Archives Issue 525: May 5, 1988