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For today's teens, rebellion is pass

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1999


What's with these kids today - their wider-than-wide pant legs, boxers billowing in the breezes, belly-buttons winking out at everyone willy-nilly?

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Well, that's all true. But dig a little deeper, and it's clear there's something extraordinary happening among today's teens.

*They aren't very rebellious. Many actually like and admire their parents.

*They work: Nearly half have after-school jobs - and bulging wallets that make them top prizes for marketers and moviemakers. This month alone, seven teen-targeted movies are on the nation's screens, including "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Cruel Intentions."

*They're utterly cyber-savvy. Some 13 million surf the Internet - a number that's expected to triple in the next few years.

*And they're questing spiritually. One survey asked college freshmen who they'd most like to dine with - anyone in any era. The No. 1 answer? Jesus.

"This is a generation of optimists - of builders, to whom deeds matter, not words," says William Strauss, co-author of "The Fourth Turning," a book about generational identities.

Experts tag them as Generation Y or millennials or echo boomers. They're the largest generation since the baby boom - and are more optimistic, patriotic, and civic-minded than any other group since the World War II generation.

Too good to be true? Well, how's this for wholesomeness? A microcosm of these teens showed up one night last week at the public library in suburban Elgin, Ill., to read poetry. (Yes, teens like that now, too.)

In a scene that's been repeated in suburban Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, these teens - with help from the staff - have turned an uninspired basement into a beatnik oasis called Teen Cafe.

Once a month, black plastic tablecloths cover the card tables scattered around the dimly-lit, cement-walled room.

Battery-powered lanterns on each table substitute for candlelight. Hot drinks and soda are served in plastic cups.

One of the first to step on stage - a foot-high platform with a single microphone - is Matt Siegler, a wiry high schooler with dark hair and a quick smile.

"I monkeyed down the street," Matt says in a deep voice, reading a poem he wrote titled "Thought." "The daily jungle comes. A moon shot, shattered thought...."

Many in the audience of 30 or so snap their fingers - a sign of approval - as Matt continues.

Matt is a typical teen in that he works after school and on weekends.

"I'm putting half away for college," he says later, in a resolute tone. He's also saving up for a telescope. Most of his friends work - and not necessarily because their families need money.

Today's teens are typically independent - and want their own money to spend.

"It would be pretty odd if you weren't working by junior year," Matt says.

In fact, America's teens spent $141 billion in 1998, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill., firm. Much of that they earned themselves, working or doing odd jobs.

Picking teens' pockets

Their bulging wallets - and sheer numbers - have caught marketers' eyes.

Every marketer from Madison Avenue to Hollywood is trying to woo today's 31 million teens - for good reason. Their tastes have almost singlehandedly brought big profits to Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy.