NOTHING is trickier than trying to characterize something as wildly diverse and constantly changing as a ``generation.'' But it's done all the time: the ``now generation,'' the ``me generation,'' ``yuppies,'' et al. The urge to peg the younger generation seems particularly irresistible. Rolling Stone magazine took the latest crack at the task, surveying 819 young Americans aged 18 to 44. Employing the know-how of pollster Peter D. Hart, the magazine set out to plumb the thoughts and beliefs of this much-stereotyped generation.
It found a group of people whose lives, in general, were not stacking up with youthful hopes about changing the world. Respondents were preoccupied with health, wealth, and sending their kids to college. Quite a few fret about making ends meet when they retire. Only a tiny percentage are active in politics or causes. What would nudge them into activism? Anti-drunken-driving campaigns or neighborhood crime watches.
Sound familiar? Didn't the generation before this generation have its worries about making ends meet and putting away enough for long-term needs like college and retirement? And haven't people always been most willing to organize around problems close to home that threaten them and their children?
A strong commitment to family pervaded the Rolling Stone sample. Traditional attitudes vied with ``progressive'' ones. Almost half said the trend toward more working mothers is a change for the worse. But there was general enthusiasm for employer-provided child care and equal pay for women.
For most young Americans in this survey, figures like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are still powerful. Their idealism is revered, even if the respondents' own idealism is reined in by the day-to-day demands of job and family.
What emerges is a snapshot of a generation trying to hold on to timeless values while adapting to a world bent on change - a world that often dashes ideals but badly needs them.
In this sense, younger Americans have more in common than they may think with past generations, and a lot in common with the coming generation in all corners of the globe.