Generation X on The Starting Line

COMING of age has always produced its share of anxieties and uncertainties. The post-college challenge of finding the three P's - a paycheck, a place to live, and a partner to date or marry - can involve decisions and disappointments that quickly strip away any pre-graduation idealism.

But if the movie ``Reality Bites'' is to be believed, graduates of the '90s face a harder-than-usual transition. They are members, after all, of the so-called Generation X - the ``baby busters'' who increasingly believe they have inherited a future of diminished expectations and declining fortunes. So widespread is their gloom that three-quarters of those who have been polled think they will be worse off than their parents.

Portrayed as overeducated and underemployed, the four recent graduates in the film discover how boring and humbling an entry-level job can be - if they can even find one. They make bitter jokes about getting a ``toehold in the burger industry'' and ``dodging my student-loan officer for the rest of my life.'' Told that they are overqualified for some jobs and inexperienced for others, they sink into a state of despair, complaining, ``Nothing is going according to plan.''

Film critics and producers are hailing the movie as a ``portrait of a generation.'' Written by a 24-year-old, Helen Childress, it has understandably captured the attention and approval of the young people it portrays.

Yet this inside view of twentysomething attitudes and struggles should also catch the attention of their parents. Although the movie is billed as ``a comedy about love in the '90s,'' what predominates, at least for this parent, is not comedy but sadness and loneliness. At times the story seems both an indirect rebuke to parents and a silent plea for understanding and support from them.

No job-seeking graduate, for example, needs a father like the one in the movie who complains, ``The problem with your generation is you don't have any work ethic.... All you've got to do is show some ingenuity.'' Equally cruel is the mother who suggests that her valedictorian daughter apply for a job at Burgerama.

In real life, this is an age group whose childhood and adolescence have been shaped by a list of unsettling ``firsts'' - dubious honors all:

They are the first generation to grow up in families where a majority of parents both work, necessitating complicated and not always successful balancing acts between children and careers.

They are the first generation to be widely affected by staggeringly high parental divorce rates - a recurring theme in the movie.

And although they are not the first generation to face a tight job market, their immediate reference point - the high-flying '80s - has probably given them (and their parents) unrealistic expectations about their post-college job prospects.

No one can pretend that the employment outlook is rosy for anybody at the moment. Last week's job summit in Detroit revealed that unemployment is higher for those under 25 than it is for the workforce as a whole. Even so, economists point out that college graduates earn, on average, 77 percent more than high-school graduates. No wonder Secretary of Labor Robert Reich can confidently state that a college degree is ``a fairly sure ticket to a secure place in the new economy.''

Perhaps those of us who are parents of this generation have failed to tell them enough about our own early struggles for identity and financial independence - our own entry-level jobs (and meager salaries), our own efforts, not always successful, to gain a toehold in our careers. They have seen the fruits of our labors, but have we also pointed out our failures along the way?

Hunting for a job puts the seeker on a frontier alone - always has, always will. It is a time of self-definition - this moment when the question comes due: What do I want to be when I grow up? No parent, no guidance counselor, no computer can answer that question because, taken seriously, it addresses nothing less than the hopes for the rest of one's life. Like older generations once at the same crossroads, Generation X can use all the help and sympathy it may get.

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