For today's teens, rebellion is pass

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?

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.

And they've helped puncture soaring sales at Nike and Levi's.

They've also spawned a whole genre of films - dubbed "teensploitation" movies. This winter's teen comedy "She's All That," for instance, cost a mere $8 million to make and $15 million to hype. It brought in more than $54 million.

But being a teen isn't just about money.

Take Vince Gonzalez, a high-energy high school senior at the Teen Cafe, outfitted in a brown leather jacket, a black bowler hat, and a wispy goatee.

He read poems titled "A Church" and "The Green Angel," to great applause.

Teens talking about God

Vince attends a Seventh-day Adventist church, but much of his spiritual exploration comes in a weekly discussion group he started with friends.

They gather to listen to industrial Christian music - yes, it's a real genre - and talk about God. Last week, they met outside, under a bridge.

They ponder questions like: "What of God do you see in life? What can be proved? And what has to be accepted on faith?" Vince says. "We've actually answered a lot of our questions through these wandering discussions."

Such searchings aren't unusual.

"Kids are desperate for a spiritual guide - and a model of true morals," says Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. And they often turn to Jesus, who "is one of the few people left whose deeds haven't been tarnished by hypocrisy."

But how did today's kids turn out like this?

Much of it is the generational to-and-fro, says Mr. Strauss. In the 1960s and 1970s with baby boomers, individual rights were paramount.

But now the pendulum is swinging back toward emphasis on the communal.

"Parents and society push kids, saying: 'We want you to be team players, to vote, and to have civic values,' " Strauss says. " 'We want you to be Art Linkletters and George Bushes.' "

Now teens' view of the "boomer" generation is that there's "too little constraint and too much narcissism," he adds, noting that teens were especially critical of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

On a personal level, though, teens often reach out to their boomer parents - because with many divorces and broken homes, they're looking for familial connection.

Young and conservative

Yet teens' views do seem to be getting more conservative.

The percentage of college freshmen, for instance, who say it's OK for two people who like each other to have sex, even if they have only known each other a short while, dropped to 40 percent this year, down from 52 percent in 1987.

That's according to the annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

All this isn't to say that today's teens don't have problems. One of the big topics last week at Teen Cafe was that one of the regulars had just been arrested.

But perhaps high school poet Katy Collins, dressed in black jeans and a black KMFDM T-shirt, captures a glint of her generation's work-hard optimism.

Asked why she writes pages and pages of poems each month, she says, "Well, I used to be pretty depressed, so this was a way to express myself - in a positive way that doesn't hurt anyone."

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