The grunge generation grows up

They were known for their lack of commitment. Now Generation X is making waves, its own way.

If the term "Generation X" brings to mind "slackers" who listen to grunge rock, you might want to take a closer look at the parents dropping off their kids at day care these days.

While no one was looking, Gen X grew up, and signs of their maturing are everywhere - from the release last month of the 10th-anniversary edition of the movie "Reality Bites," to a trend in stay-at-home moms.

Depending on whose measure you use, the first of the Xers will turn 40 next year - more than a decade after trend-spotters found similarities between the socially disengaged characters in the 1991 novel "Generation X" and the 20- somethings of the day.

Many of those in Gen X (born roughly between 1965 and 1979) now own their own companies, are raising children, and scoff at the stereotypes that were created about them in the early 1990s - particularly that they are cynical slackers who avoid commitment to jobs and relationships.

"That doesn't sound like me or most of my friends," says Tim Nekritz, a public relations professional and graduate student in his mid-30s from Oswego, N.Y. "We're like our parents' generation, in my opinion. We're getting married, having kids, settling down, buying houses.... I think we're like a lot of other generations that approach middle age."

Generation X may not have the numbers or the name recognition of the baby boomers, but its members - now approximately 25 to 39 years old, and 60 million strong - are putting their stamp on everything from parenting to planning for the future. Approaching their years of highest earning, this group is poised to influence not only housing prices and car styles, but social policy as well.

They live the life they want

More independent-minded than baby boomers, Gen Xers have been forging their own approach to adult life in recent years. Unlike their own parents, who had high divorce rates and dual incomes, Xer moms and dads are spending more time with their children, even leaving the workforce to raise them. Those who are single are also trying to balance work and a personal life.

"The legacy that the boomers gave Gen X was permission to do what you wanted, essentially," says Ann Clurman, a senior partner at Yankelovich, a marketing consulting firm that tracks generational trends. "And Gen X has really taken up that banner: If you want to have kids, have kids. If you want to work, work. If you want to stay home, stay home."

Whereas boomers tend to feel they have a moral duty to tell the world when they find the right way to do something, members of Gen X are more private, says Ms. Clurman. Xers are less ideological than boomers, and "that's one of the reasons that people sort of ... ignored them for a while, because they were hard to understand."

But the picture is becoming clearer of what this generation looks like as CEOs and diaper-changers. Defying the apathetic label, Xers have shown an entrepreneurial spirit and are more attuned to the need to invest for retirement, having been told there may be little Social Security left when the 76 million boomers are done with it. Gen X is said to be the first generation that may end up worse off than their parents, but they are also the first to enter the workforce as major innovations in communication technology - e-mail, cellphones, high-speed Internet access - were taking over.

The result? They live the way they want to.

"I believe my generation is constantly seeking ways to blend work and life together," says Heather Malec, who's in her early 30s, by e-mail from Chicago.

Ms. Malec says she doesn't mind working from home before and after typical office hours if it means she can make it to an afternoon tennis class, for example. "It gives me the flexibility to work from wherever I need to in order to get the job done and still have a life."

Gen X parenting habits are of particular interest to those tracking generational trends.

Today, 51 percent of children under 18 have parents who qualify as Gen X, according to an analysis by Reach Advisors, a Boston marketing-strategy and research firm. (Reach Advisors also analyzed Census Bureau data to come up with the 60 million figure for the population of Gen X, which can vary depending on which beginning and ending dates are selected.)

Gen X moms and dads tend to be homebodies - they are willing to sacrifice one spouse's income to have a parent at home with the kids, and frequently have to go into debt to own a house. Sometimes they choose arrangements, such as each spouse working a part-time job, that ensure that both parents get time with the children.

"They're willing to do what it takes to have family stability, because they didn't get it when they were young," says Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing Corp. "So this is something new, the importance placed on raising your children."

In 2002, Yankelovich reported that 67 percent of Xer moms said they planned to do a better job of raising their children than the generation before them. And for the first time in decades, fewer women are returning to the workforce in the first year after giving birth, according to Census data. When Reach Advisors conducted a survey of 3,020 parents at the end of 2003 ("Generation X: From Grunge to Grown Up"), they found that the increase in stay-at-home moms can be attributed in part to decisions made by college-educated Gen X women in households with incomes of more than $120,000 a year.

Dads spend more time with the family

Gen X dads are also trying to be more involved. Marty Kotis, president and CEO of Kotis Properties in Greensboro, N.C., says in e-mails and a phone interview that he worked from home for six to eight weeks after his son was born last year, and continues to actively participate in his son's upbringing.

"I think the approach with baby boomers was a lot more hands-off," says the 35-year-old, explaining he knows fathers of that generation who never changed a diaper. "My wife doesn't work right now, but I still feel like we should share the joys and responsibilities of raising our son."

The implications for labor markets - and even housing prices - of fewer working spouses are significant, notes James Chung, an Xer and president of Reach Advisors. An outcome of only one parent working is that couples are not as set on living a convenient distance from the workplace of both parents. "What you're seeing is [that] house prices are rising faster in communities that cater to those [single-income] families," he says.

Mr. Kotis is an example of another Xer trait: He plans for the future, particularly for retirement. Not long after he was elevated to the head of his family's company, he established a 401(k) program for the firm's employees, a majority of whom are Xers, too. "I sort of think of [Social Security] as a joke," he says. "I don't think it's going to be around when I'm old enough to need it."

Studies suggest his attitude is shared by others of his generation. Yankelovich has found that Xers have their eyes on retirement at an earlier age than boomers did, says Clurman. And the recent Reach Advisors survey found that 29 percent of Gen Xers versus 22 percent of boomers were saving for retirement with 401(k) or other defined contribution plans.

"This is a generation that does not necessarily expect to have the same kind of financial security as their parents do," says Mr. Chung. "And that's a big change."

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