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Web Resources

Murray Milner - Professor Emeritus Sociology Department, University of Virgina

Ann Clurman, senior partner at Yankelovich social research company

Anne Bissonette, curator of the Fashion Museum at Kent State University

Millennials Rising ? ?a website for and about America's rising generation, born in the 1980s and '90s?

Frontline ? ?The Merchants of Cool ? What Teens Think?

Reason Online - ?Misreading Millennials - the politics of a rising generation?

Science Blog - ? ?Brainy? Students Least Likely to Engage in Risky Behaviors?

Mark Urycki
Teenagers: The Millennial Generation and Status
A More Egalitarian Generation?

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Before World War Two nobody cared much what teenagers thought. But that has changed. Today's teens wield enormous power merely by their sheer number. And their Baby-Boomer parents, ever mindful of their own youth, are very much active in every aspect of their kids' lives. Maybe never before have so many people looked to teenagers for clues as to what is "cool."

WKSU's Mark Urycki reports:

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To get a handle on the Millennial Generation, take a look at their parents -- the Baby Boomers. They were raised on the civil rights revolution, anti-war protests, the women's revolution, and the invasion of foreign competition. The Boomers were at war with their parents, helping to coin the phrase "generation gap." But who are the heroes of the millennial generation? The same answer keeps coming back:

BOY: "Yeah, my parents. Parents, 'cause they've always backed me up. They've always been there, and they've always cared about my school."

If you can attach broad categories to a generation - and we are - the Baby Boomers revolted against the establishment to make a better world, the Gen X-ers reacted with a cynical, snarky attitude, and now the Millennials are coming along with an upbeat, confident outlook at taking over the world. And they'll probably do that faster than you think. Sociologist Murray Milner, author of the book "Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids", says their age group is already king in some ways:

MILNER: "And one of the interesting things that's happened is that teenage culture has moved both up in the age structure, and down in the age structure. So that you now get 5th and 6th graders trying to be teenagers, both with respect to at least quasi-sexuality, I mean in terms of dressing and using that kind of language, and you get people extending teenage-like lifestyles and cultures well into adulthood, postponing marriage, the singles-scene so to speak. And my argument is not that 25-year-olds act just like teenagers, but there is a continuity, in a certain sense, of the emphasis on being young and lifestyles during that period, on physical attractiveness, on styles, etc., and a reluctance to take on the responsibilities of family life, children, etc."

What teens think is cool even influences their parents, still hoping to retain some thread of hipness. Oddly, the Millennials may have a much broader outlook on what's cool than any group of adolescents before them. That can be seen in the status groups at school. Kids will always fall in and out of cliques as they try to find their own identity. And the traditional high status group still exists in high school:

GIRL: "Jocks...cheerleaders..."

But those categories quickly broaden. There are stoners, skateboarders, preppies, thugs, nerds, rednecks - each group bound together defiantly by its own identity:

GIRL: "Band has their own group too. They think they're cool."

MU: "The marching band?"

GIRL: "Yeah"

BOY/GIRL: "Seniors. Just seniors." "It's basically like everybody knows everybody, except for seniors. Like, seniors are high status, it's basically just them, like everybody else has their own little groups, and nobody is higher than one other person."

GIRL: "I hang out with goths, and punks, and kids like that. They're individuals. That's what I like about them."

Just as the mass media have splintered with a separate channel for every taste, teenagers have a myriad of choices in what party to join. Most, it appears, will experiment, sampling different types, at least at first. Professor Milner says kids establish status levels because it is one of the few things about their lives that they have some control over. He says status is in-expansible - that is, to be in, someone else has to be left out:

MILNER: "One of the key sources of status, obviously, is conformity to the norms of the group you belong to. But, one of the less obvious implications is that those who have status are likely to change the norms frequently to keep other people from being able to keep up and copy with them. This is the reason that fashion and fads are so central among adolescents."

Teenagers and young people took control of their own fashions in the 1970's. Now the clothing industry is simply trying to keep up with whatever fads are set. Anne Bissonette is curator of the Fashion Museum at Kent State University. She agrees with Milner that fashions help establish an identity- and can also be a tool to exclude:

BISSONNETTE: "It used to be the elite that was able to change so often, but they kept the riff-raff out because you didn't have enough money to afford to have these quick changes. So, the same can be true with fashion today. If you don't change it, then everybody else gets to attain what you have, and then you're no longer cool."

Kids often attach group distinctions by the music they listen to or the fashions they wear:

GIRL: "People that dress, they call them 'ghetto,' there's that. They dress in like, FUBU, and Ecko, and Rock-a-Wear. And there's Hot Topic, what you wear... yeah."

Hot Topic is a brand that caters to the punk or Goth market. The powerful drive among teenagers to fit in makes them easy pawns for changing fashions. Dr. Bissonnette says the trends are probably set by the teens who carry leadership status:

BISSONNETTE: "The 'cool kids' have a lot to say about who's going to be in, and who's going to be out. And I think that there are definitely leaders. And that can be witnessed when you go into different high schools in different regions of the country. What could be cool in one high school might not be what's cool in the other one. So, these tiny little innovations of how to wear things, I think they have a lot to do with leaders."

The difference between this generation and their parents is that there are so many leaders now. Professor Milner thinks it's simply the changing structure of high schools:

MILNER: "When you had small high schools, the popular crowd was very dominant, and most people copied, in various degrees, the popular crowd, because in a school of 200 or 300, everybody knew who the top 10 percent was. When you go to a school of two or three thousand, the top 10 percent is 200 or 300, and that's too many people for people to be conscious of, or have any connection with. And so many people are excluded from any contact with that group, they then create all kinds of alternative or other kinds of groups, the system becomes more pluralistic, and each group claims, 'we're the best, and everybody else is stupid,' as one of the teenagers reported. So, it's become less status-conscious because the structure of high schools has changed."

Others believe something different is going on with this generation. Maybe it's growing up as latchkey kids, or knowing more about computers than your parents, but this independent generation values being your own person.

CLURMAN: "But it's more today about self-expression than it is about conformity."

Anne Clurman gets paid to figure out what's on teenage minds. She's a senior partner with the marketing and social research company Yankelovich:

CLURMAN: "I think status is a funny word when it comes to this generation. What they value is autonomy. They value originality. Those are the kinds of things that they give status to. They are certainly...they are much less peer-pressured, if you will, than previous generations. They feel there are so many ways of fitting in. We asked them about sitting at the right table in the cafeteria, and they just say that's not as big an issue as it used to be. And we say, why? And they say there's a lot of good tables in the cafeteria. So, there's a lot of ways of having a kind of personal status, and a lot of it is very private and very personal. So, the things they value in themselves are being in control, and having self-expression, and having savvy, and having smarts. Those are ways of giving status to themselves."

Teenagers who are not forced to follow the crowd? That does follow their responses to surveys in which they are more tolerant of racial, gender, and sexual differences. Perhaps practicing what the liberals of the '60s preached.

GIRL: "I listen to what interests me, and I wear what I think is comfortable, what fits me."

GIRL: "I hang out with kids that are punk and dress in Hot Topic, but I'm not like that. They're just my friends. It doesn't really... I think it's just the group you fall into."

MU: "Do you wish you could be one of the cheerleader group?"

GIRL: "Not really. I like my friends."

GIRL 2: "There's always that one guy there and that one girl that's always with that one guy that everyone wants, but people are more accepting. The cool kids hang out with the kids that aren't so cool, we're so much more mixed in. We all hang out with each other rather than actually having separated groups."

GIRL 1: "Basically it's coolest just to be yourself. Now it's more into just expressing yourself through your clothing and finding out what best suits you. And then the more individual you are, the better people like you."

That kind of talk is making the marketing industry very nervous but it's generally pleasing to mom and dad.

I'm Mark Urycki, 89.7 WKSU.