Talkin’ About My Gen-er-a-tion

October 29, 2002

They’ve been described as the “lost generation,” a group of unprincipled, alienated misfits who have been plagued by divorce, depression and drugs.

But a new University of Southern California study has found that image may not be accurate or fair.

Generation Xers are actually more self-confident, humanistic and goal oriented than their Baby Boomer parents were as teenagers, according to the study, which appears in the book “How Families Still Matter: A Longitudinal Study of Youth in Two Generations” (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

The research project draws from one of the most extensive studies of families in the world – the 30-year Longitudinal Study of Generations conducted at USC.

Approximately 1,000 19-year-olds – from two Southern California generations – participated in the project.

The researchers, USC sociology professors Vern L. Bengtson and Timothy Biblarz, and Robert Roberts, a professor at Cal State-San Marcos, compared achievements and family influences on Generation Xers, born in the 1970s and 1980s, with those of their Baby Boomer parents, born in 1940s and 1950s.

Using survey data collected from as early as 1971, researchers assessed self-confidence, values and goals from the two sets of 19-year olds.

The discovery: Generation Xers were more ambitious at 19 than their Baby Boomer parents were at the same age and had higher self-esteem and greater social values.

In addition, they found that Gen X women have far outpaced their mothers’ educational and occupational aspirations and are more ambitious than their male counterparts.

The strength of parents’ influence on life choices and achievements is significant – and at about the same level – for the two generations.

“These findings indicate the resilience of intergenerational family bonds in the context of massive social changes since the 1960s,” Bengtson said. “They suggest that in the 21st century, families and cross-generational connections will still be vitally important in influencing youths’ values, choices and life course.”

The researchers asked four questions:

o How different are today’s youth from previous generations? Are they a “generation at risk?”

o How have changes in family structure and roles – particularly, divorce and maternal employment – affected successive generations of youth?

o What are the gender differences in achievement orientations and family influences across generations?

o Has there been a decline over generations in parents’ influence of youth?

To the researchers’ surprise, parental divorce had a small impact on Generation Xers’ achievement. “It’s certainly much lower than the ‘divorce is disaster’ literature would predict,” said Bengtson.

Children who grew up in families where mothers worked outside the home were no less well-adjusted than children with stay-at-home moms.

“The conventional wisdom that today’s family is in decline implies that moms who work or choose to divorce are robbing their children in some way,” Biblarz said. “Our study shows that single motherhood and working moms have not produced any dire consequences.”

The authors offer three new hypotheses about these two distinct generations:

Extended kin – particularly grandparents – are more important than ever. “Grandparents are living longer and are sharing their time and financial resources with grandchildren, particularly those affected by divorce,” Bengtson said.

Today’s two-parent families may be more successful than ever before. “We may be seeing a ‘survival of the fittest’ in marriages today,” said Biblarz. “For example, in previous generations many parents stayed in unhappy marriages that resulted in negative consequences for children. Our research suggests that those parents who stay together by choice, not necessity, may have more achievement-oriented children.”

Through ups and downs, most parents – particularly mothers – seem to continue to find ways to take good care of their children.

“While 40 percent of Generation X teens experienced their parents’ divorce, they felt as close to their mothers as Baby Boomer youth did 26 years earlier,” Biblarz said.

“And that is extremely hopeful, and perhaps one of the best outcomes of the study.”


Gilien Silsby

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