A World of Their Own

They're Spiritual, Optimistic And Ambitious. How Teens Want To Shape The Future

The temptation, of course, is to seek The Teen, the one who can stand as a symbol of this generation, who exemplifies in a single, still-young life the aspirations, the values, the habits and outlook of the 22 million other Americans 13 to 19. Who, then, shall we offer up? Perhaps Vanesa Vathanasombat, 17, of Whittier, Calif., who spends her free time going to the beach and hanging at malls with friends. "You are who you hang around with," she says. "Before, parents made you who you are. Now, teens are pretty much defined by their friends. I see my mom maybe an hour a day and not at all on weekends." Or maybe Zoe Ward, 15, of Shoreline, Wash., who takes road trips with a friend (they sleep in the car) and sells her poetry on the street: "I can't decide if I want to be famous or if I want to go live in the mountains. That's what it's like for a lot of high-school kids: we don't know how to get there, what it's really going to be like." Or, finally, Marcus Ruopp, 16, of Newton, Mass., who would like to be an engineer or maybe a teacher after the Peace Corps, in order to "give back to the community."

No one teen incorporates all the attitudes and characteristics that the teachers who teach them, the parents who raise them, the researchers who study them and the kids who are them name as the identifying marks of this generation. In large part that is because "today's teens may have less in common with each other than those in generations past," says psychologist William Damon of Stanford University. "[Some] are absolutely on track: they're bright-eyed, genuine and ambitious. But a significant number are drifting or worse." Innumerable teens, then, will not recognize themselves in the portraits that follow. Yes, of course there are teens for whom adults are a strong presence, and teens who seldom volunteer. There are teens who are emotional wrecks, or even mentally ill. There are teens to whom "Instant Message" means Mom's telling them right away who phoned while they were out. And there are teens who belong to no clique--or "tribe." But, according to a new NEWSWEEK Poll as well as sociologists who have studied tens of thousands of the kids born between 1981 and 1987, those teens are the exceptions. As much as is possible when you are talking about 22 million human beings, a portrait of the millennial generation is emerging.

They were born at a time when the very culture was shifting to accommodate them--changing tables in restrooms, baby on board signs and minivans. Yet, as a group, they lead lives that are more "adult-free" than those of previous generations. "Adolescents are not a tribe apart because they left us, as most people assume," says Patricia Hersch, author of the 1998 book "A Tribe Apart." "We left them. This generation of kids has spent more time on their own than any other in recent history."

When today's teens are not with their friends, many live in a private, adult-free world of the Web and videogames. Aminah McKinnie, 16, of Madison, Miss., attends church, loves gospel hip-hop and hopes to work in the computer industry. She doesn't "hang out," she says. "I shop on the Internet and am looking for a job on the Internet. I do homework, research, e-mail and talk to my friends on the Internet." She is not unusual. Data released last year from the Alfred P. Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development found that teens spend 9 percent of their waking hours outside school with friends. They spend 20 percent of their waking hours alone. "Teens are isolated to an extent that has never been possible before," says Stanford's Damon. "There is an ethic among adults that says, 'Kids want to be autonomous; don't get in their face'."

This generation is strongly peer-driven. "This is much more a team-playing generation," says William Strauss, coauthor of the 1997 book "The Fourth Turning." "Boomers may be bowling alone, but Millennials are playing soccer in teams." That makes belonging so crucial that it can be a matter of life and death. In Littleton, Colo., a year ago, the two teenage shooters stood apart, alienated from the jock culture that infused Columbine High School. Yet in a landmark study of 7,000 teens, researchers led by Barbara Schneider of the University of Chicago found that teen social groups are as fluid and hard to pin down as a bead of mercury. "Students often move from one group to another, and friendships change over a period of a few weeks or months," they write in "The Ambitious Generation." "Best friends are few." As a group, today's teens are also infused with an optimism not seen among kids in decades (it doesn't hurt to have grown up in a time of relative peace and the longest economic expansion in U.S. history). "I think a lot of adolescents now are being taught that they can make a difference," says Sophie Mazuroski, 15, of Portland, Maine. "Children of our generation want to. I am very optimistic." Still, the law of teenage angst is still on the books: 4.3 percent of ninth graders make suicide attempts serious enough to require medical treatment.

This generation of teens is more spiritual than their parents, but often less conventionally so. Many put together their own religious canon as they would a salad from a salad bar. Yet despite their faith, teens, as well as those who study them, say that "lying and cheating are standard behavior," as Trisha Sandoval, 17, of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., puts it--more so than for earlier generations. Elsewhere on the values front, teens today are less likely than those in 1992 "to get somebody pregnant, drive drunk or get into fights," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. And teens, says Strauss, "had harsher opinions about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal than any other group." Coming of age in a time of interracial marriages, many eschew the old notions of race; maturing at Internet speed, they are more connected than any generation. Both may bode well for tolerance. "Prejudice against homosexuals, bisexuals, African-Americans, Latinos--this is a big issue," says Kathryn Griffin, 18, of Palo Alto, Calif., who hopes to make a career in advertising or marketing. "It's insane that people have these feelings [about other people] when they don't even know them."

What do they want out of life? Schneider and coauthor David Stevenson found that today's teens "are the most occupationally and educationally ambitious generation" ever. Most plan to attend college, and many aspire to work as professionals. A majority identify "happiness" as a goal, along with love and a long and enjoyable life. But many doubt that marriage and career will deliver that, so they channel their energies more broadly. About half of teens perform community service once a month by, for instance, delivering meals to the homeless or reading to the elderly. But does their volunteer work reflect real compassion, or meeting a school requirement?

Regardless of what their terrified parents suspect, the belief that today's teens "are more sexual, rebellious and inebriated is flat-out wrong," says pediatrician Victor Strasburger of the University of New Mexico. In 1997, 48 percent of high-school students had had sexual intercourse, compared with 54 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. More are smoking (36 percent, compared with 28 percent in 1991), but the percentage who are drinking alcohol remains at 51 percent. The social surround, though, may be different now. "A lot of my friends are into drinking a lot," says Marcus Ruopp. "Kids don't see it as a big problem. It's a regular thing, not like they're rebelling. There is no pressure to drink."

Some sociologists believe that each generation assumes the societal role of the generation that is dying, as if something in the Zeitgeist whispers to the young what is being lost, what role they can fill. Those now passing away are the children of the Depression and of World War II. They were tested, and they emerged with optimism, and purpose, and a commitment to causes larger than themselves. As Trisha Sandoval puts it, "We want to accomplish something with our lives." Teens today, with their tattoos and baggy shorts, could not seem more different from their grandparents. But every generation has a chance at greatness. Let this one take its shot.