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‘Influence of Generation Next is huge’

By Laura Nelson

McClatchy Newspapers

Generation Next is a powerful unknown.

Sometimes called Generation Y, sometimes called the Millennials, these 42 million members of the youngest segment of the adult generation are already reshaping the world.

The problem is, they’re proving hard to define. And according to PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff, they’re not even sure how to define themselves.

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Woodruff, the former CNN anchor of "Inside Politics," spent last summer crossing the country in a bus and conducting interviews focusing on the goals, hopes and ideas of America’s 16- to 25-year-olds. She compiled her interviews and experiences into a new documentary, "Generation Next: Speak Up, Be Heard," which aired recently on PBS.

What she discovered, Woodruff said, is a slice of a hugely diverse, tolerant and passionate generation that is lax with money, reluctant to be labeled, and plugged into Facebook, iPods and cell phones.

"The influence of Generation Next is huge," Woodruff said. "Your generation is crucial. Big companies are assigning entire task forces to analyze you. Smart politicians are looking at how they appeal to you. Social scientists are studying how you learn, how you communicate, how you relate to each other, how you define yourselves. You’re changing everything."

Big spenders

Last year alone, Generation Next spent more than $485 billion on everything from music to coffee to clothes. The average GenNexter carries $2,800 in credit card debt, and two-thirds carry $19,000 in college loans.

"Loans to pay off ... detract from your ability to take risks and to move forward," said Anya Kamenetz, the 25-year-old author of "Generation Debt," to Woodruff in an interview for the program. Kamenetz’s book focuses on the problems and causes of Generation Next’s laxness with money.

"Statistics show that people in their 20s are holding about 10 jobs for their first 10, 12 years in the workforce. This (is) the first generation that’s going to do worse than our parents did."

However, Woodruff’s investigation showed that many GenNexters didn’t care how well they did in comparison to their baby boomer parents. Many say their baby boomer parents are "workaholics" or "chained to their desks." GenNexters want vacation after two months at an office and would rather not work overtime.

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"The workplace could change because of this new attitude," Woodruff said. "Many GenNexters have told us that they’ve watched parents work 24/7 and are saying, `I’m not sure I want to repeat that.’

"They say, ‘If I’m not passionate about my work, I may not stay.’ That’s something employers are not used to. They’re used to having the upper hand."

The majority of Generation Next grew up in a time of Reaganomics and general economic prosperity. Baby boomers tried to give their children every opportunity as they grew up, Woodruff said. Consequently, most didn’t teach their children to handle money effectively, because there was always enough.

"This is a group of parents who have paid very close attention to raising their children," she said. "They have made sure that their children took advantage of all the opportunities — sporting, soccer team, ballet, dance lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons. But I’m assuming that parents have raised you — and I count myself in this group — without teaching you to manage your finances."

Independent streak

No name has really stuck for this generation. Among the names sociologists have tried are the MyPods and the Net Generation. But no name has lasted because, Woodruff said, Generation Next doesn’t yet have an identity.

More and more we’re discovering that young people are reluctant to follow cookie-cutter descriptions. This generation has a definite independent streak. You’re still defining yourselves."

The baby boomers had events like the civil rights movement, man’s first landing on the moon, the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War.

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But there is yet to be an event that has shaped Generation Next.

"I think that the history that’s going to be written about (our) generation is going to talk about how we’ve responded to unbelievable challenges," Kamenetz told Woodruff. "When you’re talking about America’s place in the world, global warming and ... inequality, in the country and the world, the question is gonna be, `How did young people respond? How did the generation stand up and respond?’ That is yet to be written."

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