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They certainly have acquired a fine collection of adjectives for themselves.

They've been called spoiled, brash, apathetic, ignorant -- and they've also been called fortunate, polite, careful and sophisticated. It seems they confuse their observers -- and when you talk to them, it seems they confuse themselves as well.

They are the baby busters, that small generation now more or less in its 20s that follows the vast demographic bulge of the baby boomers. In the looming shadow of their noisy predecessors, these twentysomethings exist uncertainly, almost tentatively. They are the wave of the future -- well, the wavelet of the future -- but they are still a mystery to their elders and often to themselves.

Their substance is elusive and self-contradictory, and for every story you hear about how awful they are, you can find evidence that seems to justify their behavior. They are not much like the rest of us, yet they are everything we set them up to be. They are a mirror of the history of the past 20 or 30 years, and they are, whether we like it or not, our future.

THE PROTOTYPICAL AWFUL BABY buster story comes from Barbara E. Kovach, professor of management and psychology at the Rutgers business school. Although it's obvious Dr. Kovach likes this generation and has a lot of sympathy for them, she can't keep the note of incredulity out of her voice as she tells her tale of youthful dreadfulness:

A smart young manager for a pharmaceutical firm got a call at home one evening because an assembly line had gone down, but he didn't go in to see about it because he was socializing with a friend. So the assembly line that wasn't working right threw off other assembly lines, and before long the initial episode had dominoed into a colossal mess. But when the young manager went into work the next day and found out that people were blaming him, he was neither apologetic nor ashamed. He was angry.

What did he have to do with the mess, he wanted to know. Since when was it written in his job description that he had to interrupt his private life to fix assembly lines after working hours?

It took her three weeks, Dr. Kovach says, before this able, bright and educated young man was able to see that what had happened was indeed his responsibility. And his behavior, Dr. Kovach says, is all too typical of people now in their 20s. She has done 200 formal interviews of people in this generation, and she has found the same kind of attitude again and again. An attitude of entitlement, some people call it, and it burns the rubber out of supervisors everywhere.

But, for all that it's an obnoxious attitude, it may not be an entirely surprising one, suggests Gabriel B. Fosu, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who works in demography and health. He guesses an explanation for it might be found in the size of baby buster cohort: small.

Their predecessors, the baby boomers, were a huge cohort. The oldest of them were born in 1946, when birthrates began to rise dramatically. There are no hard and fast rules saying exactly when the last boom year was, but many demographers opt for 1961, when the birthrate first began to decline again.

The people born in the years between those two dates grew up in an environment of crowding and competition -- competition for attention in the home and school, for placement in college and job market. In contrast, those born later, more or less in the years of the latter '60s and early '70s when birthrates were declining, grew up in smaller households and in emptying schools, at a time when colleges and employers were looking for warm bodies, not turning them away.

"All these things might give them the impression that there's some kind of security and that everything's OK," Dr. Fosu hypothesizes. That impression, suggest other observers, was strengthened by the mind-set of Reagan years -- the formative years for people now in their 20s -- which held that it was morning in America and that Americans could expect the moon without having to pay for it.

From there it's not too long a step to an attitude toward work

that older generations might consider cavalier. "We're much lazier" than previous generations, says 21-year-old Monica Meehan, a student at Towson State University who is majoring in advertising and communications. "There's other things we lean toward -- leisure time and always wanting to get out of work."

Young people now "want everything handed to them; they're not willing to work as much," agrees her brother, 20-year-old Robert Francis Meehan, a marketing major at Towson State University.

While older generations "were like get ahead, get ahead, we're like, just get by, get by," he continues. "I wouldn't do something I didn't like [for a living], and that's another thing about our generation. If they don't like it, they're out of it."

SO IT'S EASY TO SEE WHERE THE spoiled-brat view of baby busters comes from. But there are more sympathetic interpretations of their attitudes. One is that, in contrast to their workaholic yuppie predecessors, they are showing a healthy concern for balancing the demands of work and their personal lives, although, like Dr. Kovach's young manager, they may not always have the maturity to carry it out responsibly.

Some of this concern for balance, argue those who see it, comes from watching older acquaintances burn up in the flames of ambition and materialism, but some of it also represents a shifting emphasis in the society at large.

" 'Balance' is going to be one of the buzzwords of the '90s," says Ross E. Goldstein of Generation Insights, a marketing-communications consulting firm based in San Francisco. "We're seeing people all across the board regaining some time for themselves and their families and questioning what really is of value."

Much of this questioning, Mr. Goldstein says, is caused by the first wave of baby boomers arriving at midlife, the time of re-evaluation. "The boomers have always defined what's normal for the rest of our culture," Mr. Goldstein continues, so when they decide it's time to find a balance, so does the rest of the society -- young busters included.

Yet another interpretation of buster behavior has its roots in plain, old, hard reality. Although young people's demographic position may have given them an easy time getting into college and the marketplace, it has not guaranteed them progress up the ladder to success: Crowding and clogging the rungs above them are swarms of boomers. The unpleasant sound ringing in the ears of the busters at the bottom of the ladder is the sound of their predecessors "hitting against the walls of a non-growing economy," Rutgers' Dr. Kovach says.

So it's no wonder many young people agree with copy editor Vanessa Williams Snyder, 26, of Prince George's County, when she says, "There's no reason to work 70-hour weeks. You can do all that and get nothing out of it. You can miss a lot trying to live that kind of lifestyle. Not that I don't want to work hard! But with the economy going down and political upheavals, your career doesn't mean that much. Personal goals are more important."

MAYBE CONCERN FOR PERSONAL goals is why busters talk so much about family. Many of the young people interviewed for this story named family as the single thing they believed would be most important to them throughout their lives.

This has a fine, upstanding, all-American sound to it, like saying you believe in hard work and baseball -- but before anyone starts waving the flag and serving the apple pie, let it be noted that the way baby busters think about family may not be the way their elders think about family. Because what the facts suggest is that although these young people may be talking traditionally, they are not acting traditionally.

In fact, says Richard F. Hokenson, vice president at the New York brokerage firm of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, "They are behaving even less traditionally than the baby boomers," whose untraditional ways are still causing reverberations throughout society.

For one thing, baby buster marriages are breaking up at an evehigher rate than those of their predecessors: "About 60 percent of their marriages will end in divorce vs. around 50 percent for the boomers," says Mr. Hokenson, who specializes in economic demography.

For another thing, if busters are divorcing more than their predecessors, they are also marrying less. "It appears that only about 70 percent of the baby busters will ever marry," Mr. Hokenson continues, compared to the 94 percent to 95 percent of the population who in the past have chosen to enter the bonds of matrimony.

Mr. Hokenson believes that shift has to do with changed educational attainment for women. "When I was in college 20 years ago," he says, "men outnumbered women 2 to 1, but women have outnumbered men in U.S. colleges since 1975." And, since women usually restrict their marriage partners to men with higher educational status than their own, a lot of highly educated young women are not getting married.

Instead, says Emily DeCoster, 27, a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, today's young women are entering into "all kinds of alternative relationships." For example, Teresa A. Newton, 26, an officer with the Baltimore City Police Department, states flatly that "a lot of people don't want to be married, they just want to have the child and not have the burden of the relationship." And Karen Mosca, 23, a real estate coordinator for the Bank of Baltimore, says many of her friends believe pregnancy is no reason for marriage; marriage under those circumstances, she suggests, only "causes problems down the road."

"Problems down the road," "burden of the relationship" -- this generation talks about marriage as though it were a dubious business venture that no sensible person would touch with a 10-foot pole. They may well have reasons for their wariness: This is the first generation for whom parental divorce was almost a norm, and many of them mention that as the cause for their reluctance to follow the traditional route of love and marriage.

Indeed, the word young people interviewed for this story used most often when talking about love, marriage, family and children was "mistake." They are obsessed with making mistakes of the heart, terrified of them -- sometimes, it seems, to the point of paralysis.

Thus, a 29-year-old customer service supervisor for a bottled water company who gives her name only as Maria, says, "Speaking for my friends, I know that a lot of them are late 20s and they haven't found anybody yet, and they don't want to make a mistake and pick the wrong person. They don't want just anyone."

And Chris Hartlove, 27, a Baltimore free-lance magazine photographer, says, "I just see so many people who are having real hard times, going to therapists because of mistakes their parents made. . . . I would hate to do that -- get married, have the kid, get divorced. It creates like a chain, and I wouldn't want to get that chain going."

Dr. Kovach's research has led her to regard the baby busters' mistake phobia as a key to understanding them; but, she points out, their idea of a mistake might not be everybody else's idea of a mistake. "Most of what I regard as living they regard as a mistake," she says tartly.

"My impression is that they have drawn back from reality, the way things are. They don't want to be unhappy with their job, they don't want to feel uncomfortable with their life partner. They don't want to be unhappy more than momentarily. The result of all that is that they're enormously careful about what they do."

THE BABY BUSTERS' RELUCTANCE TO feel the pains of life as well as its pleasures may also be reflected in the numbers of young men who have returned to live at home with their parents, numbers that Mr. Hokenson notes are greater than in previous generations.

To some extent this reflects the hugely increased cost of housing: Baby busters and late baby boomers have had to spend almost twice as much on mortgages as did the first wave of boomers. But the economics of the situation aren't the only explanation. One young woman who doesn't want to be identified points to a "Peter Pan syndrome" at work among her age group, especially among those who stay home with their parents.

These latter-day Peter Pans just "don't want to have to worry about BG&E; or United Cable," or about the other burdens and problems of the real world. Indeed "the real world" is a phrase that came up often among the baby busters interviewed for this story: They tended to say it with a sigh, with resignation, with an almost tangible sense that the world is something to be feared, distrusted -- and reluctantly put up with.

"Society places so many demands, you're just scared to get out there and really take a chance sometimes. I have a lot of friends who are still in school -- . . . they're almost, like, 'Don't finish school,' " says Angel Garrity, 27, a Spanish major at Towson State University and a full-time waitress.

"I'd love to just go back right to school and just stay there," agrees J. Eric Dorsch, 26, a computer programmer who lives in Baltimore County. "This real world is no fun. I have to take everything so seriously now." Mr. Dorsch speaks with a certain degree of self-deprecating humor, but there's also a sincerity to his voice that makes it clear that what he's saying is not all joke.

And it's not: In contrast to the bright and bounteous world they had grown up expecting during the '80s, the real world the busters are entering in the '90s is not a pretty one, with its war, recession, layoffs, drugs, homelessness, AIDS, bank failures, staggering national debt and seemingly unbeatable foreign competition. So it's not completely surprising that young people tend to see the world as a scary place.

Compounding their woes, they note, is the simple fact that it's not easy to be in your 20s no matter what the times are like. "They say that it's hard to be an adolescent, but it's a lot harder to be in your mid-20s," says Chris Hartlove. "Everybody's just popped out of school and it's, 'Oh no, I've got to make a living now, in the real world.' There's a lot of soul-searching going on right now -- people trying to decide what's important and what matters and what they're doing."

This generation is willing to see at least some of its distress as coming from within, as being an inevitable if unpleasant part of the maturation process. In this they are very different from the boomers, who tended to see unhappiness as generated entirely by faults in the society. The boomers believed the personal was the political, and as a consequence they took action to change the world and make it over in their own enlightened image.

The busters, on the other hand, seem to think of the world as immutable. They don't think in terms of change, of revolution; instead they try to adapt as best they can to the status quo, dodging its demands and averting their eyes fastidiously from its sores.

THEY'RE APATHETIC, IN OTHER words. At least that's what many observers call it -- and so do many baby busters themselves.

"I'm not going to disagree with apathy, especially political apathy," as a characteristic of the generation, says John Baker, 25, who has just earned a master's degree in environmental management from Duke University and who is living with his parents in Ruxton while he looks for a job. "It's disheartening. I've got friends that aren't registered to vote, who don't know who their congressmen or congresswomen are."

"We think it's all been done for us by Martin Luther King and the other civil rights activists back in the '60s," says 27-year-old K. Ceres Wright, speaking for African-American baby busters. Ms. Wright, a senior credit analyst who works in Baltimore and lives in Washington, thinks "There's still work to be done, but we're too busy working to do it."

"It's sad, too," adds her husband, Greg Wright, 26, a Washington reporter. "It's like we don't have a real purpose."

The views of Mr. Baker and the Wrights are borne out by a study called "The Age of Indifference," released last summer by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, which found that "today's young Americans, aged 18 to 30, know less and care less about news and public affairs than any other generation of Americans in the past 50 years."

Some of them also vote less than their elders, the study found: Voting in the 18-to-24 age group has declined in every presidential election since 1972, and only 36 percent of the baby busters' youngest segment turned out in 1988, in comparison to 65 percent among older people.

These statistics have elicited alarms about the decline of democracy from conservatives and progressives alike, followed by a wide variety of hypotheses as to the cause of the problem. The usual suspects include the failure of public education to teach critical thinking, overexposure to television's sound-bite view of reality, and the excesses of the Reagan years, which some believe have caused a profound cynicism about politics as well as an overemphasis on self-interest at the expense of public interest.

But when you talk to young people themselves, you hear a simpler explanation for their political apathy. Although they are aware of the many ills of the society, they say, few issues affect them strongly enough on a personal level to take action, and that kind of personal relevance is everything to this group. Their attitude is " 'If it doesn't affect me, the heck with it,' " says Robert Meehan, adding, "I'm not going to try to condone that kind of attitude, but at the same time that's the way it is."

This can be interpreted as the worst kind of '80s-style self-interest -- or as normal, common-sensical human behavior. It may also have something to do with the fact that the baby busters have grown up without a draft: Voting rates among 18- to 24-year-olds began to decline only after the end of the %J Vietnam War and the termination of the draft. Perhaps if people who are that age now were faced with the prospect of imminent military service in the Persian Gulf, their apathy would disappear.

THIS ISSUE OF RELEVANCE AFFECTS not only the baby busters' political orientation but also their educational status. Although they are among the most schooled generations this nation has seen -- 43 percent of today's 18- to 29-year-olds have attended college -- they are also widely perceived as ignorant. Their alleged ignorance is documented not only by the Times Mirror study, which asked about knowledge of news events and people, but also by such measures as declining Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and tests of what has come to be called cultural literacy.

Some account for these dismal results by noting that the nationow tries to give an education to a much broader segment of society than it once did; others simply blame deterioration of educational standards in the last two or three decades.

Still others note that the concept of what an education is has changed during the same time span: The '60s and '70s declared the broad knowledge of a liberal arts education "irrelevant" and opted in favor of a more concrete curriculum, which in the later '70s and '80s often meant a technical or pre-professional course of studies.

This shift in the emphasis of schooling means that young people now are well-prepared 999for a particular vocational field, but badly prepared to answer questions such as "Who is Socrates?" or "Who fought in World War II?" In short, "The broad liberal arts education that we were taught to prize became relatively insignificant" to the baby buster generation, says Mr. Goldstein.

FTC Still, they are still being judged by its standards, and in many ways, that seems to be the bane of this generation: to be judged -- usually adversely -- by standards they didn't set up. Their real nature, whatever it is, will only emerge as they begin to deal with the troubled world they have inherited from their elders -- and when that time comes it will be interesting to see who will stand in judgment on whom.

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