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A whine of the times? Generation Xers are griping, but with good reason

Staff Writer ason Rippon saw the help-wanted ad for an airlines ticket agent and, experienced job-seeker that he is, tried beat the rush by showing up early.

"But when I got there, there were about 300 people milling around. It was unnerving," says Mr. Rippon, 23. "And it was all ages -- from as young as 18 or 19, all the way up to people in their 50s."

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While Mr. Rippon made the first cut in which about 30 applicants were invited back for interviews and typing tests, that crowd scene is symbolic of what he and other twentysomethings are wading into as they enter early adulthood: a world in which

they're squeezed from all directions and age groups.

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Jobs? The economy continues its incredible shrinking act, and employers are letting go rather than hiring on. Popular culture? It's controlled by the self-referential baby boomers who impose their mark on everything. Government policy? They're too young for Social Security -- which will be depleted long before their time anyway -- and too old for the recent interest in children's issues. ,, The future? The deficit isn't getting any smaller, or the environment any cleaner.

"It's like they say -- we're the first generation that will do worse than our parents," says Mr. Rippon, who graduated from Western Maryland College a year ago.

It is what "they" say. Whether you're talking to or about twentysomethings -- we picked several recent Western Maryland grads as a representative group -- it's become conventional wisdom to note how downwardly mobile this generation is compared to their elders.

Yet to some of those elders, this seems to be just the youthful whining of a group that certainly isn't the first to come of age during tough times. Have they ever heard of, say, the Depression?

The current unemployment rate, for example, is nearly 7 percent, compared to the 25 percent unemployment rate of 1933 at the height of the Depression, says John Stinson, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The people today -- they have it easy," argues Joseph Del Brocco of Linthicum, who at 92 has been through a couple of world wars and the Depression. "They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They should some time find out what it was like to really have to tighten your belt. You can't even compare [then and now] -- it's like night and day."

The issue has drawn lines between the generations. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for example, featured a group of twentysomethings complaining bitterly about their fate while sitting in, no, not the unemployment office, but a hot tub. That drew a mocking column from 60-year-old Mike Royko, noting that these aren't the first college graduates who didn't immediately get perfect, fat-salaried jobs at the top of their chosen professions.

"There are going to be age wars," predicts Bill Strauss, co-author of the recently published "13th Gen" (Vintage Books), short for the 13th generation since America was founded, or the group born between 1961 and 1981. "This generation is the first with a higher poverty rate than older people. The first one not to show educational improvement over the preceding generation, the first one with fewer professionals. And this is happening as seniors are prospering."

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By his definition, members of the "13th Gen" are percent unemployment rate of 1933 at the height of the Depression, says John Stinson, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The people today -- they have it easy," argues Joseph Del Brocco of Linthicum, who at 92 has been through a couple of world wars and the Depression. "They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. They should some time find out what it was like to really have to tighten your belt. You can't even compare [then and now] -- it's like night and day."

The issue has drawn lines between the generations. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for example, featured a group of twentysomethings complaining bitterly about their fate while sitting in, no, not the unemployment office, but a hot tub. That drew a mocking column from 60-year-old Mike Royko, noting that these aren't the first college graduates who didn't immediately get perfect, fat-salaried jobs at the top of their chosen professions.

"There are going to be age wars," predicts Bill Strauss, co-author of the recently published "13th Gen" (Vintage Books), short for the 13th generation since America was founded, or the group born between 1961 and 1981. "This generation is the first with a higher poverty rate than older people. The first one not to show educational improvement over the preceding generation, the first one with fewer professionals. And this is happening as seniors are prospering."

By his definition, members of the "13th Gen" are about 12 to 32 years old right now, thus spanning everyone from child star Macauley Culkin to presidential aide George Stephanopoulos. But it is mainly those in their 20s who have drawn attention of late: They've been wandering dissolutely and grunge-attired through movies, usually played by the likes of Bridget Fonda, and as real-life players in new political groups such as "Third Millennium" and "Lead or Leave" that seek to control the government deficit before it strangles their future.

"We have to stop living off the future," says Mr. Strauss, who, although a baby boomer, argues that current social policy grossly favors older groups at the expense of youth. "The American dream is dying for this generation."

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Graduating from college and getting a good job is part of that dream -- but for today's twentysomethings, the former doesn't inevitably lead to the latter.

"There are fewer jobs and more college graduates who want them," says Kristina Shelley, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who recently projected that 30 percent of people who graduate from college during the 1990s will be working in jobs not requiring degrees, or they will not be employed at all. (By contrast, about 20 percent of those graduating from college in the 1980s were in this position.) "It's worse than anything we've seen to date."

College grads are not only competing among themselves for good jobs, they're competing with older, resume-rich people laid off by the IBMs and Kodaks and other companies that have been downsizing during the recession.

Corinne Milligan can attest to that -- both she and her father are looking for work these days, although luckily for family peace, not in the same field. She graduated from college in May and would like a writing job; her father, currently working in a temporary job after being laid off, works in personnel management.

"I'm watching him try to find work, and he has all this experience -- 30 years with the state," says Ms. Milligan, 22, who is working as a waitress and living with her parents in Ellicott City. "And I'm trying to find a job with no experience.

"Four years of college, and it comes down to passing a test on the price of everything on the menu!"she says with a laugh, recalling the quiz she took, and passed, to get her current job at Bob Evans restaurant in Columbia. Malls, MTV, 'McJobs'

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It's the classic "Generation X" experience, as this group has also been called ever since Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel that chronicled the post-baby boomers and their culture of malls, MTV and "McJobs" that pay so little that they inevitably have to move back home with the 'rents.

You can tell a lot about attitudes toward this generation by what they're called: Twentysomething is an obviously makeshift term, borrowed from the original thirtysomethings that referred to -- who else? -- the baby boomers. Generation X sounds vaguely anonymous and punk. Yet another term, "slackers," is even tTC grimmer, reminiscent of "slack-jawed" and "slacking off." Mr. Strauss' favored term, "13ers," sounds unlucky and cursed. Which, he would argue, is appropriate.

"They were born at a time when society devalued children. These are the children the [birth control] pill was supposed to prevent. This is the most aborted generation in history," Mr. Strauss says. "They were children at a time when children were seen as expensive and limiting to self-discovery."

By contrast, the generations that preceded and followed them were, as a group, welcomed. The baby boomers, of course, were the beneficiaries of unprecedented attention to their every stage of life, from Dr. Spock onward. And then, when they started having babies themselves, suddenly cars sprouted "baby on board" stickers, and children's issues were regarded as important enough to draw the attention of Hillary Rodham

Clinton and her friend and mentor, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. Generation X, however, had the misfortune to fall in time between these two groups, Mr. Strauss says.

Of course, characterizing an entire generation with a catchy name is such a boomer thing to do. And thus suspect for more reasons than one. Just as the yuppie stereotype was an inaccurate picture of the baby boom -- only a sliver of them spent the 1980s driving BMWs and sipping chardonnay -- not all Generation X-ers are slouching through life in their Doc Martens and working as bicycle messengers and office temps.

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Still, many do seem adrift since college.

"Everyone was saying, why are you bothering to graduate, you won't find a job anyway," recalls Ms. Milligan, who spent the first part of the summer driving across the country with a friend and now does the mall/cable TV thing in the day while waitressing at night. "People who knew what they were doing, going to med school or law school or grad school, they were excited about graduating. But if you didn't have a life after college . . ."

"I think I'm caught in a limbo," says Janel McBain, 22, who took a summer job at Western Maryland College after graduation and now is housesitting and looking for work. "It's been, like, 'Your work experience is great, why do you want to work here?' Or, it will be a job where they'll train you, but they'll want a long-term commitment. I can't guarantee I'll be there for five years."

Ms. McBain, a history major who graduated cum laude, doesn't blame employers -- she understands that since she only plans to work a couple of years and then perhaps go to grad school, she'll need to set her sights lower than a career-track job. "I'm not in a panic yet, but once the summer money runs out and the car insurance bill comes in October . . ."

"I'm not stressing out yet," agrees Mr. Rippon, who majored in English. "I haven't had to go to a temp agency yet."

After graduating from college a year ago, he worked as a scuba diver in Florida for a while, moved back to Baltimore to be with his girlfriend -- also a WMC grad, who waitressed for a while and now has a "real" job -- and now is "edging sideways into teaching." He recently got a one-day-a-week job teaching physical education at a private school.

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"I've done some neat stuff since graduation, but as far as a career, I haven't really made any major steps toward one," he says. "It's pretty tough out there. I have a friend who graduated with a biology and chemistry degree and is working at Wal-Mart."

Hard times not new

So do twentysomethings really have it so bad today? The difficulty in finding -- and keeping -- a good, satisfying job didn't just begin with this generation, of course. And while the economy is bad now, it's had its dips before as well.

Mr. Del Brocco, who helped found the Linthicum chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, says it was no easier being in your 20s in the 1920s than it is in the 1990s.

A barber by trade, he recalls long hours, low wages and no benefits. Back then, customers paid 25 cents for a haircut and 15 cents for a shave, but then his own expenses were comparably low.

"I used to make 5, 10 cents a tip, and I could buy lunch with that," Mr. Del Brocco says. "I bought my first house in 1928, and it cost $2,575."

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But he doesn't buy the argument that Social Security and other benefits for the elderly are sapping the country's resources to the detriment of younger generations. He says he earned that money, and, since he never had a pension plan while working, that's all he has to live on today.

"No one ever gave me anything," he says. "Whatever I have, I worked for."

Ironically, for all the disagreements between these wildly divergent generations, their work experiences may find common ground.

Like Mr. Del Brocco, who worked in someone else's barber shop until he could afford his own place, today's young people are finding that their greatest economic opportunities are in entrepreneurial ventures -- shops and services that cater to their cohorts, Mr. Strauss says.

And many jobs available today, much like in Mr. Del Brocco's time, are likely to be stingy with benefits.

"There are very few jobs out there at all, and there are even fewer good jobs," says James Medoff, a Harvard economist who has researched what he calls "The New Unemployment." "Jobs today are significantly less likely to have health insurance and pensions. In 1979, for example, there was a 23 percent chance that the job would have health insurance; today, it's only 10 to 12 percent."

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Ms. Milligan can get health insurance at her waitress job, but hopes she's not working there so long that she actually has to consider signing up for it.

"I'm just trying to figure out my life, and in the meantime, I need this quick money," says Ms. Milligan. "I think within the next year and a half, I'll find something.

PD "Either that," she adds with a laugh, "or I'll just marry rich."


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