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Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2003

Will Gen Y’ers be citizens or cynics?

November 16, 2003

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— Well, so much for that bright idea. First, CNN holds a conversation between presidential candidates and young Americans, the one cohort group that oozes skepticism and regards political spin as a mortal sin.

The highest value on the Generation Y scorecard is authenticity. Then, what do the producers do? They go and plant a question in the audience.

At the "Rock the Vote" debate, Alexandra Trustman, Brown class of '07, asked the would-be presidents a slightly techier version of the boxers-or-brief question posed by her Gen-X elders. Which do you choose: Mac or PC?

By the time she got back to her campus, Alexandra wasn't being praised for getting airtime, she was being trashed for sounding like an airhead. So she blew the whistle in a campus op-ed piece titled "Don't Blame the Messenger."

It turns out that Alexandra's question was scripted. A CNN spokesperson confessed that the producer went "too far" in "an attempt to encourage a lighthearted moment in this debate." But news of the "plant" had already spread like ragweed across the Internet.

In some ways this Mac-or-PC moment was just another bad example of what the older generation thinks the younger generation thinks. Of course, it wasn't as bad as asking the candidates, "if you get sick who's going to hold your hair back?" Nor was it as hokey as all the candidates showing up in their casual Friday clothes.

But while this plant is still in full bloom, we should pause for another whiff at the generation in question. A generation that is pander-averse but politically up for grabs.

Generational lines are never clear cut. The dividing line between X and Y wanders around 25. But as marketing consultant Ann Fishman says, "They've seen more commercials than most people who work on Madison Avenue." In politics, she adds, "the boomers created spin doctors. The young generation is doing away with them."

The 25-and-under crowd is the postmodern, deconstructed audience that watches a horror movie with less fear than curiosity about the special effects: "Hey, how do they get that eye to bleed like that?" They buy DVDs for the outtakes as much as the plot. If they admire Jessica Lynch, it's not the fantasy soldier who fought the Iraqis, it's the real woman who fought the hype.

In politics however, the search for what's real, the yearning for authenticity, has produced some pretty strange bedfellows. Pollster Anna Greenberg goes down the list of politicians with youth appeal from Jesse Ventura to Ross Perot, John McCain, Ralph Nader. Not to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger. "There's no consistent ideology," she says. "It's not even about ideology. It's about who they are as people."

In this campaign, Generation Dean sees the man from Vermont as real. But then, I'm told, they also see Al Sharpton as real. That's the same Al Sharpton who exploited Tawana Brawley's rape hoax back in 1988 when today's 25-year-old was 10.

In any case, the people born under Reagan and raised under Clinton now form a cell-phone-as-sole-phone, instant-messaging generation that you call on for tech support, but not necessarily political wisdom. The great hypocrisy-spotters who want authenticity in their politicians remain uncommitted in their politics. Maybe even faithless. Many don't have faith that government affects them or that they can affect the government.

This year, the average voter in the Iowa caucus is expected to be 65. In 2000, only 32 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 voted. But even at that low rate they'll make up 7 percent to 8 percent of the 2004 vote. Sooner or later they're going to outnumber the baby boomers. Sooner or later, politicians are going to have to address the issues beyond the images.

When Gen Y thinks about health care it isn't Medicare and prescription drugs or the high cost of insurance, it's getting any insurance. When they think about the economy, it isn't 401(k)s and tax cuts, it's getting jobs and paying student loans.

Y-watchers will tell you that young Americans are disdainful of politics but engaged in their communities. They are progressive and conservative. They believe in gay rights, protecting the environment, and personal responsibility. And while we're at it, they're individualists who hate being lumped and labeled as Generation Y.

Who cares if the candidates are PC or Mac? What matters most of all is whether young Americans will be citizens or cynics.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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