What the Youth
By Sergio Bendixen
Each generation is a mystery to
the next, and none are more mysterious to us than
our own half-grown children. What is important to
them, and what do they fear? What’s on their
iPod, why are they wearing that—and why are
these accessories so important to them, anyway?
And what on earth are they talking about on those
cell phones all day long?
Last fall, my firm—Bendixen & Associates
of Coral Gables, Florida—in collaboration
with San Francisco-based New America Media, undertook
an unprecedented effort to plumb that mystery. In
the first-ever poll of its kind, we reached out
to 600 16-to-22-year-olds via the technology they
love best—their cell phones. We focused on
California, long perceived as a bellwether for the
rest of the nation, and one of the most diverse
states in the nation.
One in eight of the nation’s young people
live in California. Three-fifths are youth of color,
and nearly half are immigrants or the children of
immigrants. “These young people represent
the forefront of the cultural continuum,”
New America Media Executive Director Sandy Close
told us. “To gauge their hopes, fears and
perspectives about the future is to glimpse who
we are becoming as a society.”
If Close is right, there is much to be hopeful about
in the new California. What we found surprised and
heartened us. The young people we spoke with left
us convinced that California’s greatest social
capital may be the optimism, and inclusiveness,
of the younger generation.
Taken together, the 600 voices we listened to via
cell phone offered a portrait of a generation coming
of age in a society of unprecedented racial and
ethnic diversity. If California’s young people
do in fact reflect our collective future, we are
well on our way to a society where race no longer
defines identity, and borders matter less than personal
relationships and communities born of cultural affinity.
California’s young people, as reflected in
our poll, are strong believers in the American Dream.
Overwhelmingly—across race, ethnicity and
gender—they believe strongly in their ability
to determine their own futures. Despite obstacles,
they expect to create successful lives for themselves
and imagine a more inclusive and tolerant society
for one another. This collective optimism represents
a valuable resource for California, and a mirror
of what the United States is becoming as a global
One thing our conversations with California youth
made clear is that this generation embraces, rather
than fears, the state’s increasing diversity.
When asked what defines their identity, they were
as apt to cite fashion and music as they were race
or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of young
people cited the state’s diversity as a strength
and maintain diversity among their immediate circle
of friends. Two-thirds had dated someone of a different
race, and nearly 90 percent said they would be open
to marrying or entering into a life partnership
with someone of a different race.
Given that nearly 90 percent of California’s
young people expect to get married or enter into
life partnerships, and to have children, this raises
the prospect of a dramatic increase in mixed-race
houses and children of mixed-race heritage. In light
of this phenomenon, the entire question of race
relations—and the nature of “race”
itself--may be forever altered in this and coming
generations. Already, only one percent of those
polled cited racism or discrimination as the major
challenge facing their generation.
This impulse towards inclusion is also reflected
in young Californians’ attitudes towards immigration.
More than 80 percent support giving undocumented
immigrants a chance to earn legal status and citizenship.
Though they view the breakdown of the family as
the biggest challenge facing their generation—trumping
poverty, global warming, violence in their neighborhoods
and conflict abroad—California’s young
people hope and most expect to raise children in
lasting partnerships themselves. More than three-quarters
of California youth say their lives will be better
in 10 years, and expect to have a higher standard
of living than their parents.
At the same, as tuition rises at the state’s
major colleges and universities, it should not be
surprising that a generation that overwhelmingly
aspires to higher education cites school and money
as their top sources of personal stress.
The optimism and ambition of California’s
young people are tremendous assets, but also pose
challenges. Given rapidly-escalating housing costs;
increasing numbers of single-parent households;
and high dropout, unemployment and incarceration
rates, what will it take to meet their challenge--to
create an opportunity society that does justice
to their aspirations?
These are questions that can’t be answered
via cell phone—a challenge to all of us, in
answer to our children. - New American Media