Move Over, Boomers

"The guy who has the job I want is 34 and has a wife and kids. So he's not leaving."

--Amy Ross, 24, who has a master's degree from Cornell University and now works as a traveling fabric salesperson

"I'm very cynical about the Sixties: `Peace, love, groovy, let's get high'--and look what happened. These people turned out to be worse than the people they rebelled against. They're materialistic hypocrites."

--Blan Holman, 23, free-lance environmental writer

Hear that, baby boomers? That's the sound of the future coming up behind you. It's the sound of the 46 million Americans, aged 18 to 29, who make up the vanguard of the next generation.

Face it, you're not the future anymore. The idea will take some getting used to. As the largest demographic cohort in history moved through the years, boomers shaped much of postwar America--how it dressed, what it watched, read, listened to. Now, as they move into offices both corner and Oval, boomers will determine how America manages and governs.

But for the shape of things to come, look not at the boomers but at their successors. Call them by any of the many names they have already been saddled with--twentysomethings, Generation X, slackers, busters--they are entering the mainstream of American life. They're the ones who are studying on our campuses, slogging through first jobs--or just hoping to land a job, any job.

For all the talk of the baby bust, this is no small bunch. Compared to those born from 1951 through 1962--the core of the baby boom--this current crop of 18-to-29-year-olds is the second-largest group of young adults in U.S. history. They're already starting to set tastes in fashion and popular culture. They're the ones who will vote you into office, buy your products, and work in your factories. They will give birth to your grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

TATTOOED AND PIERCED. So far, this group is having a tough time. Busters are the first generation of latchkey children, products of dual-career households, or, in some 50% of cases, of divorced or separated parents. They have been entering the work force at a time of prolonged downsizing and downturn, so they're likelier than the previous generation to be unemployed, underemployed, and living at home with Mom and Dad. They're alienated by a culture that has been dominated by boomers for as long as they can remember. They're angry as they look down a career path that's crowded with thirty- and fortysomethings who are in no hurry to clear the way. And if they're angry and alienated, they dress the part, with aggressively unpretty fashions, pierced noses, and tattoos.

At the same time, though, they're more ethnically diverse, and they're more comfortable with diversity than any previous generation. Many of them don't give a hoot for the old-fashioned war between the sexes, either, but instead tend to have lots of friends of the opposite sex. Furthermore, as a generation that's been bombarded by multiple media since their cradle days, they're savvy--and cynical--consumers.

To many older Americans, the Generation Xers have been a virtually invisible subculture. They have been largely ignored by U.S. media, businesses, and public institutions, which have spent years coveting the baby boomers as audience, market, and constituency. "Marketers have been distracted by boomers going through their household formations," says Scott L. Kauffman, 36, vice-president for marketing, promotion, and development at Entertainment Weekly. "Busters don't feel like anyone's paying attention to them."

MAGIC NUMBER. But that will have to change. For one thing, despite their many hardships, consumers in their late teens and their twenties already wield annual spending power of some $125 billion, according to a survey by Roper Organization Inc. And the baby busters are essential to the success of many major categories, such as beer, fast food, cosmetics, and electronics. More important, within this decade, these consumers will be entering their peak earning years. With all the boomers blocking the road ahead, it may take the busters longer than some previous generations. But soon enough, they'll be setting up households by the millions, having families, and buying refrigerators, cars, homes--all the big-ticket items that drive an economy.

Indeed, it could well be the busters who lead the country out of recession, according to the theory of the 25-year-old's powerful purse strings. Richard Hokenson, a demographer at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette in New York, has been studying 25-year-olds' purchasing power back to the 1950s. His theory: When a large number of young adults turn 25 at the same time, they buy a lot of consumer goods, pumping money into the economy and so stimulating demand across the board. Take 1986, when an unprecedented number of Americans turned 25. It was the best year for housing in the 1980s: 1.8 million units were built. And 1986 was also a record year for cars, with sales of 15.1 million cars and light trucks.

BIG GAP. Beginning next year, a bulge of 13 million kids who were born between October, 1968, and March, 1971, will start turning 25. They'll be the largest group of 25-year-olds since 1986. If Hokenson is right, then for three years starting next October, busters will be buying enough houses and durable goods to ignite a healthy recovery.

So who are these folks who will shape our destiny? The boomers who increasingly dominate the Establishment they once rebelled against will make a big mistake if they assume that the busters are just like they were at that age. "Most marketers today are boomers and much more likely to impose their values on this generation, to the point where busters are invisible," says Peter Kim, U.S. director for strategic planning at J. Walter Thompson North America.

At a recent convention of magazine publishers and editors, Karen Ritchie, a senior vice-president at ad agency McCann-Erickson in Detroit, told the largely boomer audience that they were in danger of losing busters forever if they didn't pay attention to them now. "I told them that the media were not treating the next generation very well," says Ritchie. "They have never been addressed in any significant way and have very real reasons to be hostile."

And hostile they are. Busters resent the boomers, whom they see as having partied through the 1970s and 1980s, sticking the younger generation with the check. "It will be me and my children that pay off the deficit," says Laura Romis, 23, a part-time bank teller and Ohio State University graduate who would like to be a journalist. "I blame the generations before us."

`McJOBS.' Many busters find they have graduated from high school and college into unemployment or underemployment (chart, page 75). Unlike the trailing edge of baby boomers, who easily entered the expanding job market of the mid-1980s, busters often have to settle for what Douglas Coupland, thirtysomething author of the novel Generation X, calls "McJobs"--mundane and marginally challenging work that provides a paycheck and little else. Take Kristi Doherty, 22, a graduate of Lewis & Clark College. She wants to be an anthropologist, but she's clerking in a clothing store in Portland, Ore., and taking on babysitting jobs. "We were told since we were kids that if we worked hard, we would be successful." Instead, she says, "I worked hard, I had a high grade-point average, and I am 100% overqualified for my job."

This is the generation of diminished expectations--polar opposites of the baby boomers, who grew up thinking anything was possible. In a general survey commissioned by Shearson Lehman Hutton Holdings Inc., 18-to-29-year-olds were the only age group to evaluate their own economic class as lower than their parents'. Of course, that's partly because they're early in their careers, says Sara Lipson, director of business development and market research at Shearson. "But the answer also reflects the sense that affluence is going to be harder to achieve, that the window of opportunity is closing on this generation." According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, the current median income for households headed by adults under 30 is $24,500. That's a 21% drop in constant dollars from 1973.

BOOMER CASTOFFS. And as if a bleak economic situation wasn't enough, busters don't have much emotional security, either. Boomers grew up in the post-Eisenhower era of the working dad and homemaker mom. "Boomers were told as kids, `You're wonderful, you're the center of the universe,' " says Susan Hayward, senior vice-president of market research firm Yankelovich Partners Inc. "And boomers will feel that way until they're 90." Meanwhile, the busters' world became progressively gloomier. "The economy began to fall apart, safety nets began to unravel, the loan guarantees were gone by the time they went to college, and they didn't have their mothers at home," says Hayward.

And where baby boomers had the sexual revolution, busters are growing up in the age of AIDS. "People our age were forming their sexual identity with the understanding that we could die for our actions," says Adam Glickman, 26, co-founder of Condomania, a Los Angeles-based chain of eight condom stores. "No other generation has had to deal with this at this stage of our lives."

All this insecurity has created a painful paradox. "There's a strong desire to be Establishment, but the recession is making it very hard to attain that," says Bradford Fay, 27, a research director at Roper. "The ironic thing is that the baby-boom generation had everything for the taking and at first rejected it. Here's a generation that very much wants those things but is having a very hard time getting them."

Except for their collective sense of foreboding, busters have little in common with each other. Where boomers were united by pivotal events, such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, busters have been left largely unmoved by their era's low-cal war, Operation Desert Storm, and scandal-lite, Iran-contra.

They're also a racially diverse group, with 14% blacks, 12.3% Hispanics, and 3.9% Asians, compared with 12.4%, 9.5%, and 3.3%, respectively, for the entire population. This diversity isn't always accepted--witness the rash of racial brawls on campuses. But the greater prevalence of minorities in this generation heavily influences the language, music, and dress that it adopts. And marketers use black cultural idioms such as hip hop--dance-oriented street music--as a kind of semaphore to reach Xers. "You see the African-American segment of the youth market leading the way," says Thomas Burrell, chairman of Burrell Advertising Inc. in Chicago, which does ads for McDonald's Corp. in African-American publications. "The groups aren't coming together physically, but you see the signals picked up through the media." Adds Keith Clinkscales, 28, publisher and editor-in-chief of Urban Profile, a magazine for black college students: "The mainstream has expanded. Now you have Madison Avenue copywriters enjoying the fruits of hip hop and other parts of black culture."

Busters are also creating their own pop culture by borrowing discarded boomer icons and mocking them while making them their own. Witness the renewed enthusiasm among young cable viewers for reruns of vapid TV shows made about two decades or more ago--Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. It's all fascinating for trend-watchers. "This derisive viewing of The Brady Bunch is not just motivated by a need to feel superior," says Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It's also motivated by a longing for the more stable world of The Brady Bunch."

Busters' passion for boomer castoffs is also creeping into fashion. This fall, the '70s-inspired "grunge" look has influenced some of Seventh Avenue's younger designers. What's grunge? You're showing your age. Grunge is slovenly, asexual, antifashion fashion. The style has even surfaced in Vogue. In a special spread in the magazine's December issue, a cast of waiflike models sports long, lank hair, faded flannel shirts, clunky work boots, ripped sweaters, old jeans and corduroys, long flowing skirts, pierced noses, and a bleak "Fine, fire me, I don't care" look. "Grunge speaks to a narrow band and to the exclusion of boomers," says Entertainment Weekly's Kauffman.

JOLT-FUELED `RAVES.' Grunge music is similarly anomie-riddled and angry. Grunge stars include Kurt Cobain and his group, Nirvana, whose 1991 album Nevermind sold 4.5 million copies in the U.S. Even harsher are Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Then there are the spontaneous dance marathons on the West Coast, called "raves," where music from such groups as Nine Inch Nails makes up in speed what it lacks in melody. Ravers take over vast warehouses or parking lots, where they dance wildly in huge crowds, often fueled by supercaffeinated Jolt cola, "smart drinks" of caffeine and protein mixers, and Ecstasy, a combination of mild hallucinogens and speed. Busters also dive into new magazines, such as Details, Urban Profile, Spin, and YSB (Young Sisters & Brothers), that most boomers have probably never heard of.

Grunge, anger, cultural dislocation, a secret yearning to belong: They add up to a daunting cultural anthropology that marketers have to confront if they want to reach twentysomethings. But it's worth it. Busters do buy stuff: CDs, sweaters, jeans, boots, soda, beer, cosmetics, electronics, cars, fast food, personal computers, mountain bikes, and Rollerblades. In part because so many live at home--54% of 18-to-24-year-olds in 1991, vs. 48% in 1980--they have lots of discretionary income (charts, page 75). Their brand preferences haven't yet been entirely established, unlike those of aging boomers who are already set in their ways. And like any group, they will appreciate being courted--if the wooing is done right.

Finding the right tone can be tricky. For one thing, Xers were often exposed to the temptations of consumer culture at an even more tender age than boomers. Since so many busters grew up with working parents, they were given early shopping chores. Says Linda Cohen, publisher of Sassy magazine: "They're used to deciding what stereo is best, what car is cool, what vacation to go on. They are very savvy consumers."

That's good and bad for marketers. It's good because busters are accustomed to shopping, bad because it means they are far more knowledgeable about and suspicious of advertising than earlier generations passing through their twenties. "Today's teens are media maniacs," says Sassy's Cohen. "Generation X has been brought up in the most overcommunicated society in the world." Adds James Truman, editor-in-chief of Details, whose readers' median age is 26: "They're tremendously cynical because they know the media is most often talking to them to sell them something."

`HEY, WE KNOW.' That combination of cynicism and responsibility even shows up among supposedly carefree college students. Gary Flood, a vice-president for marketing at MasterCard International Inc., was surprised at how knowingly focus groups of students talked about getting a good credit rating. "Try some frivolous approach in selling them a credit card, or tell them to have a good time with the card with their friends, and it turns them off," Flood says. Instead, MasterCard is providing seminars on handling credit responsibly. Similarly, in a move that shows an understanding of buster concerns in the dour 1990s, MCI Communications Corp. has planned a promotion around a brochure it is publishing on the dos and don'ts of finding a first job.

At the same time, busters are turned off by marketing pitches that take themselves too seriously. Not for them the 1980s-style yuppie ads that treat luxury cars or expensive cosmetics so reverentially. Busters respond best to messages that take a self-mocking tone. What works, says market researcher Judith Langer, is "advertising that is funny and hip and says, `Hey, we know.' "

So how do you show you know? In one television ad for Maybelline Inc.'s Expert Eyes Shadow, model Christy Turlington is shown looking coolly glamorous against a moonlit sky. A voice-over says: "Was it a strange celestial event. . . that gave her such bewitching eyes?" Then, Turlington, magically transported to her living room sofa, laughs and says: "Get over it." Says Sheri Colonel, executive vice-president at Maybelline's ad agency, Lintas New York: "We found we had to be irreverent, sassy, and surprising with this age group."

Another cosmetics maker, Revlon Inc., has ditched the gauzy, worshipful ad approach in favor of a pitch that plays to diversity. In ads for its Charlie perfume, Revlon shows supermodel Cindy Crawford playing basketball with a racially mixed group of young men.

Taco Bell Worldwide also figured it had to use a playful approach to pursue busters. The fast-food chain did a lot of market research to determine the right tone, says Tim Ryan, senior vice-president for marketing. His discovery: Busters "love music, they love to party, and they love irreverence." Taco Bell's ad agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, created a campaign that incorporates rockabilly music and MTV-style shots of musicians playing in the desert.

Marketers also figure that busters like to think that they live life on the edge. So one sure sign of an ad aimed at this group is imagery of wild, death-defying stunts. "You're dealing with a group that really feels like it's seen it all," says Ann Glover, brand manager for PepsiCo Inc.'s regular and Diet Mountain Dew soft drinks. "So the challenge is how do you create a commercial that breaks through to this person who thinks he knows everything?" Recent TV ads for the $275 million Diet Dew brand attempt to reach 20-to-29-year-old men by showing their ilk rollerblading down a volcano or kayaking over a waterfall. Diet Dew advertises aggressively on MTV and on Fox Broadcasting Co. shows such as Melrose Place and In Living Color intended for busters.

HONESTY POLICY. Buster cynicism about blatant product pitches has also shaped Nike Inc.'s marketing. Says Kate Bednarski, global marketing manager for the footwear maker's women's division: "That's one of the reasons we decided to be as honest as possible, even though we are a brand name and trying to sell a product."

Nike's ads for women's athletic shoes are all soft sell, showing little footwear or apparel. Instead, they feature a lot of text and depict women running, walking, or doing aerobics--always resolving with an exhortation to go do some self-improving fitness activity--sort of a consciousness raising session in print. "I always read Nike ads from start to finish," says Abby Levine, 23, a junior retail executive in New York City. "They always have some words of encouragement."

Busters also resent all the lecturing they have gotten from boomers, who, as Ritchie of McCann-Erickson notes, have grown increasingly restrictive and reactionary as they approach middle age, despite their revered memories of free love and political protest. "The repressiveness of the baby boomers has really come to the fore in the last 10 years," Ritchie says.

Recent TV ads for the Isuzu Rodeo off-road vehicle tap into busters' feelings of rebellion. One begins with a little girl in a classroom being urged by her teacher to color only between the lines. In the next shot, she's a twentysomething who abandons the traffic lanes and roars off the highway onto a dirt road. As a result of the campaign and its success with busters, the average age of Rodeo buyers has dropped into the low 30s, and overall sales have increased 60%, to 5,000 a month.

Not that busters don't have their own orthodoxies. They're concerned about the environment: Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. sells this point by informing customers of how it recycles packaging and buys blueberries from Indians in Maine.

BYE-BYE, BIMBOS. And while they respond to sexy advertising, they're repelled by anything that smacks of sexism. When August A. Busch IV became brand manager for Budweiser in July, 1991, the then-27-year-old told Anheuser-Busch Cos. wholesalers that research showed the typical bouncing-bimbo-filled beer ad "just doesn't cut through" to the 21-to-27-year-old drinkers he wanted to reach. Busch launched a campaign that displayed the kind of nonsexist irreverence that appeals to many Xers. One ad shows a granny teaching a rocker how to play his guitar better. Another series has busters receiving a slightly tongue-in-cheek lesson about the glorious tradition of Bud from older barmates. Busch's father, CEO August A. Busch III, was skeptical. "But he's looking through younger eyes," the father admitted. "He was right, and I was wrong." Through September, Anheuser-Busch posted a 1.3% gain in barrel shipments; the industry showed a 0.3% gain.

Marketers who get their messages right may be in for a pleasant surprise. Like other demographers, Hokenson of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette believes that a population cohort's size has a big influence on its standard of living. Today's baby-bust generation, large as it is, still runs smaller than the boomer generation. That means it may not face the heavy competition boomers now encounter from their numerous brethren.

So, despite their struggles, busters may yet end up living better than the boomers. That would be a rich irony: the overlooked generation ultimately beating out the Me Generation in the race for prosperity.

GENERATION X: catchall for busters, from the
      1991 book of the same name by Douglas Coupland
      LOW-TECH JOB: low-paying job whose sole purpose is to fund leisure activities, 
      e.g., working as messenger to pay for a rollerblading habit
      KILLER ad: great,
      as in "that's
      a killer
      mountain bike"
      GRUNGE: a fashion that celebrates the ill-kempt, lumberjack look
      RAVE: frenetic mob dance held in a warehouse, parking lot, or under a bridge: 
      Big in California
      TAKE TO THE HOOP: confront and criticize
      JONES 1: to slight, as in "you jonesed that girl at the bar" 2: to want 
      something keenly, as in "I'm jonesin' for new speakers"
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