TV Preview

PBS's 'Generation Next': They're Not So Easy to Peg

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

They've been called many things by the experts who study them: Generation Y and Generation Why?, Echo Boomers and Millennials, the Google or MyPod Generation (the latter a combination of MySpace and iPod.) Their test scores have been analyzed, sex lives examined and shopping habits catered to -- probably more than any other generation's.

Yet rarely do American youth get to speak for themselves publicly. After watching "Generation Next," a one-hour PBS documentary tonight at 9:30 on WETA (Channel 26), you realize what we've been missing. The best thing about the show is the 16-to-25-year-olds culled last summer from a cross-country tour by broadcast reporter Judy Woodruff. Their observations are always blunt, sometimes moving and frequently contradictory.

It's one thing to hear Woodruff tell us that four-year college students graduate, on average, about $19,000 in debt, or that 18- to 25-year-olds owe credit card companies an average of $2,800. It's something else again to hear marketing account manager Lisa Higaki, from Los Angeles, admit she went on a spending spree in Europe and has put herself on a financial plan to pay back $16,000.

We learn that 80 percent of this generation have volunteered with civic organizations. But seeing 20-year-old Chaz Hillmon surrounded by young children in a Columbus, Ohio, community center -- to satisfy himself and not some state graduation requirement -- teaches you more than any statistic.

In "Generation Next," we hear what young people think about careers, race relations, homosexuality and faith and here's the shocker: We're not shocked by them. We're inspired. These aren't young people who are strung out on cocaine or live to party -- the normal fare of TV. They don't hang out on street corners or count on a trust fund to fall back on if times get tough. They're refreshingly average: two- and four-year college students, radio hosts and X-ray technicians, serious about moving ahead in life -- quickly.

Adora Mora is one of them. Born to Nigerian immigrants, she headed up student government at her Catholic high school, is now a freshman at Harvard University and volunteers at a neighborhood center.

"I'd say 'quick, fast, in a hurry' is pretty much our motto," she says. "We want it now."

Woodruff stays out of the way most of the time. So do the consultants she brings in to ask questions. Data from the Pew Research Center, one of several project partners, do not overwhelm.

This is both the show's strength and its weakness. You get to see and hear in paragraphs, not overedited sound bites, what young people say their lives are like. But every time you think you've got the generation pegged, you hear another opinion that makes you realize you don't. Absent a central theme and an obvious progression of ideas, this can be a bit dizzying.

Of course 16-to-25-year-olds are still figuring out what they believe, and a generation's attributes can only be truly determined in hindsight. But the viewer longs for a bit more narrative to tie the opinions together, and a keener analysis of what we're supposed to think about their diversity of viewpoints on, say, the Iraq war, which, according to Woodruff, was a key factor in persuading this generation to vote in the 2006 midterm elections.

We meet Gabriel Ballejos, for example, a 25-year-old Army sergeant from Pueblo, Colo., who served one year in Iraq and then volunteered for a second tour. "Somethin' had to be done," he says to Woodruff's question of whether the invasion of Iraq was warranted. "People do things that have to be done. That's America."

The three young people who follow him take a different stand.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company