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    What America Thinks
    Nobody's Happy

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Aug. 31, 1998

    Forget Gen X, those disaffected and cynical twentysomethings. It's the rise of the "X Class" – Americans of all ages who badmouth their lives and prospects – that should worry students of the American character, say two Stanford University sociologists.

    Researchers Eric Rice and David Grusky say their research into the values and attitudes of Gen Xers revealed two troublesome facts.

    Gen Xers, which they defined as Americans 18 to 29 years old, really are more disaffected, disconnected and angst-ridden than previous generations of younger adults, Grusky and Rice reported last week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

    "The popular commentary is indeed on the mark on many counts," Grusky said in a summary that accompanied the release of the study. "A great many contemporary young adults are cynical about institutions, bleak about the future and generally dissatisfied with their own lives."

    But here's the surprise: Every other generation is more sour than its predecessors. Survey results suggest that Americans of all ages are increasingly more alienated now than Americans of similar ages were a generation or two ago.

    "The rising disaffection of contemporary youth proves to be part of a larger trend toward disaffection that appears in all age groups rather than merely the youngest ones," Grusky said. "The age groups are moving in tandem, so we have evidence of what sociologists term a period effect rather than a cohort effect."

    Overall, they estimate roughly one in five Americans and 35 percent of younger American adults were members of the disaffected X Class in the 1990s, compared with 20 percent in the 1970s and 25 percent in the 1980s, the researchers said.

    Grusky and Rice based their claims on an analysis of data collected annually since the early 1970s in the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Rsearch Center at the University of Chicago.

    They compared the answers to identical survey questions asked of today's younger adults to the responses of past generations to those questions at a time when they were between 18 and 29 years old.

    Their research does suggest that Gen Xers are wrong when they blame their bleakness on the myriad social problems they've inherited from previous generations, including AIDS, divorce, racial strife, etc. "Whatever the causes of disaffection," said Rice, who is 25, "they are not ones that we Generation Xers experience uniquely, although we may very well feel our experience is unique."

    So why are we all so whiny? These researchers suggest the cause may be "historical underdosing" – the belief that "history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted," according to the research summary. "It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions." Well, maybe.

    Not all X Classers are so mopey. "There is a second, smaller group of individuals who, like the classic X Class, think the future may be bleak but who react not with malaise or despair but by living for the day," similar to so-called "slackers" who "sedate themselves with various forms of instant gratification, such as extreme sports, exotic travel and the rave [drug] subculture."

    Whatever gets you through the night.

    Tobacco Wars (Cont.)

    So why did the sinking of the titanic tobacco bill in Congress a couple of months ago fail to generate more anger among Americans who hate smoking – particularly teen smoking – so very, very much?

    One plausible explanation comes from Gallup's Lydia Saad, in the latest issue of The Public Perspective, published by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

    "In addition to widespread skepticism about the true intent of the smoking bill, the answer may lie in Americans' more basic belief that teen smoking is inevitable," Saad wrote. "Americans may ascribe teenage smoking to many factors, but the least important of these appears to be tobacco advertising."

    Indeed, she said, surveys suggest that only a third of the country believed that the anti-smoking measures in the tobacco bill would have reduced teen smoking. And few believed that ad bans or higher cigarette prices would really keep kids off cigarettes.

    Issues, Anyone?

    Not that anybody in Washington cares, but education topped the list of the issues that people want the government to address, according to the latest Harris Poll. The top five: education (16 percent), crime (14 percent), health care (12 percent), taxes (11 percent) and the economy (11 percent).

    But the fact that no single issue clearly stands out suggests that the November congressional elections "will not be dominated by any particular issue, except perhaps the Lewinsky affair," wrote Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris and Associates.

    Too bad.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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