BOSTON -- At first it seemed like an aberration. The political focus group that wouldn't. Wouldn't focus, that is.
Stan Greenberg, a political pollster, would gather a mixed group of strangers together in Michigan or Delaware or Iowa. His role was to foster an in-depth conversation about the country, the candidates and the campaign of 1988.
A typical evening might begin with one man introducing himself as a 48-year-old auto worker with two kids, 23 and 26, still living at home. The 42-year-old secretary next to him would then talk about her son who had to leave the state to find work. The auto worker, only half in jest, would turn to the secretary offering, ''I'll give you mine.''
Before the ''real'' discussion could even begin, the entire group was off and running on an animated, often humorous and deeply felt dialogue about kids: the adult kids who never left home, the ones who were having trouble getting a foothold into adulthood, an economic grip on independence. How can they afford an apartment? A marriage?
At first Greenberg, head of The Analysis Group, would try to get the conversation back on track. But after it had happened six times, 12 times, 24 times, he realized that this was the track, a track that led directly toward a center of strong anxiety.
Greenberg, who is not an entirely disinterested observer (he is the father of two college-age children), decided to add a question to two of his statewide surveys. How often, he asked in one Midwest and one East Coast state, do you get upset about kids who are not able to leave their parents' home and set up their own?
A full 50 percent said ''frequently or very frequently.'' This was a startling figure since nowhere near that number of people actually were suffering from the full-nest syndrome.
It turns out that this issue runs deeper through society than expected. It doesn't just exist in middle-aged swap fests of anecdotes about the younger generation -- ''My teen-ager has a ring through his nose.'' ''Oh yeah, mine has green spiked hair.'' Rather, as Greenberg says, ''Kids have become the idiom for a broad range of economic concerns.'' They are the way we talk about the future, the way we express our worries about an economy, even a world, that doesn't promise any more that things will get better for us or for the next generation.
The oldest of the baby-boom generation, parents who were independent at a young age themselves, are particularly conscious, even self-conscious, about the difficulties their young are having taking hold. The ''idiom'' they speak is often muddled, one part psychology, two parts economics.
''To parents, a 30-year-old at home may be seen as pretty visible evidence of failure,'' muses Greenberg. ''Maybe they haven't succeeded in their parenting role helping these kids get out and on their own. Maybe they're unable to pass on what they've achieved.''
But parents also talk with sadness about children who were forced to leave home towns and home states to find work. ''It is very perverse,'' says Greenberg. ''We have people concerned about kids when they go off to get decent jobs and people concerned when they don't go.''
These anxieties about the young even cloud the horizons of the elders who are doing well. The Analysis Group polled one state with only 2.5 percent unemployment and found that the majority nevertheless believed that ''the country is on the wrong track.'' This sentiment correlated highly with concern about their kids' futures. In Michigan, even voters optimistic about themselves believed that ''something is wrong with an economic contentment . . . that cannot be passed on to one's children.''
What is coming home in all this information? More than the ''children.'' We each know some young person facing the high price of a starter home and the low wage of a starting job. We know parents who give them what they can: a room. But most politicians have regarded the young as a small demographic sample, whose problems wield little political clout.
What these anecdotes, these tales from the focus groups, suggest is how powerful our generational links are, how deeply the anxiety about the future affects attitudes about the present. Our connections are ultimately, and politically, as real as the hallway that leads to a 27-year-old ''child's'' room.