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Mark Bennett Opinion

May 31, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Generational ‘Catch 22’

Baby Boomers’ long run of cultural dominance gradually gives way to America’s 22-year-olds

TERRE HAUTE — Dominant. Influential.

Looking back, those labels look wildly unfitting.

We were just scruffy kids leaning on bikes, gulping Hires Root Beer on the porch of a general store in small-town Indiana. Cultural forces to be reckoned with? Impossible.

Yet, we were. Ten-year-olds — including my buddies and me — comprised the most populous age group in America in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As we neared 30 in 1990, our demographic remained the largest sector of the U.S. population. In 2010, we turned 50 and held onto that statistical distinction.

It was a good run.

At some point between 2011 and last year, the Millennials took over, according to Census Bureau estimates reported last month in the New York Times. Today, there are more 22-year-olds living in the U.S. than any other age bracket. It’s the first time since 1947 that the Baby Boomer generation — Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — can’t claim that title.

Immigration by Millennials — people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — and mortality among Baby Boomers caused this cultural sea change. Thus, current 53-year-olds (the age sector that loomed largest for so long) now rank fourth behind folks ages 22, 23 and 21, respectively. And though the wants and needs of Boomers will continue to determine trends and resource allocation for everything from automobile styles to pharmaceutical research, Social Security reform and nursing home construction, those plentiful 22-year-olds’ tastes and interests will carry greater influence as time passes.

They cope with a level of college student-loan debts the previous generations didn’t experience on the road to the American dream. (The cumulative college loan debt owed by Americans hit $1.2 trillion this year, topping even credit card debt.) They’re increasingly more likely to watch videos online through YouTube and Netflix, while their parents view TV shows the old-school method — on network channels. They eat a little healthier. They’re not paying significant attention to politics, perhaps because older politicians pay only cursory attention to them — for now.

They see the same world from a fresh perspective.

“I consider Nirvana ‘classic rock,’ and my parents consider Eric Clapton ‘classic rock,’” said 22-year-old Thomas White on Friday, the eve of his graduation from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The ’90s are the new ’70s.

Some of their preferences overlap, though.

White grew up in West Terre Haute listening to bands launched in the 1960s such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Who, before exploring their rock ’n’ roll successors, the Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins. Once White reached Rose-Hulman, he discovered “post-rock” bands like Explosions in the Sky and learned to play drums after years of playing guitar. “I like to be active at all times,” White said, “so I don’t really watch TV or read the newspapers.”

He kept busy enough to earn a chemical engineering degree, which will send him to Valparaiso to work for a global steel corporation, ArcelorMittal. White senses the post-recession economy has calmed. “I definitely feel more sure of it than if I’d have graduated three years ago,” he said. With his parents’ help, his student loan debt is half or less than some friends, who owe six-figure amounts. Once he pays off his loans — ideally in three to five years — White will start thinking about marriage, starting a family and home buying.

“It’s definitely something I want to do,” he said, “but it’s not on my radar screen yet.”

At 22, Amber McCormick works two jobs — as a receptionist at a spa and as a waitress at a restaurant-bar in Champaign, Ill. — to pay down her student loans, cover car payments and rent on her apartment, and supplement her hobbies and travel. She left her small hometown of Chrisman in Edgar County to earn a massage therapy degree at Parkland, a community college in Champaign. She hopes to become a massage therapist at the spa, perhaps add an occupational therapy degree, settle into a career by 25, pay off those student loans, travel, buy a house and start a family at about age 30.

In the meantime, McCormick may experience various jobs. “It’s like going to try on shoes,” she said. “You have to try on six pairs before you pick the ones you love.”

Her plans may unfold beyond Illinois, where her mother is from, or Terre Haute, her father’s hometown, “just to be surrounded by more of what I’m in to.” She sees lots of friends moving to Western states for lifestyle choices, rather than merely higher incomes. They’re seeking towns with locally produced foods, diverse cultures and arts, and music festivals, McCormick explained. “People call people our age ‘new-age hippies,’” she said, “which is kind of cool.”

Paying down student loans stands as a priority for 22-year-old Kayla Betts and her new husband, Tim. While she’s one semester away from receiving a nursing degree at Ivy Tech Community College without a debt burden, the couple is focused on paying off Tim’s student loans. That goal steers many of their decisions.

“We have to say, ‘Do we want to go cheap on our heat this month to pay that college bill?’” Kayla said. “We’re not choosing to buy a car yet, because we want to get that [debt] taken care of.”

Betts, a Terre Haute South Vigo High School graduate, turned 22 last month. Like others, she’s interested in healthy food choices more so than politics. At Ivy Tech, large numbers of her college classmates fall in her age bracket, but others hail from older generations and are training for second careers. Together, they’re entering a workforce offering a smorgasbord of fields open to women. “You have more choices now,” Betts said.

Kelli Greenberg has chosen St. Paul, Minn., as her next destination. There, she’ll work as a quality control engineer at Minnetronix, a biomedical device contract manufacturer.

A graduate of Terre Haute North Vigo High School and Rose-Hulman (on Saturday), she expects to find a “more active culture” in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. “I’d like to be able to go kayaking or biking or hiking,” Greenberg said Friday. “They have lots of parks up there to do that.”

She’d like to join several of her soon-to-be co-workers who bicycle to work. Others regularly take cooking classes together, another of her interests. Greenberg may enroll in a cross-fitness class.

Sounds smart.

The 22-year-olds’ priorities may soon shape the world, and Baby Boomers can learn from that, too.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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