LATE BLOOMERS

David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams; Random House, 240 pages, $18
I think I speak for an entire generation when I say we don't want to see another book about our generation. We've heard enough about our whining, our laziness, our cynicism and our refusal to embrace traditional values.

However, Late Bloomers is probably the most important book on the subject written to date, and like our favorite TV cop Joe Friday, this book gets down to "just the facts, ma'am." Lipsky and Abrams have done a lot of homework here, and they build a logical, dispassionate case that can be summed up in three words -- we've been had.

The first section of the book looks at the way the media has distorted and shaped perceptions of our generation. Going back to articles that appeared some 20 years ago, the authors point out that charges of laziness and lack of work ethic were once leveled at the baby boomers, "the same workaholics now criticizing us for our lassitude."

During the 1980s, when that old master Reagan brushed a tint of prosperity across our country, a rash of "trend stories" described our generation as greedy, materialistic and obsessed with success. Suddenly, starting with Time's notorious "Twentysomething" piece in 1990, there was a sharp reversal in the media's portrayal of our generation. A bunch of greedy money worshippers became slackers and whiners overnight.

Using highly refined bullshit detectors, Lipsky and Abrams do a little digging and find that during a one-year period between the summers of 1990 and 1991, 1.45 million people lost their jobs. Nearly a million of those jobs belonged to people in their 20s. Between 1990 and 1993, more than 3 million people graduated from college, and during that same period, only 870,000 new jobs were created. Victor Lindquist, who each year produces the Lindquist-Endicott Survey tracking job prospects for college graduates, talks about the recent market: "This is the worst I've seen in 30 years. The realities are very different in 1993 than they were in 1983. When you look back over the last 10 years, the changes have been almost cataclysmic."

The authors go on to say, "We're an optimistic country, but the flip side of optimism is blame: Everyone can get ahead if they really want to, so if you're not getting ahead, you must not want to." There's a lot of blame being passed around these days, and most of it is misplaced. Economic statistics suggest that much of the blame can be traced to the Reagan/Bush years, when "long term economic consequences were subordinated to immediate political popularity." The federal government accumulated more than $3 trillion of new debt in 12 years. Our generation got saddled with the bill, and right now, a quarter of every tax dollar the government takes in goes to pay interest on the national debt.

The facts presented in Late Bloomers tell a much different tale than the "trend stories" appearing as hard news in the media, where "A guess is reported, repeated, and finally returned to the country as truth, because it has proved itself by appearing in so many venues."

In the face of these rather daunting prospects, the powers-that-be in the business world have plenty of good advice for us. A Money magazine article suggests that, to find a job, twentysomethings should: 1) Volunteer at a non-profit organization to gain valuable experience. 2) Find an internship somewhere to get a "foot in the door." 3) Go overseas and teach English.

Great, so we should stay here and work for free or go overseas where some other country can afford to pay us. Somehow my bong and couch are more appealing than any of those options.

The authors look at other generational issues -- the effects of divorce, television and student loan debt -- in light of the economic conditions described above, concluding that with more economic opportunity, our generation would be no different than previous ones that grew up and went to work. While the emphasis on economics in Late Bloomers adds to the generational debate, economics doesn't explain everything. Lack of opportunity has forced societal change. New paradigms are emerging to replace the archaic notion that a good job brings happiness. Lipsky and Abrams clear up a lot of misconceptions and distortions, but stop short of the realization that this change in outlook is permanent, regardless of which way the economy turns.

-- J.C. Shakespeare

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