Features

Between malls & martyrs

National | Today's teens are more affluent and less rebellious; are they more open to the gospel than past generations?

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

It's not adults who are lined up in front of Corny Dog 7, Caffe Italia, or their neighbor Sbarro: The Italian Eatery. Those flat, greasy slices of pizza and doughy dogs-on-a-stick are selling like hotcakes, yes, but not to anyone with a waistline or a cholesterol count to worry about. Instead, they're being gobbled up by Generation Y-and the fact that this small shopping mall in Tyler, Texas, can support seven restaurants in its food court shows what corporate America knows. Teenagers today, the children of the children of the post-war Baby Boom, have more money to spend than any generation in history. With that affluence comes influence-they're setting the trends and shaping culture, much earlier than their parents did.

That's something marketing firms clearly understand: Just watch the commercials during any primetime television program, and note to whom ads are directed. But there's more to Generation Y than materialism.

More than 2,500 teens filled a stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in April for a rally inspired by the faith shown by Cassie Bernall, the girl who was killed in the Littleton, Colo., massacre. The stands were filled with teens chanting what were reportedly Cassie's last words: "Yes, I believe in God." Also this spring, more than 73,000 teens gathered in Pontiac, Mich., for a Teen Mania event. USA Today and even Time are noting the phenomenon.

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"We don't want her message to be sensationalized or abused in any way," said Josh Weidman, a 17-year-old who helped organize the Fort Lauderdale rally. "It's not so much what Cassie said; it's what are we going to say when we're asked the question."

Pollster George Barna says Generation Y is radically different from its parents and predecessors. (Definitions: The official Baby Boom lasted from the end of World War II until 1964, which was the last year in which America recorded 4 million live births. Those born after 1964, but before 1979, are often called Generation X; those born since are termed Generation Y, or Echo Boomers, or Millennials.) Gen Y values are as far from Baby Boomers as Boomers' values were from their parents.

"By and large, these young people feel they have been emotionally abandoned by all the adults in their world," says Mr. Barna. "They might be affluent, but theirs is a harsh existence." Most kids say they could see an incident similar to the Columbine High School killings happening in their schools, according to surveys.

One side of this generation can be seen in a simple trip to a mall-especially the food court. "Lots of us live on this stuff," says Olivia Piantanida as she scoops Chinese fried rice with an inadequate plastic fork from a dubious styrofoam plate. "Three, four times a week. I have friends who eat fast food every day. They spend a lot of money here."

Does fried rice have spiritual significance? It does, when you consider that money spent in the food court equals time not spent at a dinner table with Dad. Mom is dishing up money, not a meal.

The money alone is staggering. The nation's 30 million teens spent more than $141 billion last year. That's double the annual budget for the U.S. Army. Today's typical teen spends about $80 per week. Almost a third of teens have at least one credit card in their own name, according to Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), an Illinois marketing firm. Two-thirds of them have savings accounts, 20 percent have checking accounts, and 16 percent own stocks or bonds.

And malls are favorite spending sites. When an industry group, the International Council of Shopping Centers, surveyed mall-goers, it found that teens come here more often, stay longer, visit more stores, and spend more money per trip than do older shoppers. Teens spend an average of 90 minutes at the mall per visit, compared to 75 minutes spent by adults. The national average, for everyone, is 39 trips per year to a mall, but teens average 56 trips per year.

"So if you want to see our world, here it is," says Olivia, 15.

Olivia and her sister, Laura, 17 are here for a couple of hours of shopping-and socializing. Even on this slow winter weeknight at the Broadway Square Mall, they see more than a dozen friends and schoolmates.

Their first stop is the Gap to look for jeans.

There's significance in that, as well. Department stores aren't faring as well as the smaller chains that provide a funk factor to the shopping experience, with music, avant-garde sales clerks, and bright, colorful displays. The Gap rates highly, as does Gadzooks and Old Navy. Marketing researcher Allen Robinson of Kurt Salmon Associates says that specialty chain stores and even independents are like magnets to teenage mall-goers.

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