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.
"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.
"The specialty chains are more flexible and better risk takers (than department stores)," he says. "They're able to tailor their whole store environment to this by having the right look, the right music, and the right salespeople."
In the Gap, a Lauryn Hill CD is thumping as Olivia and Laura start flipping through the racks. "Levis?" Olivia responds to the question with a frown. "Well, yeah, I guess some people wear them. But they're not that big. There are lots of other choices."
Other than Levis? Boomers wore their red-tabbed Levis religiously, yet that giant has been toppled by Gap jeans, Calvin Klein, and Guess. And remember that Levis were the uniform of masses of American rebels (and their imitators overseas).
So could it be that Generation Y is rethinking rebellion? Well, yes, actually.
"Teens today aren't as rebellious," says Laura. "Maybe our parents' generation were rebelling against the idea of being seen and not heard. Well, no one can say teens aren't heard now. And we talk to our parents more, about more things."
In fact, three-fourths of teens say their parents influence their behavior "a lot," and nearly all say they want to spend more time with their parents.
"Family relationships are often disappointing to teens," says Mr. Barna. "The typical teen spends less than two hours per week, cumulatively, in significant interaction with Dad."
And they get less and less time with him, Mr. Barna notes. At the age of 13, six out of 10 kids identify their father as a person they turn to with important life issues. But by the age of 18, only one out of four teens say they can turn to their fathers for advice.
They've rejected '60s-style rebellion outright. Every year, the American Council on Education surveys college freshmen, asking if they believe it is important to keep up with political issues. In 1997, a record low 27 percent answered yes, compared to a high of 58 percent in 1966.
In The Limited, Olivia reaches for a hat-a fisherman's hat, she calls it, though it's really the sort that Woody Allen wears for anonymity. Laura oohs over a shirt that looks like something else Woody Allen-or any man over 50-would wear. It's a button-front, short-sleeve number with a big pocket and a big collar. Hugh Beaumont or Robert Conrad would be perfectly comfortable wearing it under a nice cardigan on weekends.
"This is big," she says. "Grandpa shirts. Only it's kind of cheating to buy them new. You're supposed to really get them from your Grandpa, or from thrift stores."
As shocking as it sounds, button-down shirts and khaki pants have made a comeback, accompanied by swing music and-breathe deeply-modesty. Skirts are below the knee, bosoms aren't bared, and they're thinking about the future. During the past three months, some also have thought about Cassie Bernall.
"There's no doubt in my mind that she knew what that guy's response was going to be, but she answered yes," Laura says. "So yes, I think she's a martyr. It really reminds me of the fact that the decisions I make now will have lasting consequences. I wonder if I do enough to tell people about the gospel-now, when there's no cost at all, when it's easy."
And Cassie Bernall has helped make it easy of late. Christian teens across the country say their non-Christian friends were also affected by Cassie's story, and sometimes sought out Christians to find out why Cassie responded the way she did.
"All of us are wondering if we would do the same thing Cassie did," Laura says. "But we have to remember that being faithful to God in the big things means that first we have to be faithful to God in the little things. That's the message I hope-and I think-our generation is going to take away from this."
This is a generation that has been devastated by the unfaithfulness evident in divorce.
"It's just selfishness," says Laura. "They don't think about the kids. People my age have come to accept divorce as normal, but they still think it's wrong. I think our generation is going to try a lot harder to stay married."
In Gadzooks, a clothing store that also sells inflatable furniture ($34.99 for a big, purple chair), costume jewelry, and various unfathomable hair accessories, Laura starts to steer Olivia away from the wall of T-shirts with off-color (and sometimes obscene) slogans. Olivia sees them, but barely blinks. This is a jaded generation. When asked, a clerk says kids buy them.
"Don't their parents complain to you?"
"No one's ever come in and said anything. Parents don't care about that stuff."
And that's the disturbing story behind these statistics. Teens are affluent, but they feel abandoned.
"The money kids get is guilt money, a lot of the time," says Laura. "I see it in my friends, I see it when I babysit, even. I've stayed with lots of kids who have every toy you can think of, who have everything they can ask for, but they don't see their parents much because they're so busy. Love means time. Love means discipline. Kids know that."
"They don't feel that anyone cares about them," Mr. Barna says of the Echo Boomers. "The fact is a majority of their parents are Baby Boomers who are very achievement-oriented. Everything they do is filtered through the lens of 'What have I accomplished?' And they've brought that mindset home with them. As a consequence, their children don't believe unconditional love exists."
And they don't believe in absolutes, either, he says. More than 80 percent of teens say there are no moral absolutes, no absolute truths, no definitive ethical realities.
"They have been taught to think by computers and by fast-edit video," he contends. "They have an overwhelming amount of information coming at them through the popular culture."
What should the church learn from these surveys?
"Teens are relational-if we want to evangelize them, we're going to have to do it the hard way, with relationships," says Mr. Barna. "Realize that a majority of Americans who accept Christ as their Lord do so before they reach age 19. The teen years represent our last great chance to effectively reach people."
Youth ministries, which Mr. Barna says "often means glorified babysitting," must bring teens into relationships with caring adults.
"It's going to take more than just Wednesday night games and fun times," he says. "They need the Truth, but they're not going to accept it if you say, 'Here it is, believe it'... We must inextricably tie evangelism to discipleship."