Conflicting signals

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The 46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1978 have been tagged with a lot of negative epithets: baby busters, Generation Xers, and slackers. But recent studies of the 20-to-34 age group suggest a more positive characterization: Strivers.

Generation Xers crave success and the American dream, which includes buying a home, says Roz Chernoff, a partner at Yankelovich in Norwalk, Connecticut, which conducts an annual study on the attitudes this age group has toward home and hearth.

Twenty-two percent of the Xers report they're saving to buy a home, up from 16 percent in 1992, according to 1997 Yankelovich Monitor results. That's no surprise, given that a high 81 percent of this group agreed that owning their own home was "very much a part of the American Dream," compared to 79 percent of boomers and 74 percent of matures.

The number of Xers who say they expect to buy a house this year matches boomers. "It's not too soon for marketers to start planning for the day when Gen-X moves from those first homes, which perhaps may not be everything they want, to their 'spec homes,' to fulfill their dreams," Chernoff says.

But their economic viability is a different story. An annual survey conducted by PSI Global found that while the baby busters represent 18 percent of all credit-card holders, they account for 25 percent of the industry's outstanding debt. A Gen-Xer's average unpaid monthly balance is $3,128, which is 28 percent higher than the $2,438 average for all credit card users. And 60 percent of them bounce balances from card to card while chasing teaser rates, compared to 46 percent for the industry overall.

To boomers, this may look irresponsible. But to Xers, it's a way to hedge their bets while using their capital for other things. The Yankelovich report notes that Xers expect things to change, and are comfortable with a diversity of styles.

That extends to their careers as well. They've switched jobs a lot and have had a comparatively difficult time getting ahead in the workplace. A study published in the Monthly Labor Review compared the career trajectories of baby boomers and Gen-Xers by examining the work status of 25-to-34-year-olds in 1979 (boomers) and the same age group in 1996 (Gen-Xers). While the employment rate for this age group rose slightly, from 75 percent in 1979 to 80 percent in 1996, the average weekly earnings, when adjusted for inflation, fell 15 percent, from $545 to $463. One reason, the study found, is that young adults in 1996 were less likely to be employed in professional, technical, and administrative jobs, and more likely to work in sales, service, and production than their 1979 counterparts.

"The question then is: Is the dream an impossible one for this generation?" Chernoff says. "No way. Xers are upbeat, they are focused on the future, and are determined to succeed."

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