meet the parents

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As a new generation of parents takes its place in the American family album, what sensibilities will drive its approach to marriage and child-rearing?

Some things don't change. Every new parent wants a healthy baby with a happy childhood, trouble-free adolescence and the opportunity for a successful adulthood. But subtle priorities and principles shift from generation to generation, as people and lifestyles change. And today, with a new generation entering parenthood, certain questions arise: What will Gen Xers — today between the ages of 25 and 37 — be like as parents? Will they handle parenthood in a different way than their parents and their Baby Boomer predecessors did? What has changed and what remains the same?

After all, this is the generation that was infamously dubbed “slackers.� In 1990 Newsday described it as the generation that dropped out “without ever turning on the news or tuning in to the social issues around them.� Reputedly the wave of youth that idealized extended adolescence, glorified grunge and revived the goatee, Gen Xers are now sinking into easy chairs and nesting in newly bought homes. They've taken more time to establish their careers, increasingly delayed marriage and postponed childbearing. But now, Gen Xers are beginning to establish families: Of 18.6 million households — 37.8 million people — fully half of men and 57 percent of women ages 25 to 34 (the closest age breakdown to Gen X tracked by the census), a total of 9.4 million, are married. In 2000, three-quarters of men and women were married by age 35. Nearly two-thirds of women ages 25 to 34 (65 percent) have had children.

What is Gen X's approach to parenting? It is a blend of caution, pragmatism and traditionalism — a mix of characteristics that were shaped with the help of their parents. Gen Xers are the first children of the new era of divorce to reach adulthood. For more than a century, children in the United States lived with both parents at home. During the 1970s, when Gen X was growing up, that all started to change. The proportion of children living with their parents, which had remained stable at about 85 percent since 1880, began to slide. The divorce rate more than doubled, from 2.5 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 1965 to 5.3 by 1979. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of children living with only their mothers doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent, and the share of children living in a nuclear family (defined as married couples with kids) fell from 85 percent to 73 percent, according to the Census Bureau's 2000 Current Population Survey and the Survey of Income and Program Participation.

Call it the “Home Alone� factor. William Strauss, author of Generations (William Morrow, 1992), cites childhood divorce as one of the decisive experiences influencing how Gen Xers shape their own families. Above all, they want to avoid creating the broken homes, alimony disputes, absentee fathers and tangles with stepparents that many of them experienced as children, he says.

Gen Xers' childhood as latchkey kids has pushed them to value family stability when it comes to their own children, says David Stillman, a partner in BridgeWorks, a Sonoma, Calif.-based generational consulting firm, who is himself a Gen X father of two. “Xers often came home to an empty house as children,� Stillman says. “They don't want to create broken homes because they came from broken homes.� According to generational marketing firm Yankelovich Inc. in Norwalk, Conn., Gen Xers offer a corrective to certain freedoms and rebellions expressed by their parents. As a result, “[Gen] Xers are approaching homemaking with caution and concern,� write Ann Clurman and J. Walker Smith in the marketing bible, Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing.

Gen X writer Lauren Dockett interviewed more than 50 Gen X women while researching her book, Facing 30: Women Talk about Constructing a Real Life and Other Scary Rites of Passage (New Harbinger, 1998). Dockett says she encountered quite a few women who feared being left bereft by divorce, or unable to cope with the possibility of single parenting. As a result, they are unusually scared of replicating the precarious financial circumstances of their mothers. When it comes to their own lives, they want to plan ahead to avoid facing the same compromises and sacrifices, Dockett says.

“One thing we've noticed with our readers is much more interest in planning for the long-term economic impact of children,� says Sally Lee, editorial director of Parents magazine. “Gen X parents are very financially savvy. They plan on saving from birth, even plan their family size around economic considerations. They want to explore every option the financial world has to offer, from 401(k)s to college savings plans, in order to afford their child.�

This generation appears better prepared to avoid the financial traps of their parents. Overall, 29 percent of the group has a bachelor's or graduate degree, according to the 2000 Current Population Survey. That's nearly 6 percentage points more than the 24 percent of their parents (the Silent Generation). Of particular note: Gen X women are better educated than previous generations. Nearly 30 percent of women ages 25 to 34 are college graduates, compared with 27 percent of women ages 35 to 44, 28 percent of those 45 to 54 and 20 percent of those ages 55 to 64. This translates into greater earning power for Gen X women and a greater ability to work full or part time at professional jobs and also have children.

Pragmatists & Neo-Traditionalists

In addition to caution against repeating the mistakes of their parents, traditionalism and pragmatism also appear to drive this new generation of moms and dads. While this group agrees that one parent should stay at home with the kids, it doesn't necessarily have to be the mother. In a 2000 survey conducted by International Communications Research for The Washington Post, 69 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds agreed that “It may be necessary for mothers to be working because the family needs the money, but it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children.� (Eighty percent of those ages 45 to 60 agreed with that statement.)

The woman may still be the one who stays at home more often, but that's no longer so rigid or assumed. Although 68 percent of married and single young women admitted they'd rather not work if they could afford it (according to a 2000 Youth Intelligence poll), Gen Xers are fairly open to either parent staying home to care for the kids. The Census Bureau doesn't report specifically on the number of stay-at-home fathers, but a 1999 Yankelovich poll found only 36 percent of Gen Xers believed there's something wrong with a female-breadwinner, male-homemaker family, compared with 43 percent of older respondents. And 93 percent said being a “traditional family� is not about having a stay-at-home mom, it's about having a family built on love and strong moral values.

Chicago-based ad agency Leo Burnett conducted a series of informal “cocktail party� focus groups in late 1998 about Gen X men's approach to parenting. “We found that Gen X men are going into parenting expecting to be fully involved,� says Denise Fedewa, senior vice president and planning director at the agency. “They wanted to take paternal leave, and talked about having real fatherly involvement with their children.� In a 2000 Radcliffe Public Policy Center poll of 1,008 workers over age 21, conducted by Harris Interactive, more than 80 percent of men ages 20 to 39 said having a work schedule that enables them to spend time with family is more important than challenging work or a high salary. And 70 percent said they would be willing to give up some pay to spend more time with their families (compared with 63 percent of twentysomething women).

With men more involved in parenting, Fedewa believes more women will be able to pursue personal fulfillment outside, and within, motherhood. According to a 1998 New Strategist Publications/National Opinion Research survey, only 15 percent of Gen Xers believe it's more important for a wife to support her husband's career than to have a career of her own. “For most Gen Xers, there's no question the woman will be in the labor force,� says Cheryl Russell, editor in chief of Ithaca, N.Y.-based New Strategist Publications. “Older Boomers may have wrung their hands over this; it's not an issue for Gen X.�

While Boomers created new opportunities for women and broadened opportunities and responsibilities for both genders, Gen Xers have pushed those boundaries even further, although in a different way. Says Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey: “On a number of measures there's a continuum.�

Whereas Boomer women were often ideologically motivated in terms of their decision about marriage, career and family, Gen Xers are much more practical and individualistic. “Gen X women don't need to prove anything,� says Russell. “The Boomers already did it all and proved it for them.� According to a 1998 New Strategist/National Opinion Research survey of Gen X women and men, the household is an equal partnership. Eighty-three percent of those ages 22 to 30, and 76 percent of those ages 31 to 40 preferred to share earning and household responsibilities equally rather than according to traditional gender role divisions. Gen X families work out their own arrangements, taking turns, working as a tag team, weighing pragmatic factors about who makes more and whose strengths lie where.

Smith says that one way in which Gen Xers seem to be bypassing Boomer values is their emphasis on teaching children the value of hard work. The general assumptions that work and obedience were important qualities in children dominated until the 1960s, when family became more about independence and equality between parents and children. But the General Social Survey found Gen Xers are returning to the earlier emphasis on hard work in that they are likely to say that a strong work ethic is the most important characteristic for a child. In a 1997 survey, the five values most important to impart in children, 24 percent of Gen Xers said hard work is the most important, compared with 17 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds and 15 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds.

Today's parents espouse certain traditional values the Boomers rejected. Ira Matathia, global director of business development for ad agency Euro RSCG Worldwide, sees a pattern of traditionalism among Gen Xers. He cites both a resurgence in religion and a concern about kids growing up too fast and headed in the wrong direction. In a 1999 Yankelovich poll, 89 percent of Gen Xers say parents today let their children get away with way too much. A majority of Gen Xers say they'd like to see a return to more traditional standards in parental responsibility (65 percent) and marriage (57 percent). Whereas 74 percent of Gen Xers in 1998 said they'd want a return to traditional standards in family life, only 56 percent of Boomers at the same life stage back in 1977 agreed.

Gen X families reveal the sensibility of a generation shaped by economic uncertainty. Most members of the group were born into the recession of the '70s and graduated from college in the recession of the early '90s. What's more, according to BridgeWorks' Stillman, Gen X parents were also hard hit by the steep increase in college tuition. As a result, they make more calculated decisions about when to splurge on the latest toy or gizmo and when to put money in a 401(k) or college savings plan. According to a 1999 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 68 percent of Gen Xers have already begun saving for retirement, compared with 77 percent of older Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1953).

“[Gen Xers] start planning before they're even pregnant,� says Janet Chan, editor in chief of Parenting magazine. “And they think in specifics: ‘I'm going to take this kind of job. I'm going to telecommute. I'm going to take time off or get flextime.’ They look at sequencing, at forming plans early on that will enable them to make choices.�

Targeting the Gen X Parent

With Gen Xers now heading their own households, companies have the opportunity to tailor messages to a new generation in its prime spending years. Some brands that Gen X helped popularize are beginning to adjust their marketing to reflect this new stage in their customers' lives. For example, fall 2001 ads for handbag designer Kate Spade showed children leaping out of station wagons and tumbling around in pajamas, while Kenneth Cole ads showed children swinging on tires.

Meanwhile, other brands have actually expanded their offerings to include Gen X babies; Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY both have launched children's lines. And Crate & Barrel opened a Gen X-specific retail offshoot, CB2, in Chicago in January 2000. Says company spokeswoman Bette Kahn: “We opened CB2 to target Gen Xers, the customers we had left behind through our own growth. While Crate & Barrel is more mature and sophisticated, CB2 is more urban, edgy, hip.�

Why does tailoring the merchandise to particular age groups matter? Partly because each generation enters a life stage with its own tastes and biases, and tailoring products to what customers value is key to sales, says Matathia. He believes it's important to look at both life stage and cohort together. He recently conducted a study with Marian Salzman, global director of strategic planning with Euro RSCG, called “Generations and Gaps,� to examine generational trends, and to see how Baby Boomers have affected the generations before and after them. Crate & Barrel, for example, found differences between the way Boomers set up home and the way today's twenty- and thirtysomethings do so. They found that today, Gen Xers are more interested in bringing home takeout food than cooking gourmet meals. But instead of eating out of cartons, they were displaying their carryout on beautiful dishes, Kahn says. That's why, “while Crate & Barrel's colors are dictated by season and fabric colors, CB2 has colors you'll never find at Crate & Barrel like hot purple and hot pink,� she says.

Fedewa of Leo Burnett says that most advertisers fail to take into account Gen X characteristics when targeting them as parents. When targeting mothers, for example, advertisers still tend to revert to the soccer mom stereotype. But Gen X women, she says, may not see themselves that way. While Boomers may have tried to be supermom, Gen X mothers view themselves more pragmatically, throwing old stereotypes aside in favor of more individualistic and practical ideals, says Fedewa. “Gen Xers approach life as what we call ‘Life Entrepreneurs.’ They don't subscribe to all the institutions and traditions that are in place, but instead take bits and pieces that work for them and throw out the rest. They're each inventing their own system, approaching parenting in very individualistic ways.�

For Gen X, and for American society overall, the family ideal is in transition. “The definition of family has expanded,� says BridgeWorks' Stillman. “For Gen X, family can be cohabitation, same-sex partners, groups like on the show Friends. It doesn't have to be narrowly defined.� He says companies need to pay attention to those attitudes, and make sure their marketing messages reflect a respect and understanding of those families. The new Gen X parents may be a bit harder for marketers to define or pin down than previous generations, but they might also be a lot more fun. Says Fedewa: “They're these young, hip parents. They're having kids, but they're also still watching MTV.�

the shape of the gen x family

The majority of Gen Xers are now married, and almost two-thirds of Gen X women have children.

population

Total 25- to 34-year-olds 37.8 million
Total married 25- to 34-year-olds 20.3 million

household

Total 25- to 34-year-old households 18.6 million
Toal married 25- ot 34- year-old households 9.4 million

children

Toal 25- to 34- year-old women 37.8 million Percent of women with childen 65%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

my kids are going to be different

One-third of Gen Xers think working mothers of preschoolers is a bad thing, compared with half of pre-Boomers.

Gen Xers Baby Boomers Pre-Boomers
Ideal number of children is two 52% 55% 50%
Ideal number of children is three 27% 21% 30%
Favor spanking to discipline a child 74% 76% 76%
Favor sex ed in public schools 91% 87% 80%
Believe preschool kids suffer if mother works 37% 46% 57%
Believe it's better for the man to work and the woman to tend home 29% 37% 64%
Believe a working mother doesn't hurt children 67% 63% 52%
Believe a wife should help husband put career first* 12% 15% 32%
I spend too little time with my kids 45% 46% 25%
Divorce laws should be tougher 50% 52% 59%
*1998 National Opinion Research Center

Source: National Opinion Research Center, 2000. Approx. 500 pre-Boomer respondents, 800 Boomer respondents, 600 Gen X respondents

higher learning

Gen X women are better educated than previous generations, which translates into greater earning potential.

age numbers high school grad some college assoc degree bachelor's degree grad degree
25-34 men 18,563 32% 19% 8% 22% 6%
25-34 women 19,222 29% 20% 10% 23% 7%
35-44 men 22,135 35% 18% 8% 18% 10%
35-44 women 22,670 33% 19% 11% 19% 8%
44-54 men 17,889 29% 19% 8% 19% 13%
44-54 women 18,741 33% 18% 10% 18% 10%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Current Population Survey

shacking up

Gen Xers are on the forefront of the first-home housing market.

In 1998, 63 percent of married 25- to 34-year-olds owned their own homes, according to the Census Bureau. However, the patterns of homeownership are changing, as Gen Xers are not necessarily getting married before buying houses. Many singles and cohabitating couples are making the leap into becoming homeowners before walking down the aisle. According to the National Association of Realtors, in 2000, single females were second only to married couples in the number of homes they buy (and 30 percent of them are under age 35), with unmarried women accounting for 18 percent of all home buyers; single men, 9 percent.

According to Builder magazine, Gen Xers are pragmatic home buyers; they care most about builder reputation, followed by affordability. They prefer informal floor plans and are interested in houses with technological and ecological benefits (55 percent say green housing is extremely or very important to them, and three-fourths are willing to pay more for it). At the same time, 70 percent don't care much about living in an ethnically, socially or economically diverse neighborhood.

Gen X housing preferences have been underresearched and the market underestimated, claimed a March 2001 report in Urban Land, and the building industry offers very few products targeted to Gen Xers. According to the magazine, while Baby Boomers believed that a home should signify one's success, Gen Xers see their home as an expression of their individuality. Whereas Boomers led to the late 1990s surge in McMansions, Gen Xers are willing to sacrifice space for convenience, valuing proximity to work, schools and other services. As a result, the magazine predicts a trend toward townhomes, single-family dwellings and smaller houses.

— Pamela Paul

my house

Gen Xers want their homes to reflect their individuality.

Baby Boomers Gen Xers
My house shows my success individuality
Underlying ideal space convenience
Location suburban urban
Backyard large with garden smaller, more private
Focus living room kitchen
Desired plan formal rooms informality/flexibility
Source: Builder.com, Urban Land

where gen x will live

High tech Gen X wants dedicated computer space at home.

Amount Gen Xers expect to pay for their next home $152,000
Number of bedrooms expected to have 3.3
Expect to buy an existing home 56%
Expect to buy an existing home, recently remodeled and updated 30%
Want a home office 39%
Wanted a desk/computer area in multipurpose room 52%
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