Each generation is a mystery to the next, and none are more mysterious to us than our own half-grown children. What is important to them, and what do they fear? What's on their iPod, why are they wearing that -- and why are these accessories so important to them, anyway? And what on earth are they talking about on those cell phones all day long?
Last fall, my firm -- Bendixen & Associates of Coral Gables, Florida -- in collaboration with San Francisco-based New America Media, undertook an unprecedented effort to plumb that mystery. In the first-ever poll of its kind, we reached out to 600 16-to-22-year-olds via the technology they love best -- their cell phones. We focused on California, long perceived as a bellwether for the rest of the nation, and one of the most diverse states in the nation.
One in eight of the nation's young people live in California. Three-fifths are youth of color, and nearly half are immigrants or the children of immigrants. "These young people represent the forefront of the cultural continuum," New America Media Executive Director Sandy Close told us. "To gauge their hopes, fears and perspectives about the future is to glimpse who we are becoming as a society."
If Close is right, there is much to be hopeful about in the new California. What we found surprised and heartened us. The young people we spoke with left us convinced that California's greatest social capital may be the optimism, and inclusiveness, of the younger generation.
Taken together, the 600 voices we listened to via cell phone offered a portrait of a generation coming of age in a society of unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity. If California's young people do in fact reflect our collective future, we are well on our way to a society where race no longer defines identity, and borders matter less than personal relationships and communities born of cultural affinity.
California's young people, as reflected in our poll, are strong believers in the American Dream. Overwhelmingly -- across race, ethnicity and gender -- they believe strongly in their ability to determine their own futures. Despite obstacles, they expect to create successful lives for themselves and imagine a more inclusive and tolerant society for one another. This collective optimism represents a valuable resource for California, and a mirror of what the United States is becoming as a global society.
One thing our conversations with California youth made clear is that this generation embraces, rather than fears, the state's increasing diversity. When asked what defines their identity, they were as apt to cite fashion and music as they were race or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of young people cited the state's diversity as a strength and maintain diversity among their immediate circle of friends. Two-thirds had dated someone of a different race, and nearly 90 percent said they would be open to marrying or entering into a life partnership with someone of a different race.
Given that nearly 90 percent of California's young people expect to get married or enter into life partnerships, and to have children, this raises the prospect of a dramatic increase in mixed-race houses and children of mixed-race heritage. In light of this phenomenon, the entire question of race relations -- and the nature of "race" itself -- may be forever altered in this and coming generations. Already, only one percent of those polled cited racism or discrimination as the major challenge facing their generation.
This impulse towards inclusion is also reflected in young Californians' attitudes towards immigration. More than 80 percent support giving undocumented immigrants a chance to earn legal status and citizenship.
Though they view the breakdown of the family as the biggest challenge facing their generation -- trumping poverty, global warming, violence in their neighborhoods and conflict abroad -- California's young people hope and most expect to raise children in lasting partnerships themselves. More than three-quarters of California youth say their lives will be better in 10 years, and expect to have a higher standard of living than their parents.
At the same, as tuition rises at the state's major colleges and universities, it should not be surprising that a generation that overwhelmingly aspires to higher education cites school and money as their top sources of personal stress.
The optimism and ambition of California's young people are tremendous assets, but also pose challenges. Given rapidly-escalating housing costs; increasing numbers of single-parent households; and high dropout, unemployment and incarceration rates, what will it take to meet their challenge -- to create an opportunity society that does justice to their aspirations?
These are questions that can't be answered via cell phone -- a challenge to all of us, in answer to our children.