Chicago Sun-Times

A generation vexed: teens ambitious, alone

April 18, 1999
Chicago Sun-Times

Today's teens are far less likely than previous generations to date and to make long-term friends in high school, largely because so many more of them plan to put off marriage and go on to college and graduate school, according to a five-year University of Chicago study of more than 1,000 teens.

Teens are spending more time alone, as much as 3 1/2 hours a day, because of demographic shifts in the American family that have left them fewer siblings, mothers and fathers who both work, and, often, single-parent families.

When they are alone, young people report having lower self-esteem, being less happy and feeling less active.

The '90s generation also is the most ambitious generation of teens ever, often striving to get into prestigious colleges, expecting to go on to graduate school and dreaming of professional careers, according to the study, which has been compiled in a book, The Ambitious Generation; America's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless.

But teens also are very unsettled about their future, having watched their parents change jobs and careers more than once. And despite their ambitions, they often land at colleges that don't match their interests because of poor planning.

The study followed 1,221 students from sixth through 12th grade from 1992 to 1997.

Seniors at Homewood-Flossmoor High School laugh and roll their eyes when the subject turns to dating.

American teens are avoiding long-term relationships as boyfriends, girlfriends or even ``best friends'' in high school because they are so focused on getting into college and landing professional jobs, according to the study.

Homewood-Flossmoor senior Khadija Abdur-Rahman, 18, says she hasn't dated much in high school because she is focused on getting good grades, participating in extra-curricular activities like the speech team and taking advanced placement courses to catch the eye of college admissions officials. She plans to go into environmental engineering and probably will attend the University of Virginia.

Asked when she thinks she will get married, she replies, ``Not a day before 30.

``If you wait longer, the match is better because you have experienced a lot more and you have more to give.''

Instead of going on dates, more students today go out as groups of friends, sometimes pairing off as couples.

Like many of her classmates, Abdur-Rahman also doesn't think her ``best friends'' will be from high school because seniors will scatter throughout the country to go to college. Instead, she'll make her long-term friendships at college, she said.

The U. of C. study also found that young people are spending more time alone because families are smaller today and more parents are working. High school students spend about 20 percent of their waking hours alone. The rest of the day breaks down this way: 43 percent at school, 19 percent with family, 9 percent with friends, 4 percent working and 5 percent ``other.''

The study compares teens in the 1990s to teens in the 1950s, another time of economic prosperity but an era when parents were more likely to work in the same job for decades and teens were less likely to go on to college.

Members of the '90s generation are very ambitious but unsettled about their future, said Barbara Schneider, a U. of C. sociology professor and co-author of the book.

``They see higher education as their safety net and they're hedging their bets by planning on graduate school,'' Schneider said. ``They're also optimistic and dreamers and schemers. We saw a lot of hope for the future in these kids.''

Despite today's teens' ambitions, many times they feel disappointed in their college choices because the academic offerings don't match their interests, the study found. Teens also aren't getting enough exposure to potential careers and they often work in part-time jobs that aren't related to their interests.

Parents and school counselors can help students reach their goals by guiding them toward internships in careers that interest them and making sure their college choices match their interests, Schneider said.

Homewood-Flossmoor senior RaShaan Long, 17, said his ``high passion for spacecraft'' led him to participate in math and science programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He plans to become an aerospace engineer and attend the University of Iowa.

Eugene Soltes, 18, another Homewood-Flossmoor senior, said he set his priorities for the future as a freshman, after his parents took him on trips to visit Ivy League colleges.

``It impressed me so much more to hear directly from the admissions people what they were looking for, and then I was more determined,'' Soltes said.

Soltes, who plans to go to Stanford University, wants to go into physics or a computer-related field.

``I think a lot of people are hoping we're the good generation that's going to fix all the country's problems,'' Soltes said. ``When I see the best and the brightest students at my high school, I think it's possible that we may be able to make a difference.''