“When you open a celebrity magazine, it’s all about the money and being rich and famous,” says 22-year-old Cameron Johnson of Blacksburg, Va. “The TV shows we watch — anything from The Apprentice where the intro to the show is the ‘money song’ — to Us Weekly magazine where you see all the celebrities and their $6 million homes. We see reality TV shows with Jessica and Nick living the life. We see Britney and Paris. The people we relate to outside our friends are those people.”
Eighty-one percent of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll released today said getting rich is their generation’s most important or second-most-important life goal; 51% said the same about being famous.
“We’re seeing the common person become famous for being themselves,” says David Morrison of the Philadelphia-based research firm Twentysomething Inc. MTV and reality TV are in large part fueling these youthful desires, he says.
“Look at Big Brother and other shows. People being themselves can be incredibly famous and get sponsorship deals, and they can become celebrities,” he says. “It’s a completely new development in entertainment, and it’s having a crossover effect on attitudes and behavior.”
The results of the Pew telephone survey of 579 young people describe the “millennial” generation (also known as Gen Y), who were born since the early 1980s and were raised in the glow and glare of their parents’ omnipresent cameras. While experts say it’s natural for humans to seek attention, these young people revel in it. They’re accustomed to being noticed, having been showered with awards and accolades.
Add in the anything-is-possible attitude typical of youth overall, and experts say that even among millennials of lesser economic means, there is an optimism that fame and fortune can happen to anyone.
“Society raised us where money is glamorous, and everybody wants to be glamorous,” says Jason Head, an aspiring actor who turned 26 just before Thanksgiving. He earned an associate’s degree in applied arts. To pay the bills, he’s a bar manager and bartender in the Dallas suburb of Plano.
Still, this generation acknowledges the realities of a world in which bills must be paid, Pew found. Money is by far their most important problem; 30% cite financial concerns. College and education was the second-biggest concern at 18%, and careers and jobs were third at 16%.
Life today is expensive
Monetary realities are far bleaker for this generation than what their parents experienced. Costs for basics such as housing, insurance or education have escalated, even as income growth for the middle class has slowed. There’s also more disparity between rich and poor.
So, these young people may well be dreaming when they envision futures filled with money and fame, suggests economist Robert Frank of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Young people today may earn more in dollars than their parents did, but their money buys less, which may make them feel poorer and means a lot less economic security, Frank says.
“They’re going to have a harder time because the amounts they’ll have to come up with to even do as well as their parents are going to be harder to achieve,” he says.
Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, says one reason money appears so important is that modern American life “has a lot to do with acquisition.”
“The way to distinguish ourselves is by our stuff,” he says. “In some cultures, you’re born into a caste. You know who you are, and it doesn’t change. Here, you have to carve out your identity, and one of the most obvious ways to do that is to climb the ladder. It’s not about birth and class, but it is about financial status.”
Kristine Molina knows the pressure of trying to keep up. Molina is a graduate student in psychology and women’s studies on a fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was born in Nicaragua and raised in Miami by her grandparents, both janitors. She received financial aid at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., from which she graduated in 2005.
Pressure to fit in
“Being poor and being a person of color and not wanting to fit the stereotype, my first year I bought things,” she says. “I bought a lot of clothes and stuff for my room, and I bought my laptop. If my friends wanted to go out, I’d go out and spend on food when I knew I didn’t have the money.”
She turns 24 this month. She says hearing rags-to-riches stories and watching television shows about the lives of the rich and famous inspires her to want success in her own arena: She wants to become a college professor.
“I see some professors who have these big houses,” she says. “It would be nice if I could.”
Fame doesn’t necessarily mean being on TV. “I personally hope to become an influential figure and to be a prominent researcher in my field,” she says. “It’s famous, but it’s much less than stardom. I want to affect society.”
Virginia entrepreneur Johnson started a dozen businesses before turning 21. He says celebrities, from athletes to actors and music stars, get huge amounts of money, so it’s not surprising young people want that, too.
“Money creates the freedom to live the life we want,” he says. In addition to online business ventures such as selling Beanie Babies and gift cards, he has written a book, out this week from Simon & Schuster, You Call the Shots.
The Pew study found young people are about twice as likely (14%) to admire an entertainer than a political leader (8%).
“Famous people are in their faces so much more, and as a society, we have escalated the value we put on celebrities,” Thompson says.
Jason Barg, 24, a 2004 graduate of Penn State University who works for a Philadelphia accounting firm and founded an online real estate company, says notoriety is more about standing out from the crowd.
“A primary goal of people my age is not necessarily to become famous but to become distinctive,” he says.
Now, young people can be celebrities in their own worlds by posting videos on YouTube, posing like a model on MySpace or creating an online reality show featuring themselves. Pew found 54% of those 18 to 25 have used social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook; 44% have created a profile featuring photos, hobbies or interests.
“We’ve got a lot of people who, the entire time they were growing up, the only time anything important was happening, there was a camera present,” Thompson says. “When they were exiting the womb, they had a camera present. When they were blowing out that first candle or getting on the school bus for the first time, it was all being recorded.”
Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow of Golden Gate University in San Francisco worries about the downside of young people presenting themselves on the Web vs. the intimacy that comes with real communication.
“My fear is not so much for our society but for a sense of emptiness and depression these kids might have as they age,” she says. “They’re putting their resources and energy and validation and self-worth into what people who aren’t close to them think of them, which is fame.”
The Pew study attempted to find out more about the attitudes of this generation, which in many ways seem such a contrast to the flower-child values of many of their baby-boom parents.
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions commissioned the poll as part of a project studying Generation Next. USA TODAY is a reporting partner but did not help pay for the poll. The margin of error for findings on 18- to 25-year-olds is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Other research also suggests that the minds of millennials are preoccupied with money.
A Gallup Panel survey of 18- to 29-year-olds released last month found that 55% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “You dream about getting rich.” A similar Gallup study in 2003 of people under 30 found that more than half (51%) thought it was very likely or somewhat likely that they “will ever be rich.”
Concerned about finances
In an annual survey of college freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles, 2005 data show that money is much more on their minds than in the past. The percentage who say it is “essential” or “very important” to be “very well off financially” grew from 41.9% in 1967 to 74.5% in 2005; “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” dropped in importance from 85.8% in 1967 to 45% in 2005.
The same was true for high school seniors in 1976 compared with those in 2005. Monitoring the Future, a study conducted annually by the University of Michigan, found striking differences in responses to the question “How important to your life is having lots of money?” In 1976, 15.4% of 3,009 respondents thought it was “extremely important,” compared with 25% of 2,587 young people in 2005. And in 2005, 5.6% thought having lots of money was “not important,” down from 11% in 1976.
Mark Ayoub, 20, a junior majoring in politics and religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., says at one time, he wanted to be famous in national politics but changed his mind after seeing how politicians have so little personal time.
Rich, though, “appeals to me,” says Ayoub, who grew up in Needham, Mass., a suburb of Boston.
“I don’t need to be filthy rich,” he says, “but I want to live above the minimum — not just pay the bills but enjoy comfort in life and not just provide a minimal experience for my kids.”
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