HOW HIGH SCHOOL KIDS SEE THE 1990S They're intimidated by the Japanese, distrustful of today's leaders, and critical of absentee parents. Also resoundingly pro-business -- and optimistic.
By Stratford P. Sherman REPORTER ASSOCIATE Sara Hammes

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IF THE FUTURE has a voice, it is the voice of youth. To learn more about the world to be, FORTUNE asked a diverse group of 20 mostly high-school-age youths around the country about their expectations for the 1990s. Judging by this bunch, the years ahead may be more promising than we have been led to believe. Undereducated they may be, but these kids are thoughtful, caring, and pragmatic. Given the craziness of the world around them, they seem reassuringly sane and normal. They know the U.S. faces grave problems and fear that today's leaders are too self-indulgent to make the hard choices needed to turn America around. They believe the job will fall to the young -- and they are determined to succeed. Don't expect to like everything they say: The consumers, workers, and voters of tomorrow don't necessarily share their elders' priorities and beliefs. A discouraging example: Most doubt America will prevail in competition with Japan. Not one identified him- or herself as a Democrat; most say they are independents or Republicans. Capitalists all, even in the ghettos, these teenagers are resoundingly pro-business and particularly esteem big business. At the same time, they say they're incensed by pollution and deficit spending, and concerned about the poor. Most favor increased regulation of business. Despite their fears about American competitiveness, most expect their country to prosper in the 1990s. U.S. society is becoming so fragmented that there may be no such thing as a typical teen. FORTUNE's sampling, while hardly scientific, was designed to reflect the country's increasing ethnic and economic diversity. Represented here, among others, are prosperous suburbanites in Shelby County, Tennessee, and Winnetka, Illinois; black and Hispanic students in Harlem; Cambodian refugees in East Los Angeles; and former crack dealers in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In all, we visited four public high schools and two programs designed to help urban youth. We ended the tour deeply impressed by America's rich ethnic stew and by the ardent appeals so many of these kids voiced for a new national unity. -- ON BUSINESS. ''Working for a company on the FORTUNE 500 is my goal,'' says Karin Lichtermann, 17, of Cordova, Tennessee, the daughter of a pilot for Federal Express and of an administrator for the Memphis health department. Efrain Sanchez, 18, at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, feels much the same way. A Mexican who resides legally in a gang-dominated Los Angeles neighborhood, he comes from an eight-person family living on roughly $14,000 a year. Sanchez is a senior at L.A.'s Downtown Business Magnet school. With corporate support, the school offers a business-oriented curriculum to an astonishingly diverse group of inner-city kids. ''I hope I work for a big company,'' says Sanchez. ''With a big company, the chances increase for promotion. I'd like to keep going up and up and up until I croak, I guess.'' When these kids criticize business -- and they do -- they are far more respectful than many of today's younger executives were when they were kids, back in the 1960s. Consider Paul Johnson, 17, president of the senior class at one of the country's top public high schools, New Trier in Winnetka, Illinois. The kids at this school go for preppy TopSider-style moccasins, and Johnson's -- exuberantly pink -- mark him as a leader. ''Companies have a lot of power,'' he argues. ''They have the potential for a lot more good influence on America, and they are not using that potential. They are just, like, Get the money, make the money. Definitely.'' A former crack addict in blighted Bridgeport, Connecticut, who says she used to sell drugs to support her habit, sounds a similar theme. Since she was arrested as a juvenile and sent to a drug-treatment program, she apparently has cleaned up her life. As such, she might be a valuable role model for other troubled kids -- but her lifestyle is decidedly unglamorous. She is living with her boyfriend's sister while studying for a high school equivalency certificate. Says she: ''Big corporations never take time out to see how other people feel. They should open their eyes and see how the lower people are doing, not only the rich people. They don't give nobody chances, and I just wish they would look at that.'' -- ON JOB EXPECTATIONS. Five of the 20 interviewees plan careers in business, the most popular choice. Almost all expressed confidence that they will be better off than their parents. Asked to guess at their annual earnings ten years from now, they came up with a stunningly optimistic average estimate of $58,000, net of inflation. That's more than twice what the average adult wage earner makes today. By a small margin, a majority said they think they'll earn enough to buy a home within ten years. Stephen Davis, 17, from prosperous Germantown, Tennessee, says he expects to own a house ''with a pool in the back'' as well as a ''nice sports car'' such as a Mercedes or a Porsche. ''If you finance it long enough, you can afford almost anything,'' he explains. The rich have no monopoly on hope. Jose Guzman, 21, is a Hartford senior raised on welfare. Two years ago he was shot in the chest while playing basketball at school, victim of a stray bullet from an argument nearby. As he looks forward to graduation, Guzman says, ''I've got a better chance ((than my parents)). I ain't got no kids yet, I ain't married, and I'm going to school. Nothing's stopping me.'' Only one interviewee, Orlando Reyes, 16, a barely literate tenth-grader also from a Hartford family on welfare, doubts he will make enough to be comfortable. When asked to spell the name of the street he lives on -- Cotswold -- Reyes could not. ''For me it's going to be harder, in this neighborhood,'' he says. ''It's dangerous around here. Ten years from now I don't know if I'll be alive.'' -- ON THE FEDERAL BUDGET DEFICIT. Only three kids expect the deficit to shrink during the next ten years. (Three interviewees, all in Harlem, didn't know what the deficit was.) Typical is the view of New Trier's Emilie Duhl, 17, who hopes to work in the U.S. foreign service: ''The deficit is probably going to keep going up. It's invisible money they're spending.'' Adds Stephen Davis: ''I think we have to raise taxes to get rid of our debt. The Republicans will probably have to get booted out of office, much as I hate to see that happen.'' -- ON INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION. Sharply divided about America's ability to compete in world markets, most of the interviewees seemed intimidated by Japanese commercial prowess. ''Competing against Japan is the main issue of the beginning of the 21st century,'' says Karin Lichtermann. ''Their whole society seems to have higher goals. I think we have reached our peak, and we are coming down. We're just stagnant. It makes me feel trapped. We can't blame it on anyone but ourselves. We've had this way of life a long time, and no one has ever taken away any of our freedoms, to teach us what we have to lose. We don't know what it's like to be No. 2.'' Despite such pessimism, protectionist talk was rare. Cristina Hackl, 18, of New Trier, represents the more popular view: ''Competition never hurt anybody. It keeps America on its toes. It forces us to make better products.'' -- ON FAMILY LIFE. By the standards of just a few decades ago, conventional family life seems almost extinct. Seven of the 20 young people interviewed come from what used to be called broken homes. Only ten have parents who are living under the same roof and holding down jobs; in seven of these families, both parents work. Several kids were harshly critical of the absentee parenting that has resulted, in part, from millions of women joining the work force. While FORTUNE's sample certainly isn't statistically representative, the young people's frustration probably is. Says Greg Budzak, 17, of Germantown, Tennessee: ''Having gone through ((my parents')) divorce, I think it's important for one parent to be home and supply the kids with what they need.'' Cristina Hackl agrees: ''I have quite a few friends whose parents both work or are divorced. The parents seem to have no time for their children. Their kids seem to get in trouble more; their grades are lower. They have no self- confidence, no drive or ambition to do anything. You need strong family ties at the home. I would never put work before family.'' Shirley Hernandez, 18, is an exceptionally articulate senior at the business-magnet school in Los Angeles. The daughter of poor immigrants from Peru, she hopes for a career in politics. Hernandez holds business partly responsible for the decline of family life. Her view is that corporations took advantage of the women flooding into the work force during the 1980s, holding wages down and thereby forcing more families to depend on two incomes. As a result, she says, corporations should accept more responsibility for child care and education. ''A lot of people don't know their parents,'' she says, ''because Mommy and Daddy have to work all the time. It's very sad. We're losing values, and if we don't change, we're going to lose a lot more.'' In the ghetto, marriage itself is under siege. Listen to the former crack addict in Bridgeport who expects to have children someday but not a husband: ''Kids are enough to get tied down with,'' she says. ''Marriage is too much.'' Rolando Pierce, 22, also of Bridgeport, shares her perspective. Never married but the father of 4-year-old twins, he claims to have spent seven years selling crack and other illegal drugs, earning up to $100,000 a year. He says he quit the increasingly dangerous business several months ago. ''I'm not getting married yet,'' he says. ''Things have changed. You don't court no women now -- you just get it and go.'' -- ON THE TOP POLITICAL ISSUES. Much of the list is just what you'd expect: education. The environment. Drugs. AIDS. But there are surprises, including business ethics, defined broadly enough to include such issues as pollution. And above all, poverty. Phoeung Chau, 18, a Cambodian refugee in Los Angeles's business-magnet school, comes from the kind of family that is reinventing the American dream. With her widowed, illiterate mother and six siblings, Chau moved to America in 1981. After less than two years on welfare, the family became self-supporting. Chau ranks third out of 172 students in her high school class and seems headed straight for success. But she worries about her neighbors: ''It seems the upper class is getting better off and the poor are getting worse. The poor are losing the opportunity to succeed.'' Paul Johnson, raised on the more fortunate side of the tracks, agrees. ''Poverty is going to be a big issue,'' he warns. ''You know the poor are not going to get rich in ten years.'' Shirley Hernandez, who compares parts of Los Angeles with the Third World, vividly remembers visiting the home of a friend whose mother scolded him for not eating his broccoli. As Hernandez recalls, ''His mother said, 'Don't you know there are starving people in your backyard?' I never thought of it that way. My mother always said people were starving in Africa or something.'' -- ON DRUGS. The interviewees generally support the war on drugs, but few give it much chance of success. They largely agree that the drug problem is serious and widespread -- and greatly misunderstood by adults. ''If anything is going to destroy the country, it's drugs,'' says Greg Budzak, speaking for the majority. ''There isn't one person in the country who doesn't know someone who uses drugs.'' But to ask after a solution is to give rise to a clamor of clashing views, as the young people advocate policies ranging from harsher legal penalties to outright legalization. In the opinion of Rolando Pierce, the Bush Administration's emphasis on law enforcement is ''a waste of money.'' Says he: ''No matter how many people you lock up ((for selling drugs)), there's going to be more people coming in to do it.'' Two discernible themes emerge from the clamor. One is that the credibility of the war on drugs might be enhanced if the warriors dealt with the totality of substance abuse, including alcohol and cigarettes along with marijuana and cocaine. Second, the kids think adults should learn to discriminate among dissimilar drugs instead of presenting them, unconvincingly, as equally dangerous. In the upper-middle-class schools where educators work hardest to steer kids away from drugs, harder drugs such as cocaine are going out of fashion. ''People are turning away from it,'' says Cristina Hackl of New Trier. In Shelby County, students say, crack is readily available but rarely used. Those gains, however, mask widespread substance abuse. Says Paul Johnson: ''The real attitude is that if you use drugs, you are no hero -- but you are no loser either. It's accepted. To ignore the problem, to say it's going to decrease, is a total falsehood. You're missing the whole point.'' Karin Lichtermann agrees: ''I don't think people realize how bad the drug problem is now. Alcohol is our biggest problem because everyone accepts it, and it causes the most damage. And you can forget the 'Just Say No' campaign. People who need to listen to it, don't; and those who don't need to, do.'' Shirley Hernandez believes prevailing social values reinforce the drug problem: ''Everybody is into instant pleasure, whether it's Coca-Cola or McDonald's, and drugs just fit into that. Everybody's looking for a fast, easy buck. Everything's fast: fast food, fast bucks, fast drugs.'' If there is cause for hope, it is in the testimony of the young woman in Bridgeport who went through a rehabilitation program and seems to have kicked her addiction to crack: ''If you really want to stop using drugs, you can,'' she says. -- ON THE ENVIRONMENT. Here's an issue on which almost everyone agreed. John Hatfield, 17, of New Trier expresses the consensus view: ''If we continue at the pace we're going at now, the environment is going to be destroyed completely.'' The only interviewees who didn't share that perspective were the worst educated of the inner-city youths. Said one: ''Pollution? What's that?'' Along with the deficit, the pollution issue leads young people to regard their elders as selfish and irresponsible. Says Efrain Sanchez: ''A lot of people don't care about the environment. They're happy and they don't care what's going to happen with their kids in the future.'' Even the solidly Republican Greg Budzak agrees: ''The time will come when people will realize how stupid we're being. When you think about it, this is the generation it's going to affect. We're the ones who are going to suffer.'' The harshest and most often voiced of the young people's complaints about business center on the environment, particularly in smog-mantled Los Angeles. Says Hernandez: ''First things first. We've got to breathe. In the 1980s it was all me-me-me, kickback, Don't worry, be happy. Now we find we can't breathe. Unless the government gets more regulations on businesses, the pollution's going to get worse. It's fine to have a free and open market, but some of those corporations are just going for a fast buck and not thinking about the damage they are doing.'' -- ON EDUCATION. Most of these young people seem better educated -- or less badly educated -- than media reports would lead you to expect. Almost all were interesting conversationalists, expressive, and eager to think. As a group they seem frustrated and embarrassed by the widespread view that they are poorly educated, and they seem willing to work harder. What's profoundly troubling to them is the far lower quality of education for the poor. As Paul Johnson observes, ''The poor people get the poor education.'' A rare but encouraging exception to that patently unacceptable rule is the Los Angeles business-magnet school. This public school, supported by such companies as American Express and Coopers & Lybrand, produced by far the most intellectually lively students we encountered. Part of the secret is adequate funding and intellectually lively teachers. The kids we talked with want to learn. ''Throughout my life span, there has never been an improvement in education,'' says Karin Lichtermann. ''We can raise our standards. Japanese kids go to school a lot longer. I don't want to stay in school a couple of extra hours a day, but if that's what it takes, I guess I could do as much as any Japanese student.'' For people raised in poverty, the problem is more complex. According to Hieu Phan, 18, a Vietnamese immigrant living in Los Angeles, ''There is not a strong emphasis on education. The government along with parents should talk with kids more about education, stress the importance, explain the benefits of it.'' Nationwide, roughly a quarter of high school students fail to graduate. Dropout rates are far higher among the poor. The U.S. too often offers only third-rate schooling to children of poverty, reinforcing their alienation from the larger society. Combined with the higher birthrates prevailing among the poor, this makes for a national nightmare. In places like Harlem, teachers may spend so long on the rudiments of reading and math that their students can reach voting age unaware of the main issues on the national agenda. If you ever want to lose some sleep, consider the implications of this remark by a student in East Harlem: ''I think the Constitution should be rewritten. That was written back in the 1800s. Times have changed, and we can't relate to something written over a century ago.'' -- ON THE NEED FOR NATIONAL UNITY. According to the kids we surveyed, from Harlem to East Los Angeles, equal opportunity in employment has become a reliable fact of life in the United States. ''The way the world is now, people can't afford to be prejudiced,'' says Lorena Gonzalez, 19, of East Los Angeles. But that certainly does not mean that prejudice has been extinguished. In Shelby County, Tennessee, the suburban public schools are over 80% white; schools in the city of Memphis are 80% black. When officials of the Memphis Board of Education recently proposed merging the two school systems, leaders of every Shelby County municipality but Memphis threatened to secede from the county. ''It's like the Civil War,'' says a local teacher. Greg Budzak offers a student's perspective: ''There's not any prejudice, but the blacks don't associate with the whites, and the whites don't associate with the blacks. Nobody makes an effort to meet anybody. It's like any other clique.'' Most of the kids we interviewed regard that kind of cliquishness as a major obstacle in the way of America's return to greatness. Shirley Hernandez has a thoughtful last word: ''America is a big combination of everybody and everything. There's every sort of culture in this country. If we want to be strong, we have to be together. Or else we have nothing.''