- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

CHICAGO (AP) — Melissa Greenwood sees it every day at her high school: the hyper-focus on designer labels, the must-have trendy cell phones, the classmates driving sport utility vehicles.

“It bothers me because I would like to think I am the opposite,” said Melissa, a 16-year-old high school junior from Arlington Heights, an affluent suburb of Chicago. She says she sometimes finds it difficult to avoid the urge to fit in.

“Let’s face it,” she said. “Honestly, what teenage girl doesn’t want to look cute and have the latest accessories?”

Polls show that the obsession with material things is growing and that being rich is more important to young people today than in the past.

The University of California at Los Angeles released its annual survey of college freshman last week and found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in 2006 thought it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially.” That compares with 62.5 percent who said the same in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was conducted.

A poll from the Pew Research Center found that about 80 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in this country see getting rich as a top life goal for their generation.

Young Americans’ obsession with material things has caused talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to vent her frustrations, when asked why she built a school in South Africa instead of the United States.

“If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an IPod or some sneakers,” Miss Winfrey told Newsweek magazine, referring to visits with students in inner-city schools. “In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”

Researchers say materialism is an obsession that cuts across socioeconomic lines.

“Our kids have absorbed the cultural values of more, easy, fast and fun,” said David Walsh, a psychologist who heads the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. He said his research, adjusting for inflation, found that parents are spending 500 percent more money on children today than one generation earlier.

“A lot of parents have developed an allergic reaction to their kids being unhappy,” he said.

“There are a lot of young people hitting 25 who are making, say, $35,000 a year, who expected they’d be millionaires or at least making six figures,” said psychologist Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

Tim Barello, a 24-year-old New Yorker, agrees that his generation has become caught up in wanting “more and more and more.”

Having grown up on Long Island’s wealthy North Shore, he thought he had arrived when he got a job as a publicist and was able to rent an apartment in an exclusive apartment building in Manhattan.

“To be completely honest,” he said, “I don’t even appreciate everything I have sometimes. Yes, I have a nice apartment, a great job, a great degree, great clothing. But I feel empty inside rather often.”

So he is changing his focus. This week, he began classes at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts to pursue his dream of acting, even if it means giving up the cushy life.

“There is so much more to life,” he said, “than materialistic possessions.”

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