Are California's Youth the Most Diverse Generation Ever?

New America Media, an advocacy group focusing on issues of identity, recently undertook a cell-phone survey of the attitudes and concerns of Californians aged 16 to 22. Kevin Weston, New America Media's Youth Communications Director, talks to Farai Chideya about a generation the survey describes as "coming of age in a society of unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity."

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

California is a trendsetter in more ways than one, and a new study about young people in the state rates a second look. The study shows a diverse population optimistic about the future, tolerant of racial mixing, and researchers contacted subjects entirely on their cell phones.

Joining me now to talk more about the study is Kevin Weston, director of Youth Communications for New America Media. Welcome, Kevin.

Mr. KEVIN WESTON (Youth Communications Director, New America Media): How are you doing, Farai?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing good. New America Media had its start as New California Media. Why did you choose only now to focus on California?

Mr. WESTON: Well, California is still the state to watch on a lot of hot-button issues - immigration, education, prisons, violence, jobs, diversity, global warming and the climate change. All these issues are coming to a head in California.

CHIDEYA: Now, you personally, what did you find the most surprising?

Mr. WESTON: Well, the most surprising finding that I think is what they're actually worried about, what young people are worried about in this state when all this stuff is going on in their neighborhoods and in the world. What they're most worried about is family breakdown, which I think is counter-intuitive.

CHIDEYA: Now, I see this overall 96 percent figure of people being optimistic, saying if I work hard I can achieve my goals versus four percent saying no matter how hard I work there are too many things beyond my control that will prevent me from reaching my goals. So if that is the case, and this generation is overwhelmingly optimistic, why do we see in other venues like pop culture a much more cynical view of life?

Mr. WESTON: Well, I don't think pop culture really reflects what's going on in these communities that well. You know, the nihilism that happens in pop culture, these are people who don't necessarily transfer that on to their own lives. They really feel like, you know, it's - that's a very individual kind of American thing that they have that they - if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They believe that.

And I think they do have examples of that in pop culture. I mean, there are big examples of folks that did work hard, that made it and that are some of the heroes of this generation. But at the same time, all the messages that they receive don't necessarily resonate. And I think this is one statistic that could set out there.

CHIDEYA: How important do you get the sense that pop culture is?

Mr. WESTON: If you look at how they identify, like how they look at their identity, music was the first identifier, and that was above ethnicity and religion. So what does that mean? That means that music and culture is the most important thing to them. And I think that that's one of the things that breaks down a lot of the racial barriers that you've seen in other parts of the study where, you know, over 60 percent have dated outside their race. Eight-five percent with - could see themselves marrying someone outside their race.

And how different is that? You know, in 1970, only two percent of families were interracial. In 2005, it's over seven percent, and that's rising. So this generation knows each other more intimately than any other generation that's ever happened in America. And one of the things that brought them together was pop culture.

CHIDEYA: What did your findings on the war in Iraq say? It seems to me that some of the figures are not so different from what you might expect from older Americans.

Mr. WESTON: Well, you know, they're overwhelmingly against the war. I mean, it's - and I think that this generation has the burden of fighting in that war. And I think this is really one of the wars that - where young people know each other - know other young people who went there and they are sending back images and letters and, you know, video. And so these young people know what's going on in Iraq as far as their peers are concerned and what condition they're coming back in. So the fact that they're against the war is not surprising at all.

CHIDEYA: What about their willingness to serve?

Mr. WESTON: Well, I think that that has - there are relatively high in number that will be willing to serve, I think, really has to do with what the armed forces offers these young people. A lot of young people see the Armed Forces as a way to get out of the poverty that they're in and to get health care and benefit and the kind of job situation that the rest of society should be providing. A lot of them are seeing the Armed Forces as an alternative and I don't think that's necessarily bad. But the problem here, I think, is, you know, there is a disconnect between, you know, being against the war and wanting to serve.

CHIDEYA: Well, Kevin, thanks a lot.

Mr. WESTON: Thanks so much, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Kevin Weston is director of youth communications for New America Media. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco, and we talked about a new study on California's young people. For more information from the study, check out our Web site at npr.org/newsandnotes.

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