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 SUVs.
You could say it's just teens being teens. But new polls indicate the obsession with material things is growing, and that being rich is more important to young people now than in the past.
UCLA's annual survey of college freshmen, released last Friday, 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 done.
Another recent 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.
"It bothers me because I would like to think I am the opposite," says Greenwood, a 16-year-old high school junior from Arlington Heights, a well-off suburb outside Chicago.
She tries to keep her own spending in check, but even she sometimes finds it difficult to avoid the urge to fit in.
"Let's face it," she says. "Honestly, what teenage girl doesn't want to look cute and have the latest accessories?"
Indeed, researchers say materialism is an obsession that cuts across socioeconomic lines for American youth.
"Our kids have absorbed the cultural values of more, easy, fast and fun," says David Walsh, a psychologist who heads the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. He's also author of No: Why Kids — of All Ages — Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.
As his book's title suggests, he believes parents have played an integral role in encouraging their children's materialism. His research found that, when adjusted for inflation, parents are spending 500 percent more money on kids today than just one generation earlier.
"A lot of parents have developed an allergic reaction to their kids being unhappy," he says.
Ann Fishman, a generational marketing consultant in New Orleans, also has found that baby boomer and Gen X parents are much more likely to spend money on their children than parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.
Today, she notes, young people are known for their collective billion-dollar spending power, much of it thanks to money they get from their parents.
"They have a different idea of what's necessary," Fishman says of young people. "For them, a cell phone is normal; an iPod is normal; a Game Boy is normal."
Some see the heightened expectations setting up inevitable disappointment.
"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," says psychologist Jean Twenge. She's 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 gotten caught up in wanting "more and more and more."
Having grown up on Long Island's wealthy North Shore, he thought he'd 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 says, "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's changing his focus and this week, 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 says, "than materialistic possessions."
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