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`Seekers,' not `Slackers'

PRESIDENT Clinton used his bully pulpit to good effect last Friday when he spoke to college students at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The media have made much of today's young adults, the so-called Generation X, as ``slackers'' who are unable to find a niche in society, trapped by a dark vision of the future into a sense of hopelessness, and forced by a changing economy into meaningless, low-paying jobs.

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In his speech marking the 75th anniversary of UCLA, the President asked the generation just behind the ``Xers'' to reject these labels. ``What I have seen today is not a generation of slackers but a generation of seekers, and I am much encouraged,'' Mr. Clinton said.

Should we be surprised to learn that the students cheered?

These words of encouragement in no way dismiss the significant challenges and uncertainties young people face today. Yet the good that is already going on is a vastly underreported topic.

For example, a study by Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 800 charitable and volunteer groups, shows that 61 percent of Americans aged 12 to 17 do some form of unpaid volunteer work, an average of 3.2 hours of it a week. What's more, this represents an increase from 58 percent in a similar survey conducted in 1990.

The volunteer work consists of tasks such as cleanup work; helping out in a theater, musical, or arts organization; assisting the elderly, handicapped, or homebound; and teaching Sunday school or Bible lessons. If the teens had been paid the $4.35 minimum wage, their work would have had an annual value of $7 billion, according to the study.

That hardly describes a group of self-centered slackers.

The study contained a significant further point: Most of the youths didn't get involved in volunteer work on their own. Nine out of 10 said it took an invitation from a parent, teacher, or friend.

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That's a reminder that the burden of keeping personal and national sights set on improving the future is everyone's business.

Today's teenagers are no more a ``lost generation'' than their parents were in the turbulent 1960s or this century's ``original'' lost generation was in the 1920s. But it is incumbent on all of us to help awaken the brighter hopes within them.

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