Subtitled “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us)” — which is quite a mouthful.
Now, a month or two ago, I started to read a book called GenZ@Work, by a father-son team, David and Jonah Stillman, who collectively call themselves the “Gen Z Guru,” or, at any rate, that’s the name of their website. I wasn’t much impressed with the book, which focused on the post-Millennial generation in the workplace. As I recall, in some instances, they predicted an intensification of Millennial traits, and in other cases, a reversal. For instance, they said that Millennials were raised by Baby Boomers to expect incessant praise and trophies merely for participation. The next generation, having been raised by a skeptical Generation X, was given more measured praise. (Is this true? I know that in my household, the kids were told that the trophies and medals for being in soccer for a season were to be viewed as souvenirs, and my kids have observed multiple times that I’m not so lavish with praise, but when they tell me this, they add, “you’re not like the other moms.” Fortunately, they seem to view this as a good thing rather than voicing unhappiness with the lack of praise-no-matter-what.)
Which says that there are multiple people trying to make their mark as the definers of the post-Millennial generation, even determining what the “official” name of this generation, and the “official” start dates should be.
Now, once upon a time, generations were measured based on demographic trends. If I’m not mistaken, the start and end years of Generation X are based on the beginning and end of the Baby Bust; likewise, the Baby Boomers start-year is the end of the war and the start of, well, the Baby Boom. But now Experts are eager enough to start claiming expertise that they don’t have the patience for this; Twenge declares the “iGen” generation to have begun with the birth year 1995, so that the Millennial generation matches Generation X in years, each lasting only 14 years.
Now, as it happens, that year is about right in terms of some key markers: Facebook began allowing 13 year olds to establish accounts in 2006. The first iPhone was released in 2007. And, most importantly, the year 2011 is when there is a major change in teenager’s activities, behaviors, and opinions, in long-term surveys; the 13 – 18 year olds answering these surveys were born between 1993 and 1998.
Now, I don’t know if it’s reasonable to crown these kids a new “generation,” especially since we’re talking about a group the oldest of which is now 22, and the youngest, with her proposed cutoff of 2012, is now 5 years old. What we’re really talking about is what life looks like for the generation of kids who came of age alongside smartphones, as well as certain other coinciding social trends. Perhaps parents will have figured a few things out by the time, say, today’s 10 year olds are in their teens, or perhaps the changes will essentially be permanent, and there won’t be anything that meaningfully cuts off this generation at the birth year of 2012.
But be that as it may, whether the “iGen” is a true “generation” or just a phenomenon of kids coming of age before parents have smartphone-age parenting figured out, there are a number of key changes in this latest batch of teens and college students. And, yes, I have three kids who fall into this age category. In some ways, they fit these trends, but, well, in other ways, my kids are just, well, different.
So here they are: all the ways in which there has been a dramatic shift (or maybe not, where Twenge thinks there should have been), largely based on the long-term Monitoring the Future study, as well as her experiences interviewing these kids and teaching them in college. Not all of these shifts happen according to Twenge’s birth-year-1995 schedule, though. And this is going to be a loooong summary, because it’s for my own use in making sense of the book as well as for sharing with you all. Also note that the data is in the form of graphs from which I guess at the year and the percentage without necessarily complete accuracy in the way that I could with tables.
Chapter 1: Growing up slowly
Twenge starts off with items in the “growing up” category.
There’s been a sudden drop in the percent of kids who “ever go out on dates”; beginning in 2008 or 2009. (p. 21).
There are significant drops in the percent of kids who say they have ever had sex, starting in 2013.
There have been drops in the 12th graders who have gotten their driver’s license or have driven in the past year — gradual declines from the 1970s to about 2004, then a steep drop from maybe 82% in 2005 to 72% (eyeballing the chart) in 2011. (Twenge discards the possibility of this being the result of the stiffer driving requirements beginning in the 2000s, because she expects they would have caught up by 12th grade, and because the decrease in license-getting kids was there for even states without these new restrictions.)
The percent of kids who are latchkey kids (that is, at home alone in the afternoon) has dropped considerably, too: from nearly 78% of 8th graders in 1997 to not quite 70% in 2014. The survey doesn’t differentiate between those cases where a parent is at home vs. putting the kid in afterschool care, and an additional possibility that Twenge doesn’t consider is that this is a time period in which working at home and flex schedules became increasingly common, so that parents of middle school kids may have become more able, during this time period, to arrange their schedules to be at home in the midafternoon (p. 29).
The percent of teens with jobs has dropped, too, from 55% of 10th graders in 2000 to only 33% or so in 2015. (Oddly, more 8th graders than 10th graders worked at the 1992 data at which the data begins – maybe 62% or so. Perhaps this is because 8th grade, before high school activities start up, is, or was, prime babysitting age. But the clearest drop-off starts in 2000.) (p. 30)
But it’s not as if teens were spending more time on homework and afterschool activities. These all dropped for each age group, beginning in 2000, though with an odd, suspicious-data uptick for the 12th graders from 2010 – 2014.
The percent of high schoolers who have ever tried alcohol has also dropped steadily — from 80% in 1994 to a little over 60% in 2016, for 12th graders (p. 36). The percent of 18 year olds who reported binge drinking has been dropping steadily since the late 80s, with no particular recentness to the trend, but ther has been a dip in 21 – 22 year old binge drinkers, typically steady at about 40%, down to 35% from 2012 to 2014 (but at the same time, there was a similar brief jump up in 2006, so it’s too soon to say whether this drop is permanent).
Twenge ties all these together — the fact that kids are doing fewer of the “bad” things but also fewer of the “good” markers of adulthood and reports that kids are simply growing up later, and they don’t chafe at but are happy to be under the care and supervision of their parents for much longer than in prior years. And even when, in college, they are no longer under their parents’ care, they still want to be cared for, e.g., with trigger warnings and safe spaces, and Twenge even quotes a student openly asking a faculty member to be treated as a child, not an adult.
Why exactly they don’t want to grow up isn’t exactly clear, except as a consequence of the way they were parented.
[A]s children they could live in a cocoon, with all of the fun but little of the work. Their parents made childhod a wonderful place with lots of praise, an emphasis on fun, and few responsibilities. No wonder they don’t want to grow up.
Chapter 2: Social media
The growth in how much time teens spend on their phones — which are better thought of as internet-access devices — has, not surprisingly, exploded. On average, seniors 2 1/4 hours per day texting, 2 hours on the internet, 1 1/2 hours playing games, 1/2 hour on video chat, and these figures are the same for wealthy and poor teens. (To be honest, I have a hard time believing these statistics, and Twenge seems to suggest that there may be a lot of overlap in these numbers.) Not surprisingly, the percent of teens using social media daily has exploded since 2009, not because this generation is “different” but because the concept of “social media” didn’t much exist before then. For many teen girls, there’s an unhealthy dynamic in which they obsess over how many likes they get, how many followers they have. For teen boys, social media is less of a draw, but video games can suck them in instead.
Social media and other online time have replaced, to a fair degree, other forms of entertainment — there was a sharp drop-off in teens going out to movies monthly starting in the early 2000s, from about 65% to only 47% in 2014 for 10th graders, and from 70% in 2006 to 56% in 2014 for 12th graders. TV watching at home has dropped too; for 8th graders, there’s been a drop since data collection began in 1990, but the drop intensified in about 2002, from 2.9 hours to 2.2 hours average per weekday; for 10th graders the drop began in 2006, from 2.4 to 1.9 hours.
But another crucial item that’s declined is rates of out-of-school reading. The decline in newspaper reading has been ongoing since prior to the advent of online news, dropping from 68% of 10th graders in 1991 to 10% in 2015; for magazines reading rates were steady at 60% until 1999, when they started their decline to a similar 10%. Twenge doesn’t specify whether the survey question specifically allowed for online magazines or newspapers, but suggests that is the case. As for reading of books for pleasure, the number of high school seniors who read “nearly every day” dropped from 60% in the 70s to 15% now, in a steady drop with a few plateaus in the late 80s/early 90s and mid-2000s. A looser standard of reading at least two books in a year saw a drop from the mid-70s to the late 80s, from nearly 80% to barely 60%; then a plateau, a dip, and a recovery, and a drop to the low 50s from 2009 to 2013. Twenge believes that this has real consequences for teens’ and young adults’ ability to read in a focused and sustained way at an advanced reading level and suggests that even college textbooks will in the future need to be dumbed-down and made interactive.
Chapter 3: Virtual lives
Regardless of whether the changes in reading are new or not, one unmistakable change is that today’s teens and young adults socialize much less often in person, and far more often virtually. Beginning in 2000, the rate at which teens attended parties monthly or more dropped markedly; for 10th graders, from 79% to 60%; for 12th graders, from 74% to 55%; much of the decrease occurred from 2008 onwards. (That 10th graders should party at a greater rate than 12th graders is a surprise in the first place, though.) There have been similar drops in the percent of students reporting that they “get together with friends” daily or nearly daily, though here the drop is gradual from about 2000 and begins in earnest in 2008 or 2010, when it drops from about 40 – 45% by age, to 27% – 33% by age in 2014. The rate at which 8th & 10th graders go to shopping malls is also down, from about 85% monthly in 1999 to 65 – 70% by age in 2015.
And what’s replaced all this in-person interaction is virtual interaction — from 2009 to 2015, the percent of 12th graders reporting spending 10 or more hours per week online incrased from 22% to 44%.
What’s the result? Based on survey data,
[T]eens who spend more time on screen activities . . . are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities . . . are more likely to be happy (p. 77).
This is a consistent result across all types of activities. And studies have also shown this of adults: increased Facebook use correlates with increased unhappiness. A Danish study randomly assigned adults to control or study groups; the latter was instructed to stay off Facebook for a week, and they reported greater happiness and satisfaction than the control group. But it is for young teens that the impact of social media is the greatest. And Twenge’s interview subjects report being aware that social media heightens their awareness of whether they get notifications or likes and increases their concern with what others think of them — and that’s on top of issues of cyberbullying. Beyond this, virtual rather than in-person communication seems to be stunting social skill development, the ability to interact with others, look people in the eye, and read emotions.
Chapter 4, Mental Health
Many of the trends Twenge has been observing are fairly long-term, say, since the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not so with mental health. Generation X teens were stereotypically moody and emo, she says, (here Twenge refers to the teens of the 1990s, so I guess she means younger Gen Xers), but Millennials were “overconfident optimists” encouraged by the increasingly individualistic culture to “feel good about themselves — not just as good as they should but even better than might be justified” (p. 94), what with the encouragement to having a high self-esteem. But there’s been a real drop in the years when the “iGen” hit their teens. The percent of teens reporting they are “very happy” grew from a low in the mid-90s to highs by 2010 before dropping again — though, to be sure, this is a graph that looks dramatic until you look at the scale. For 10th graders, the rates climbed from 16% in 1992 to 21.5% in 2010, and are now at 18.5%. Another question asked 12th graders if they are satisfied with their lives as a whole; there’s a lot of noise in this graph, but the rates climb from about 65% in 1976 to a peak of 73% in 2011 before dropping to 63% in 2014. And again, during the 90s, teens answered in the affirmative that they “often felt left out” at decreasing rates, from 30% in 1991 to a low of 25% in 2007; from 2010 to 2013, the rate jumped from 26% to 32%. (The movement is so dramatic that I wonder if there was a glitch in the survey data, or a low sample size.) The left-out-ed-ness feelings increase was much sharper for girls than boys; a 48% increase from 2010 to 2015 for girls vs. a 27% increase for boys. Teens also answered in the affirmative to depression-screening questions like “I can’t do anything right” or “I do not enjoy life” at substantially increasing rates from 2012 to the present — from 23% to 29% for “I do not enjoy life,” for example. And, again, the increase is largely among teen girls — where the rate of those reporting yes to these screening questions increased from 22% to 33% from 2011 to 2015.
Chapter 5: Religion
Once upon a time, it was a given that religion was dying in Europe, but alive-and-well in the U.S. But now we’re increasingly seeing signs that the same thing is happening in the U.S. 2007 Pew data reported that one in 3 millennials (ages 20 – 34) claimed no religion, a seemingly dramatic drop from the past, but the Pew study doesn’t have data further back than 2007 to measure changes between generations rather than age groups.
But the Monitoring the Future study has data on this. 90% of young adults (ages 18 – 24) identified themselves as affiliated with a religious group in 1988; now only 67% do. Among teens, the rates have been more steady but began to drop in about 2000; for instance, 84% of 12th graders claimed a religion in 1999, now only 76% do. In part, this isn’t a result of their own religious decisions, but the fact that their own parents may have identified with a religion but did not practice it in any manner that would pass down the faith. In the American Freshman Survey, there was a drop-off, among both parents-of-freshmen and among freshmen, in the percent who identified with a religion, from about 2000 to the present, from about 90% to 83% for parents, and from about 85% to 69% for the kids. At the same time, disavowal of religion became increasingly socially acceptable. The percent of teens and young adults who exhibit even minimal religious belief or practice has dropped markedly. As recently as 1995-ish, 85% of college freshmen stated that they “ever” attend religious services; now only 69% do. According to the General Social Survey, 86% of 18 – 24 year olds reported believing in God in 1988, and that figure has dropped to 68% in 2014; however, this figure looks a bit off, considering that higher numbers report believing the Bible is the “inspired word of God” or believing in the afterlife, than believing in God. Twenge’s data also suggests that the notion of “spiritual but not religious” is declining among this generation; there is not the same sort of data over time, but only slightly more than 45% of the 18 -24 year olds identify as “spiritual” vs. 67% of the 36 – 50 year olds, in the survey years 2014 – 2016.
Now, this data is very minimalistic, and I had read elsewhere and seen survey data that suggests that the drop-off in religion is among those who were only loosely connected in the first place; those who would have been “Chreasters”, attending rarely but still having the self-perception of “Christian,” have abandoned that, but the percent attending regularly has stayed stable. But Twenge has one statistic that suggests that this has changed, too: 28% of 12th graders attend weekly, vs. 40% in 1976. (Unfortunately, this is only a single statistic, not a graph like the others that would indicate the pattern of this development.)
Twenge also notes some demographic differences in religious belief. In 1976, there was a 5 percentage point gap in the percent of black vs. white 12th graders who attended church; in 2014, the rate of decline for black kids has been more moderate than for whites, and the gap is now about 10 percentage points. Until the late 80s, there was virtually no difference in church attendance by socio-economic status; now there’s a 5 percentage point gap.
Why has religion declined? Twenge attributes this to the rise individualism; mapping out changes in religious practice alongside “indicators of individualism” (e.g., “individualistic language in books”), she finds that rises in individualism coincided with declines in religious practice. Twenge writes,
When Christian Smith interviewed young people for his book Soul Searching, he found that many adhered to a belief system he labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which embraces a belief in God but also includes more uniquely modern ideas, such as the importance of happiness, feeling good about yourself, and the idea that “Good does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” Smith also found that most teens embraced “moral individualism,” his label fot teens’ diea that “we area all different, and that’s good.” (p. 138).
Teens are also coming to believe that religion is in conflict with science, and that they must “choose sides,” and, having been taught “tolerance,” they cannot comprehend the idea of being “intolerant” — that is, the notion that churches teach about sin.
In the end, Twenge is not optimistic about the future of religion in America, believing it will continue to exist only to the extent that it provides a sense of community and meaning and abandons teachings on sexuality.
Chapter 6: Safety and Community
Man, this is taking a long time, but there’s a lot of material here that is really worthwhile to think about.
The iGen is characterized by an increasing desire for safety. Among those who drive, they are much less likely to have accidents or get tickets. They are less likely to drink. Pot use has stayed stable despite its legalization and increased perception of safety. Earlier Twenge characterized these “safe” behaviors as a part of delayed adulthood; here she identifies these as behaviors affected by a desire to avoid taking risks. In fact, when asked directly about risk-taking, there was a drop from 45% to 40% from 2009 to 2012 alone. On campus, too, students are seeking “emotional safety,” getting upset about campus speakers, “Trump 2016” chalkings, and the like.
This didn’t come out of nowhere. This generation was protected by their parents as never before, being driven in circumstances when kids would have previously been expected to ride their bikes. The Wayne’s World street hockey games have disappeared.
Twenge also addresses personal goals and ideals: “money is in, and meaning is out.” To be sure, the change here isn’t particularly dramatic — just a moderate uptick from 2008 to 2014 — and this really seems to be more a matter of Twenge expecting that the opposite would have happened. She explains the increase in desire to earn money as due to high student loans, and increased exposure to “stuff” online. She also observes a decline in about 2012, in the number of students who report that they enjoy learning. And she connects this to the desire for safety — they reject the idea that college should be about new ideas, because that’s not “safe.”
And this generation is more likely to state that it’s a good idea to help others, but less likely to do something about it –though Twenge states hopefully that the “awareness” campaigns and anti-Trump protests may eventually produce young people more active in the community than their current trajectory seems to be. Studies also show that high internet use, rather than producing community involvement by information-sharing, correlates with less involvement.
Chapter 7: Work and Work Ethic
Millennials, we’ve been told for years, are all about work satisfaction and making a difference, though they expect to be paid well and promoted quickly on top of it.
The iGen? They appear to be more pragmatic, more concerned with just getting the dang’d job and being able to earn a living. Asked whether they’d be willing to work overtime, the millennials, as high school seniors from 2000 to 2008, replied, “yes” at a rate of 45%, since then rates have gone back up to the 55% they were at for Gen X. They are also less receptive to the idea of starting their own business than prior generations — from 48% or so of seniors in 1987 to only 30% now. And, of course, the rate of NEETs (not in employment, education, or training) has jumped considerably. There is also a rise in fatalism. America as a culture is generally characterized by the Horatio Alger-type conviction that one can get ahead by hard work (an internal locus of control, believing you are in control of your life, vs. an external locus of control, that you really can’t control your fate), but this is shifting. Since 1992 or so, there has been a steady increase, with a sharp uptick in 2006, in the percent who respond affirmatively to the statement that “people who accept their condition in life are happier than those who try to change things” — from about 55% to 70%. Perhaps this was due to watching people suffering financially in the “Great Recession,” but there are likely other factors. Bizarrely, seniors’ belief that women are discriminated against in their quest for a college education jumped massively from 2012 to 2014, from about 25% to over 37%, after being fairly steady. This is clearly not correlated with changes in real-world experiences with discrimination, but with perception (or with bad data?, as this is a very strange jump).
Twenge also examines data about material aspirations. There’s not much dramatic here, except that seniors had a marked drop-off in interest in having fashionable clothes — from maybe 57% in the late 80s to only 30% now. This is also characterized as a move to “safety,” or “safe” fashion choices.
Chapter 8: Sex, Marriage, and Children
On the one hand, the iGen is having less sex, and with fewer sexual partners than their predecessors, but not because of a renewed concern with sexual morality. They’re more concerned about STDs and pregnancy (safety) and have less in-person interaction. But those who are having sex, are doing so as a part of the “hookup culture,” with “emotionless or meaningless sex” (p. 213). The widespread viewing of pornography is playing a role in both the decline in sex (young men using porn to satisfy their sexual urges) and the hookup culture (creating the ideal of meaningless sex).
But beyond this, this generation seems more afraid of having relationships, of human connection. And they are rating marrying and having a family as less important than prior generations — perhaps due to insecurity about their future finances, perhaps because many of them, themselves, were raised by single mothers. To be sure, the ages of first birth and first marriage have been increasing at a steady pace; there’s nothing new about this generation here, but we don’t know what the trends will look like as today’s teenagers reach adulthood.
Chapter 9: the Inclusivity issues
Yes, we know, the younger generation has conditioned to believe that LGBTism is fine like never before; this isn’t a surprise, and tracks other age groups. But what is more surprising is the growth in individuals reporting same-sex sexual experiences themselves –from 6 to 14% of women among 18 – 29 year olds, from 1995-99 survey years, to 2010-2016 survey years; for men the jump was from 5% to 8.5% from 2005-9 to 2010-16 survey years. And this seems to be not so much an increase in those identifying as L or G so much as increasing experimentation.
As to acceptance of transgender people, Twenge takes it as an inevitable given that this will happen. And regarding gender roles (that is, is caregiving primarily the mother’s task or shared), she reports that “progress” (in her definition) has stalled. Fewer young people reject the stay-at-home mom ideal (I’d read elsewhere that this might be due to the increasing number of immigrant or 2nd generation kids). Around race, the data doesn’t really offer much, except that Twenge expects that all teens ought to always have the “right” answers and is disappointed that the data doesn’t cooperate.
Chapter 10: Politics
The kiddos are more likely to see themselves as independent. They’re more likely to espouse libertarian views. They’re less likely to express “trust” in government, get involved, or even follow the news (though there’s no survey data here).
Conclusion: fixing the young ‘uns
Put down the phone. Substantially limit the amount of time your kids spend on their phones, and set some rules: don’t use the phone for an alarm clock, choose Snapchat as the social media of choice, aggressively act to keep kids away from porn.
Encourage them to spend more time with friends in-person.
Watch out for their mental health.
Encourage independence; don’t chauffeur them.
So that’s it. I’m tired. And this blog post was really intended as a first step in thinking about these issues; after all, this generation is my sons’ generation. (Middle son has already opined that “iGen” is a dumb name, and told me he intends to read the book.)
Image: By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons