Saturday, January 22, 2011


Bemoaning the character of “young people these days” is an adult pastime in all eras. They always are said to be worse than we were and to be trending toward something even more awful. In some ways this is always true, and in others it is always nonsense. There really are cultural fashions in behavior and attitudes that come and go like bell bottoms on jeans, and the young are always the most fashion-conscious. When social fashions are ugly, the young display them most of all. They also display appealing fashions the most, but somehow the rest of us are less inclined to notice those.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, for example, tales of rising juvenile crime and growing drug abuse were rife in popular media, and not without reason. Youthful crime and drug abuse in fact rose sharply in this period and seemed headed in A Clockwork Orange direction. Both have dropped in the past 20 years (the crime rate dramatically so) though you’d hardly know it from the news. So, too, with teen promiscuity, which, despite our peculiar (some say perverse) obsession with this subject in the US and our permanent state of alarm over it, has trended downward lately. The average age for first sexual experience is up in the past ten years, and the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it ever has been since and including 1940 when the government started keeping track.

What is the latest cause for distress for professional worriers? It is the Empathy Gap. Like those other foci of despair, this problem, if such it is, is not wholly invented. It appears to be real. Whether (as is likely) it is a temporary fashion remains to be seen. The concern originates in a study by The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research which concluded there has been a 40% drop in empathy among the college-aged population since standard measures started to be used in 1979. Most of the drop has been in the past ten years. This is a remarkable claim when one remembers that the 1970s supposedly were the era of the “Me Generation” and the 1980s were the high tide of self-serving yuppie-dom.

How did the Michigan researchers identify this drop? Largely through the students’ own self-descriptions and answers to such questions as whether they are “soft-hearted” or whether they are disturbed by “other people’s misfortunes” (they aren’t much). Other less subjective tests indicate today’s students are much poorer than earlier ones at guessing what another person is feeling in various situations, whether or not they then care. Note that this is not a measure of the students’ abstract social ideology – this generation is more politically correct in that regard than any previous one – but rather a measure of their direct personal understanding, behavior, and interaction with other people. It is as much a measure of narcissism as of empathy – one rises as the other falls.

The authors of the study speculate that the increased connectivity of this generation may be the reason for the Empathy Gap. Even though young people are more connected to each other than ever before, they are so in a one-step-removed way through facebook, text messages, and other electronic media. Greater breadth is at the cost of lesser depth.

Maybe. Or then again, narcissism may be just the Zeitgeist, akin to the whole ephemeral Flower Child thing of my youth. Connectivity surely will continue to expand and to replace face-to-face contact in the years ahead, so we can see if the correlation continues to hold. If it doesn’t, I’m sure the next batch of youth will provide us with some other excuse to worry.


  1. So apathy is the bugaboo now, huh? I remember when the question of the day was "which is the more serious problem, ignorance or apathy?" and the typical response was "I don't know and I don't care."

  2. Some look at the world as it is and ask why, others look at the world as it might be and ask, so what?