Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Generation App

Millennials (those born 1980-1999) have garnered intense attention for more than a decade. Concerned attention always is given to the young, and it is enhanced by the sheer size of this particular generation. Millennials are the first generation to outnumber the Boomers (1946-1964), though admittedly only because one more birth year is included in the definition. The attention has been accompanied by copious commentary, much of it unflattering. But the time has come, as it does to members of every generation, when they have the chance to chut-chut about the next one. Those born between the year 2000 and the present, sometimes called Generation Z and sometimes iGen, are the current crop of “the kids today.” The first wave of them will be graduating high school in 2018. Jean Twenge, PhD, whose book Generation Me defined the Millennials, has turned her eyes to the next group in her new book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Religious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Before going any further, a few comments about generalizations and generations are in order, for a common complaint about books such as Twenge’s is that there is too much individual variation among people for generalizations to be valid. This is true when we speak of any random individual, but there can be statistical consistencies within a large group that are worthy of note. For any given behavior there is bell curve distribution. For teenagers in the 1950s, for example, there were, as today, bohemians and conformists, drinkers and abstainers, risk takers and safety seekers, smokers and nonsmokers, leftists and rightists, and so on. But it is simply wrong to argue that there is therefore no difference between teens in the 1950s and teens today. Of course there is a difference: the centerlines of the bell curves, where most folks live, are in very different places today than they were then. Take marriage: nearly half of all teenage women in the 1950s got married before they reached 20. Today we are surprised and alarmed when a teenager marries. Twenge does not ignore the tails of the bell curves where the outliers live. While noting the decline in religiosity, for example, she interviews evangelicals as well as secularists; nonetheless the centerline of the bell curve has shifted over the years and that is noteworthy.

What about the boundaries of generations? They are not always clear but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Generations are rather like watersheds, formed by ridges (social moments) that need not be tall. Like water, how and where we flow culturally is shaped by which side of a ridge on which we live. Those near the ridge on either side share a lot of similarities with each other. The last cohort of Boomers born in the ‘60s, for example, have many similarities to GenX (1965-1979), but fundamentally they are still Boomers. They share a cultural milieu with other Boomers right down to the music they play and the clothes they wear. iGen members are no older than 17 at this writing, but they have enough in common with the youngest cohort (1995-1999) of Millennials that Twenge includes many of the latter in her surveys and interviews for greater insight into how the generation is growing up. The answer, by the way, is slowly. One thing iGen members have in common is that they can’t really remember a time before smart phones, and this turns out to be key.

Several of Twenge’s conclusions are in her title. They are not pulled out thin air. Many governmental and non-governmental agencies and entities have been tracking the most arcane details about youths for decades: the American Freshman Survey, the General Social Survey, Monitoring the Future, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, etc. These allow us to compare today’s teens not to their elders today, which is often misleading, but to what their elders were like when they were teens. This gives a clearer sense of trends, which Twenge illustrates anecdotally even as she graphs the actual numbers. The smart phone is intimately bound to all the trends. As one 13-year-old told her, “I would rather be on my phone in my room watching Netflix than spending time with my family…I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” In most Western countries iGen is extremely diverse in background; in the US it is the first generation not to be majority white. There is very little diversity in the trends, however; the same ones hold across ethnic and class lines.

Some of the characteristics of iGen seem an unalloyed good. They are safety-minded to the point of making the notoriously safety-minded Millennials look reckless by comparison. They drink later (if at all), do drugs less, smoke less, have sex later (if at all), and have fewer unwanted pregnancies than any generation since 1940 when reliable numbers first became available. Twenge argues this is not a sign of greater maturity, however, but rather its opposite. Teens are growing up more slowly. By all the numbers 18-year-olds look and act like 14 and 15-year-olds once did. They drive later and often have to be pushed by parents into getting licenses. They are less likely to have summer or after-school jobs than any generation before them. They are in no hurry to grow up and don’t hesitate to say so. “Adult” is used as a distasteful verb to describe activities like paying bills or earning a paycheck; most commonly it is in present participle form, as in “adulting sucks!” This helps explain student demands that colleges (in loco parentis) be emotionally safe spaces instead of spaces where they are treated as adults as Boomers once demanded. In particular, they like to be protected from ideas and opinions different from their own. This is not just a North American phenomenon. When British author Claire Fox was a guest at a UK girls’ high school for a debate, instead of reasoned arguments she unexpectedly encountered tears and the plaint “You can’t say that!”

There are positives to iGen. They are less bigoted than any previous generation and more tolerant of alternate sexualities. But they are aware they are lagging in some ways, which may contribute to depression. “In just the few years between 2012 and 2015, more and more teens said they don’t enjoy life…Across all six items depression has skyrocketed in just a few years, a trend that appears among blacks, whites, and Hispanics, in all regions of the United States, across socioeconomic classes…” Or perhaps it’s that living one’s life mostly on Snapchat and Instagram is not as satisfying as one might hope. The same 13-year-old quoted above mentions that in-person company is not enough to compete with the lure of the phone. “I’m trying to talk to them about something and they don’t actually look At. My. Face.”

The good news is that iGen (resembling GenX in some ways, which for all its youthful pessimism was pretty successful) doesn’t have grandiose expectations about economic prospects, so they are less likely to be disappointed than the preceding generation. They are a more practical bunch than Millennials. They are certainly technologically savvy. If they just put down their phones occasionally they’ll probably be alright – if just a few years late.

A marvelous animation starring the smart phone:
Moby and Void Pacific Choir – Are You Lost In The World Like Me?


  1. This maybe sexist, but I once said if you want to turn women on, forget Spanish fly or whatever and get them a cell phone. I've never been into phone conversation much, unless it was talking to my brother. I wondered if the iGen depression was associated with living at home with the parents. When I got out of college I was so used to doing what I wanted to do I wanted to move out into my own place. I just needed a space of my own. I don't think my mother understood that completely, but accepted it. Looking back, I wish I had stayed with them, however, and put back a bunch of more money before I moved. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and I probably wouldn't have saved the money anyway.

    I think it is correct about iGen growing up later, and ever since after WWII I think that phenomenon has gotten that way. When dad was 19 he was in Africa and then over to Italy to fight in the war. That experience would mature and sober one up quick.

    1. I don’t use the phone much just to chat either. iGens rarely talk on the phone; they text and use social media instead whenever possible. The average US teen sends 30 texts per day. There is a gender difference: the average teen girl sends 50. When I communicate with younger people – such as a quasi-niece in college – I usually do so by text because they plainly prefer it.

      The Millennials are moving out of their parents homes slowly. A quarter of 24-30 year-olds still live at home. iGens are still in their teens, but given the trends they might well stay at their parents’ home even longer.

      Yes, I would make different choices the second time around too; too bad we don’t get do-overs. I’m sure you valued your independence at the time though. I know I did, even if I didn’t always use it wisely.

      I think you’re spot on about the long-term trend on maturity. Each generation since the war has taken longer to launch, maybe just because the opportunity to delay was there. The ever lengthening delay has had different styles, though. The youthful Xers were the most rebellious – rates of drink, drugs, sex, runaways, etc. The new bunch is more cautious overall.