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Trapped in the generation gap

Jean Twenge’s new study suggests that the young are the losers in a society transformed by technology.

By Ann Manov

Are critics interested in convincing anyone? This was the question I asked myself after reading a series of supposedly feminist, reactionary tracts. These works – which had the feel of bloated, arrogant opinion pieces, ranging from naive to astonishing in their blanket rejections of an allegedly too sex-positive and insidiously anti-feminist culture – irritated me. This was not because I didn’t agree with many of their assessments; it was because I did, and was ashamed and frustrated to see them expressed in such blatantly propagandistic terms. We are in a time of unprecedented polarisation and, among many women, deep and poorly articulated discontent with societal forces that seem out of our control. If we are to see any change at all, we need a criticism that can withstand criticism.

This seems ever more elusive. Over the last decade, the decline of investigative journalism has been accompanied by a huge rise in opinion pieces (which are cheaper, in both senses). Articles have been replaced by “pieces”, and every other “piece” – whether it appears in the most venerable paper or on the most mysteriously funded website – makes bold assertions about the direction of society, with only the author’s three most recent conversations cited as evidence.

What would a better piece of work look like? It would be properly researched, going beyond cherry-picked media analysis to include data from empirical surveys. Crucially, it would follow the basic rules of argument: to use clear, reputable evidence to build an argument, and to anticipate and refute counter-arguments. Something, then, like the new book from San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M Twenge: Generations.

Professor Twenge is by no means new to her topic. Generations follows her provocative books Generation Me (about Millennial narcissism) and iGen (about Zoomer smartphone addiction). Both were bestsellers but also sparked accusations of condescension and alarmism – a response arguably courted by their controversial theses (made clear in their lengthy subtitles: Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitledand More Miserable Than Ever Before, and iGen: 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). This is not the stuff of high culture; it is the stuff of Barnes & Noble, and of every major news outlet.

Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents – and What They Mean for the Future may seem an unappealing addition to Twenge’s oeuvre. But she goes to great pains to convince the sceptic of her method: social analysis by generations has been reviled, she says, dismissed as condescending and stereotyping, with every assertion immediately met with a thousand cries of protest. But these assertions can be tested: we have extensive evidence in the form of a century of surveys, so why not use them? Her book begins with the Silents (born 1925-45) and marches through the Boomers (born 1946-64), Generation X (born 1965-79), Millennials (born 1980-94), Zoomers (born 1995-2012), and what she calls “Polars” (born 2013-2029), sketching a broad historical context and then the key characteristics of each generation (say, a rising Boomer birth rate or declining Millennial religiosity). Brief “event interludes” separate the chapters.

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These interludes – sections on Aids, 9/11, the Great Recession, and Covid-19 – play second fiddle to her hundreds of pages analysing longitudinal graphs about slow social change. That’s because the book’s obvious interlocutor and opposition is William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1991 work Generations, which, Twenge summarises, “argued that major events caused generations to cycle through four different types (Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive)”. Twenge throws this out in favour of the thesis that technological change has replaced the four types and is now the primary driver of generational change.

Twenge overwhelmingly succeeds in making generational differences seem important, and in justifying her alarmism. I thought I would be exasperated at exaggerations. Instead, I finished the book convinced both that social change had occurred far more rapidly than I thought, and that my generation and all subsequent ones are, if financially surprisingly stable, spiritually doomed. The book is full of shocking revelations: did you know that 85 per cent of Gen X teens went to church regularly? That twice as many high-schoolers today as in Gen X identify as very conservative? That until 1968 the New York Times still separated its classified job ads into “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female?” The book is long because it is essentially a social history of the United States, and a consistently interesting one.

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Generations is full of provocative claims supported by surprising data: for example, that among members of Gen Z in their early teens, there is a marked decline in a desire to take risks or joy in doing dangerous things; that more white Democrat teens than black Democrat teens now hold negative opinions about the police; that there has been a greater increase in very conservative Zoomers than in very liberal ones.

[See also: The decline of the social media text post]

Yet Twenge goes to great and somewhat laborious lengths to remain neutral, repeatedly stating that neither individualism nor collectivism is perfect and that she has no stance on the decline of religion or the nuclear family. On the decline of free speech as a value, she is less capable of maintaining neutrality as she reports that Generation X – that is, her own – was the last whose college-educated liberals were more likely than their less educated and more conservative peers to support the right to express unpopular opinions.

This should not be surprising; her ruthlessly empirical method is both essentially liberal and well-suited to dismantling popular conceptions, and it’s here that her book is most compelling. For example, she documents a clear and steady increase in belief in female equality in order to discredit the widespread idea, popularised by Susan Faludi’s bestselling Backlash (1991), that there was an anti-feminist surge in the 1980s. Similarly, she shows that 30 to 60 per cent of Boomer schoolchildren had working mothers, such that the latchkey kid is far from a pure Gen X phenomenon. Some of her findings are very significant: in spite of the many legal victories of the civil rights movement, the proportion of college graduates who were African-American barely rose through the Boomer generation. And while not entirely unknown, it is refreshing to see so much evidence that the 1950s were an anomaly in American history: the birth rate in the 1960s was much closer to that of the 1930s and 1940s, and the proportion of women in the workforce and colleges had been steadily increasing before they declined in the 1950s.

One of the strongest generational tensions today is between those who think Boomers have ruined the world, and those who think Millennials are arrogant narcissists. While she can’t avoid some corniness – eg, that Millennials are busy “tinting their hair every colour of the rainbow” – her research on happiness and income over the past 50 years is fascinating. She highlights Boomers’ declining mental health, and shows how manufacturing jobs precipitously declined over the course of that generation. Rather than Boomers causing this decline, she argues, they “were its first casualties”. And its consequences have been grave: over the late 20th century, not only did American income inequality increase, but income became ever more important to happiness.

Her arguments about technology and social media are most relevant to Millennial and Zoomer mental health. Recently, the US surgeon general released a controversial report on the impact of social media exposure on young people’s mental health. Twenge is extremely concerned by data showing that the rate of depression in middle- through to high-schoolers has doubled in the past decade, with self-reporting corroborated by a similar increase in the rate of self-harm and suicide; and even, among fourth- through to ninth-graders (roughly nine- to 14-year-olds), a threefold increase in suicide. She believes smartphone use is the clear cause of these impacts, dismissing facile arguments that they were caused by, say, 9/11.

[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]

Some of the book’s statements are familiar: that individualism became more important in the post-1968 era; that 12 per cent of college students in 1950 but 80 per cent in 1990 agreed with the statement “I am an important person” (this is the most well-known statistic from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000). For all her love of data, Twenge can make blanket, spurious assertions that are more nostalgic than edifying. At times, her generational demarcations seem contrived, as when George HW Bush (born 1924) is taken to exemplify the “Greatest Generation” (born 1901-24) and his wife Barbara (born 1925) the “Silent” one.

One might find it at the very least questionable to measure “pessimism” in the youth by their rate of criticism of America’s Founding Fathers and capitalism. Some may query her word-corpus research, which compares the use of “give” and “get” as examples of the risk of an individualistic culture. Some may think it a little absurd to view a rising plastic surgery rate as a sign of increased “narcissism”, and not the result of the rise of Botox, filler, and atrociously exacting beauty standards for women who are now in the workforce and dating pool for longer. Some may wish her frequent graphs were not presented in a way that exaggerates a trend: say, when the Y-axis of a graph showing the increase in the percentage of teens who are overweight starts not at zero but at 34 per cent, inflating the magnitude of change and weakening one’s confidence in her arguments.

Her default explanations for generational change  – technological advancements, with a sprinkling of individualism – are limiting. For example, Twenge ascribes the linear rise in working mothers in the latter part of the 20th century to technology, which “made household tasks easier and shifted the economy toward jobs that favoured women’s skills”, and to individualism, which “promoted the idea that women should have equal opportunities”. The analysis just about ends there, with nothing said about the dual-income trap, changing attitudes towards child-rearing, imported domestic labour, or other topics ripe for empirical analysis. There is no reference to IVF in discussions of family size and only the most passing of comments on gun ownership, gay rights, or the decline in fertility among the Millennial generation. In a particularly frustrating section on Millennial finances and pessimism (she thinks they are in financially great shape), she doesn’t mention the pension crisis, the cutting of social security, or the dismantling of the US welfare state. 

Ultimately, Twenge’s determination to play it safe results in a slightly timid book in search of a thesis. She does not quite fulfil her promise to show how technology is the cause of virtually all generational change; this is only vigorously argued in the context of social media and mental health. But even on this subject, Professor Twenge does not quite take her other major change – the rise of individualism – to task. I accept that 9/11 did not cause Millennial depression, but what about the precipitous fall in traditional religion and the nuclear family? Perhaps they didn’t have any real impact on mental health, maybe they improved it. But the replacement of tradition by increasingly individualised social models remains oddly unexamined.

While Twenge’s data-based approach is more productive than purely polemical alternatives, it has its limitations. Those striking final chapters, on the devastatingly poor mental health of younger generations, would seem to call for radical intervention. As well as Generations leading me to think that America has changed more than I had realised in recent decades, it makes it seem to have been mostly for the worse: inequality is higher and people are unhappier, largely due to seemingly all-powerful cycles of technological and economic change. And yet Twenge confines herself to a non-committal, vaguely liberal attitude of mere observation, concluding only with a few obvious predictions for the future: work will be remote, politics will be racialised, the birth rate will decline, and the “future is non-binary”. I wish she would engage in a bolder form of criticism. We have so many traditionalist commentators, and so many equally empty radical ones. Professor Twenge’s command of the American psyche and way of life is impressive. I would love to know: what does she make of all this?

Jean M Twenge
Atria, 560pp, £20

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[See also: The NHS can’t help the mentally ill – can influencers?]

This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia