Kids these days, amirite?
That, of course, has long been the rallying cry of old fogies everywhere. But in her new book iGen, psychology professor Jean M. Twenge doesn’t just complain about the generation coming up behind the Millennials. She painstakingly documents their values and behaviors relative to the generations that came before—finding some healthy developments but also a whole lot of troubling ones.
Separating one generation from another is arbitrary. It’s not as though people born in 1979 (the youngest slice of Generation X) are fundamentally different from people born in 1980 (the earliest Millennials). But broadly speaking, various personality traits and habits among the young—such as individualism and drinking—do rise and fall over time, giving each cohort its own personality to some extent. And while these changes are usually gradual, what Twenge calls iGen, those born starting in 1995, has started some very abrupt trends.
The book is, at root, primarily a succession of charts. Twenge relies heavily on long-term surveys that ask the same questions year after year, such as Monitoring the Future (given to high-school students) and the General Social Survey (given to Americans 18 and up). Unlike other sources, these polls show us how today’s youth compare with previous generations when they were the same age. Each chapter is packed with graphs illustrating how young people have answered various questions over time periods that stretch back decades.
One of Twenge’s key findings is that iGen is growing up slowly—choosing a more deliberate “life history strategy,” to borrow a term from biology. Perhaps kids are more careful to stay on the right track now because the stakes are higher, given the rise of inequality and the necessity of a college degree today. Or maybe it’s because families are smaller these days and each child can benefit more from parental investment. It doesn’t seem to be that parents are forcing these changes on unwilling kids, at any rate: Kids fight with their parents less than they used to.
Whatever causes them, the changes aren’t all bad. Kids these days are drinking less and losing their virginity later than previous generations did, for example. But they’re also taking on a lot less responsibility. Some don’t bother to get driver’s licenses; nearly half don’t make any money from paid work even as high-school seniors.
If Generation Xers were perpetual adolescents, iGeners are perpetual children. Famously, they remain childlike even into their college years. The ridiculousness on campus you’ve been hearing about isn’t just a smattering of isolated incidents; kids really do want their schools to shield them from the “trauma” of ideas they disagree with or otherwise find troubling. When Twenge surveyed more than 200 of her own students at San Diego State, three-quarters said schools should create “safe spaces” for people to run to when speakers invited to campus offend them.
Another distinguishing feature of iGen is that their lives are dominated by smartphones, a technology that previous generations didn’t grow up with. They hang out with their friends in person less, and get into fewer physical fights. Troublingly, iGen is less happy, too—and there’s considerable evidence that the two phenomena are related. Depressive symptoms and suicide rates immediately spiked when teens started getting smartphones (especially among females, to whom social media can be particularly brutal), and one of Twenge’s more advanced statistical analyses suggests that “teens who spend more than three hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.”
But how severe are these new patterns? Time to panic?
One of the biggest tips I can give to readers of iGen is to pay very close attention to the Y axes on Twenge’s charts. Some of them show trendlines starting at the top, holding steady for a bit, and then instantly plunging toward the bottom a few years after iPhones came out—but if you inspect the graph carefully, you’ll see that the change is actually only from, say, 85 percent to 75 percent (as is the case with twelfth graders having driver’s licenses).
Some people insist that every Y axis must start at zero. I think that’s a bit much—if all the data are between 90 and 100, for example, your chart will be 90 percent blank space if you start it at zero, and the trends will be harder to make out. But I do wish Twenge had explained the issue to her readers so they could keep it in mind. For if readers come away from her charts with the wrong impression, her anecdotes only buttress it. In a section about, say, religion, she’ll overwhelmingly talk about teens who are irreligious—a trait that is definitely on the rise but that still doesn’t describe most kids.
Twenge documents significant changes, to be sure, and some are incredibly troubling. Depressive symptoms among high-school girls have climbed by half since 2012, for example—from affecting 22 percent of them to affecting 33 percent of them. But iGen is not night-and-day different from my own Millennial generation, or even Generation X-ers or Boomers.
Young people today need to spend a lot less time on their phones, and they need to grow thicker skins when they head off to college. Getting a part-time job in high school probably wouldn’t hurt them, either. Frankly, anyone who found Millennials annoying and whiny—and I did, particularly those born at least a few years after I was (1984)—probably won’t like iGen any better.
Yet in the end, they’ll probably be just fine, more or less.
Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen