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Reflections on ‘Generations’ by Jean Twenge

I have some skepticism when it comes to personality tests. They are often pseudo-scientific attempts to quantify the inherently unquantifiable. Imagine the absurdity of reducing an individual, in all of her wonderful complexity, to a number or a series of letters or a Hogwarts House. Personality tests are exemplifications of what Jacque Ellul called “technique” which is the subjection of all modern life to the principles of efficiency and control. Personality tests can also be turned into handy excuses either to justify our own behavior and lack of growth or to pigeonhole other people without the difficulty of actually getting to know them. But still, I must admit there is some utility in personality tests. Used well, they can help us to better grasp who we are and how we best interact with others.

What personality tests are to the world of psychology, generational studies are to the world of sociology. How much can we really know about an individual just by learning what year they were born? I was born in 1977 and my brother in 1982. Are we really part of two different generations? Is he a narcissistic millennial while I’m a cynical Xer just because we were born five years apart? (Well, on second thought…)

It seems to me that the year a person is born is one of the least important things about their identity. Surely, where they grew up, their family life, formative experiences, and education are just a handful of “data points” much more important than the year of their birth. A person like Jean Twenge who does a great deal of generational research would happily acknowledge these points. But she would also point out that this isn’t the point of generational research. When a person like Twenge talks about “Millennials,” she isn’t making precise statements about each individual. She is instead talking about broad trends that generally characterize a group of people who grew up at roughly the same time and in roughly the same culture. Not everyone will fit the stereotypes and not all of the stereotypes are precise, but generational studies are nevertheless helpful heuristics to understanding what it is like to be a particular age in a particular place.


“Not everyone will fit the stereotypes and not all of the stereotypes are precise.”


I say all of that as a preface to a summary reflection on Twenge’s new, ambitious book, Generations. She’s already written books on Millennials and Gen Z (what she calls iGen). This book is filled with new research and insights related to all five living adult generations. (She also has a chapter on the youngest generation that she calls Polars, but it is far too early to draw any firm conclusions on them.) I’ve listed all of the significant traits of each generation below. Each one of the traits is supported by research drawn from largely from survey data, so these are more than musings and anecdotes. I’m strongly recommending this book to anyone who wants to have a handle on trends in contemporary society. It’s a helpful resource for anyone who engages in any sort of intergenerational work especially pastors and teachers.

It’s impossible for me to summarize everything that Twenge observes, but there are three dominant themes that I wish to highlight. These three themes have been working in concert with each other since at least the Boomer generation but have reached their apex in Gen Z. The three themes are individualism, technology, and mental health.

Individualism

One of my favorite books from recent years is Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman provides the philosophical history of the expressive individualism that has come to pervade our culture. Twenge’s book shows the practical expression of that philosophy by looking at the data. It begins with the self-focused Boomers and what she calls “the Big Bang of modern individualism.” One of Twenge’s interesting bits of research includes using the Google Books database to track the growth or decline of certain words over time. One of the things she observes is that self-focused language in literature really started to take off with Boomers and never subsided with each new generation.

Boomer’s raised their Gen X kids to pursue “self-esteem” giving birth to a whole industry designed to help latchkey children of divorce learn that “the greatest love of all” was the love of the self. The self-esteem generation gave birth to the self-confident entitlement of the Millennial generation. Gen Z might lack some of the confidence of Millennials, but they are no less individualistic. To Gen Z, their individualism manifests in a plastic identity shifting and changing untethered even to biological realities.


“To Gen Z, their individualism manifests in a plastic identity shifting and changing untethered even to biological realities.”


There are societal and personal consequences to this generational individualism. One of the most serious is that Millennials and Gen Z seem especially cool to the idea of getting married and having children. Twenge dispels a lot of the myths about why this might be the case. (Hint, it’s not because younger generations are poorer. They’re not.) The main culprit for the plummeting birth rate seems to be self-focus. This individualism is also fueling a decline in religion especially among younger generations who increasingly find a message of sacrifice and submission to be unpalatable, dangerous, and unsafe. Further, investing in any institution—religious or otherwise—is foreign territory for the committed individualist.

Technology

There is no doubt that technology is a major driver of generational change. The introduction of the pill, for instance, was a major technological innovation that brought about tectonic shifts in generational thinking. The television was another major innovation that shaped the experience of Gen X in particular. Nothing compares to the effect of the smart phone and social media, however.

Twenge gained a bit of controversy for writing a piece for the Atlantic years ago about how the smart phone had destroyed a generation. It’s impossible at this point to deny her solemn observation. For all of the benefits that have come with smart phones and social media, we are more polarized, more anxious, and lonelier under their considerable influence. We are also vulnerable to cognitive distortions. Twenge highlights that Millennials and Gen Z often have a distorted view of everything from how much money they have, women’s rights, and race relations. It’s hard to argue for any other cause than that we are increasingly seeing our reality through the twisted lens of social media.


“We are increasingly seeing our reality through the twisted lens of social media.”


Mental Health

By now, most of us are familiar with the mental health challenges plaguing younger generations. For all of our material prosperity, technological innovation, and relative global peace, for all of our emphasis on self-esteem, self-confidence, and unique specialness, we are sadder, more anxious, and lonelier today than at any time in the last 50 years. When you take in all the data, it’s not too much of a leap to conclude that as individualism grows, mental health problems grow along with it. At the very least, we can conclude that neither individualism nor social technologies are making us happier. I was honestly bummed out by the time I finished the book. There was no triumphalism, no “kids these days,” no finger wagging. I was just sad. We are a nation of Solomons denying ourselves nothing and getting meaninglessness in return.


“We are a nation of Solomons denying ourselves nothing and getting meaninglessness in return.”


Significant Traits of Each Generation

Silents (1925-1945)

  • Pioneers in Civil Rights
  • Early Marriages and Lots of Kids
  • More Educated
  • Consistent Political Power and Leadership
  • Conservative (Compared with Other Generations)
  • Stability and Calm

Boomers (1946-1964)

  • Self-focus
  • Breaking Traditional Rules
  • Fewer Kids, More Divorce
  • Comfort with Drug Use
  • Substantial but Incomplete Progress on Race
  • Striving for Gender Equality
  • Bringing Attention to Sexual Harassment—or Just Dealing with It
  • Dominant Political Chameleons
  • More Mental Distress and Depression
  • Casualties of Income Inequality

Generation X (1965-1979)

  • Analog and Digital Communicators
  • Loved for Shared Pop Culture, Escapism
  • Adaptability, World-Weariness
  • Independence
  • Flexibility in Sex Lives and Family Life, Shorter Childhood and Longer Adolescence
  • High Self-esteem, Focus on Self
  • Materialism, Extrinsic Values
  • Toughness, Cynicism, Negativity
  • Good Incomes Despite the Slacker Image
  • More Suicides as Teens, Stable Mental Health as Adults
  • Cynicism, Skeptical of Authority
  • Skepticism, Racial Awareness
  • Political Apathy
  • Interest in Saving the Environment
  • Acceptance of Difference
  • Thick Skin, Openness to Ideas
  • Young and Not-So-Young Republicans
  • Delayed Leadership

Millennials (1980-1994)

  • Self-Confidence
  • Entitlement (for Some)
  • Digital Natives
  • Highly Educated
  • High Earners
  • Pervasive Perceptions of Poverty
  • Delaying Committed Relationships
  • Delaying or Eschewing Parenthood
  • Less Sexually Active
  • Less Religious
  • Politically Participatory as Adults
  • Liberal Democrats and Libertarians
  • Racially Conscious
  • Happy as Teens but Depressed as Adults

Generation Z (1995-2012)

  • Gender Fluidity
  • More Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual People
  • Less Sexually Active
  • Growing Up Slowly
  • Delayed Adulthood
  • Restricting Speech
  • Interest in Physical and Emotional Safety
  • Racial Consciousness
  • Dissatisfied and Depressed
  • More Online Communication
  • Less Likely to Be Physically Healthy
  • Pessimism
  • Perceiving Discrimination and Having an External Locus of Control
  • Political Polarization
  • Political Activism and Increased Voter Turnout
  • Liberal Unhappiness and Depression
  • Shaped by the Pandemic

From chadragsdale.wordpress.com. Used with permission.

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