A Generation Alone
Three millennia ago, King Solomon wrote that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” It has ever been thus: the rueful old lament the apparent decadence of the young. In her new book Generations, social scientist Jean Twenge suggests an obvious explanation for this ageless trend: “It might be because they [are] always right. With technology making life progressively less physically taxing, each generation is softer…”
Twenge posits what she calls a “Technology Model of Generations.” She rejects the cyclical theory popularized in the 1990s by William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose model emphasized the defining influence of major events on generational identity. In their four-stage cyclical model, for example, the dual crises of the Great Depression and Second World War shaped the collectively-minded generation which built the strong institutions of America’s mid-century consensus. These were the “joiners” from whose participatory spirit Robert Putnam famously traced subsequent civic decline in Bowling Alone.
Twenge eschews such rigidly comprehensive models as untenably predictive. Many of Strauss and Howe’s predictions have already failed. The generation coming of age at the end of the ’90s, for example, did not revert to the interwar generation’s civic-mindedness. Twenge admits that her own model “is not completely comprehensive,” though this strengthens rather than weakens her work. She attempts only to trace underlying causes of consistently discernible trends. Her predictions of future trends are tentative and few. She acknowledges that “technology does not always cause generational change directly,” but posits that if we trace seemingly endless chains of causes downward, “for generational changes, [the underlying] cause is technology.”
This change may be indirect. Twenge sorts major social changes since the interwar period broadly into two categories, labelled “individualism” and “slow-life model.” The former encompasses increased personal autonomy and diminishing sense of obligation; the latter references increased periods of time taken to reach milestones of maturity such as marriage or employment. In both classes of change, Twenge finds, technology is a pervasive driver. For example, it is decreasingly common for teens to work part-time. Prolonged childhoods (‘slow-life”) in which teens focus on building their resumes for college applications rather than contribute to the family budget (“individualism”) reflect a wealthy, materially abundant yet labor-efficient civilization–in a word: mechanization.
Twenge devotes a separate chapter to each of the six commonly demarcated generations currently living in the United States: the “Silents” (born 1925-1945), Boomers (b. 1946-64), Gen X (b. 1965-1979), Millennials (b. 1980-1994), Gen Z (b. 1995-2012)—to which Twenge has tried without success to give the more aptly descriptive name ‘iGen’—and the youngest generation, whom she calls Polars (born since 2013).
Generations is painstakingly researched, presenting more than 400 original charts and graphs. These depict sophisticated cross-correlated analysis of twenty-one major national datasets from federal bureaus, research universities, and the like. The datasets are regular (often annual) surveys reaching back as far as the 1940s and encompassing 40 million individuals. This makes for a compendious work full of fascinating detail, yet an easily readable book despite its imposing size. The main point of each section is usually clear from the first paragraph and a glance at the numerous charts. Interested readers may explore the point in greater granularity or pass to the next section without losing anything of the narrative arch.
What are some of the trends Twenge trends? There are the shaping experiences of childhood, such as the sudden increase of material abundance Boomers enjoyed, or the sparsely supervised socialization of Gen X’s “latchkey kids.” There are the aggregate patterns of social norms: Boomers’ rapid rise in divorce rates; Gen X’s historic high rates and Millennials’ decline in teenaged sex; Gen Z’s alarming levels of depression and suicidal tendency. And, of course, there are the defining technologies of each generation: Boomers’ cars, Gen X’s cable television, Millennials internet chatrooms, and Gen z’s smart phone-based social media.
Space here does not permit a sufficient summary of the diverse data Twenge presents. Readers’ interest will doubtless vary between sections according to their motivation for picking up the book. There is plentiful material here for introspective self-analysis, curious desire to understand your parents, insight into the confusing social world of your children… Twenge’s observations are often illuminating, intensely detailed yet intuitively common sense—the hallmark balance of an accomplished social scientist at the height of her ability.
The work’s main flaw may be Twenge’s reluctance to offer interpretive commentary on the social trends she describes, or any prescriptive dicta. Perhaps her fastidious tenor of political neutrality will make Generations acceptable to a broader audience, all of whom can find in it a veritable goldmine of social data. Perhaps, though, by lacking a firm argument, Generations will not earn the longevity best produced by a compelling appeal to readers’ moral imagination. That would be a shame. For any broadly curious, the book is a valuable resource for understanding present social norms.
Sam Negus is an academic administrator at Hillsdale College. He holds a PHD in U.S. history from Texas Christian University, and has taught a variety of courses in history and related fields at the collegiate and secondary levels.
This article was originally published by Law & Liberty Exclusive and made available via RealClearWire.