Talking ’bout it
The U.S. stands at a “precarious moment … one that may engender more political unrest,” writes Jean Twenge, Phd ’98, in her new book, Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future (Atria Books, 2023).
Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, analyzed data on 39 million Americans to arrive at unsettling conclusions about the six living American generations. A high level of dissatisfaction with government exists in all age groups, particularly Gen Z, who were born from 1995-2012. Plus, younger generations are struggling with mental health woes to a greater degree than their predecessors.
“The fears for American democracy are not unfounded,” Twenge writes.
Michigan Today caught up with her to talk about who Americans are in 2023.
Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being, according to you, has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012. Why?
For Gen Z, it’s very clear the primary cause for their mental health crisis is due to the many changes wrought by smartphones and social media. For millennials, their mental health as adolescents and young adults was not so bad, but it got worse starting around 2015-17. Smartphones and social media took over the lives of teens first, then young adults, and then prime-age adults.
Younger generations are less involved in organized religion, marry later, and have fewer children. That seems very worrisome.
It’s not all bad. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that all of the changes are negative. There are many positive changes, too. Younger generations are more individualistic than the Silent and Boomer generations. With individualism comes more equality. I don’t think most people would want to go back to a time when your fate was more determined by your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.Now, would it be good to return to a time of more community, more connection with other people, and deeper relationships? That’s clearly where we have work to do.
I do think negativity among young people is extremely concerning. If we have a society in which young people think the cards are stacked against them, that doesn’t bode well. But if that negativity means the young generation will agitate for constructive change, that could turn out to be a positive. Gen Z votes at higher rates than Millennials and Gen Xers did at the same age. They seem to show signs of greater political involvement. If they use that political interest in power to change things for the better, there’s reason for optimism.
You believe changing technology is the primary driver in differences between generations, because it radically alters daily life and culture. What about other factors?
Recessions, wars, or pandemics have an impact on the course of history, but with some exceptions, they don’t have as much impact. The COVID-19 pandemic is one exception. Technology has the most impact on important things such as how people spend their time, their attitudes about life, and life decisions they make.
While rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are at all-time highs, more college students than ever report receiving therapy or counseling, according to U-M’s annual Healthy Minds Study. The survey was taken by 96,000 U.S. students across 133 campuses in the 2021-22 academic year. Some 44 percent of students reported symptoms of depression, 37 percent reported anxiety disorders, and 15 percent reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year.
What did you learn by tracking word use trends from generation to generation?
It’s not so much how each generation uses words but what the culture focused on as they grew up. The Google Books database shows that during the childhoods of Millennials, born between 1980-94, the use of individualistic words like ‘unique’ and ‘identity’ increased. It’s a long-standing trend that probably also shaped Boomers, born from 1946-64. When they grew up, usage of the word ‘give’ fell and use of the word ‘get’ rose. For Gen Z, we see an increase in words related to safety such as ‘trigger warning’ and ‘safe space.’
Gen Xers, according to you, are like the forgotten middle child. Why?
They often find themselves mediating between larger generations on either side of them, the older Boomers and younger Millennials. They came of age in the late ’70s and ’80s when there was a lot of focus on material things and financial success. Most Gen X’ers, born from 1965-79, are too young to remember the idealistic ’60s when there was much more focus on social change. Boomers might have been hippies in the ’60s and yuppies in the ’80s and worried about selling out, but Gen X didn’t experience an earlier, idealistic hippie time. They didn’t have anything to sell out from.
Millennials, you say, murdered countless traditions. Explain.
Their lives are based on a slow-life strategy and individualism. As adults, they took a lot longer to get married and have kids, changing the way families are structured. The idea that they killed marriage is odd, because that trend had gone on since the Boomers. Millennials’ individualism is built around distrust in institutions that arguably started with Gen X that Millennials built on. The decline in religious observance really became much more acute among Millennials.
Gen Z, you write, “speaks a language of gender terms barely understood by older generations.” Is this a passing fad?
Gen Z attitudes around gender fluidity and stating your pronouns are here to stay. But I think it’ll be very interesting to see how their attitudes around free speech evolve, because there’s an essential tension between wanting to make sure that people feel included and making sure we can discuss issues freely.
How much should we worry about the impact of school shutdowns on Polars, the youngest generation, who were born starting in 2013?We need to keep an eye on them in terms of their development. The data is not encouraging on their physical health, particularly obesity. Those statistics for young children have gotten much worse since the pandemic began. Their mental health seems to have rebounded relatively quickly as schools started to reopen.
I sometimes draw an analogy between the Silent generation, born between 1925-45, who were young during the Great Depression and World War II, and Polars, who were young during the next great social disruption, the pandemic. Silents turned out to be a very resilient and productive generation. That gives me hope for Polars.
You’ve said Gen Zs should be called iGen, because of social media’s impact on them. Why did smartphones have more influence on behavior than TV or the Internet?
Smartphones can be taken into social situations and used for more passive pursuits. The things you can do on a smartphone take up a lot of time. TV took up a lot of time, too, but it didn’t have the same impact on social interaction. It tended to be something you watched with your family in the evenings. You’d often still be outside after school playing with friends. Smartphones and social media tend to replace that social time.
You predict women will increasingly become political leaders.
The political parties are more split by gender than they were, particularly among young adults. Women are significantly more likely to be Democrats than men. That’s always been the case, but it’s much more acute now. If that’s true, especially in the Democratic Party, you will probably see more women at the forefront. We’ve already begun to see that with the Millennial generation because a good number of Millennial political leaders are female.
Was the Greatest Generation who were born from 1900-25 really the greatest?
Considering they won WWII, I think if any generation deserves that label, it might be them.
Do you envy generations that grew up in horse-and-buggy days with less technology?
Think about what life expectancy was then. Think about what infant mortality was. When you think about things technology has given us, it makes you realize we live at the best time ever in history, even with all these negatives. The issue is — what are we going to do with the time we live in?