Hope I die before I get old- Rodger Daltery (b. 1944)
It’s too late for the Who lead singer, who wrote that line in 1965 and will turn 74 in March. However, that generation’s emphasis on youthfulness still pervades our culture. I recently listened to a podcast interview on Radio West exploring generational similarities and differences, specifically the youngest generation coming up. In the interview, professor of psychology Jean Twenge summarizes her new book on young people called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy.
She explains how interpersonal interactions are linked to good mental health while electronic communications are linked to poor mental health. As a scholar and a student of rolling generational trends she’s now shocked by a sudden break in the data set. Many mental health indicators are spiking. In questionnaires the studies find that kids born after 1995 are more often lonely and depressed than previous generations were at that age. Prof. Twange states that the generation’s rampant fear and anxiety are behind a 50% increase in the symptoms of clinical depression. She notes the suicide rates have doubled for boys and tripled for girls in the last 10 years.
While this information is indeed troubling, she also notes increases in both sensitivity and isolation in this group. When one is both sensitive and isolated one also tends to become more introspective. I wonder if the spike in young people’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction is less a factor of a generation that’s crumbling under a mental health crisis and more an indication of the overall increase in awareness and willingness to disclose? Is this data showing a true change in volume or simply an increase in self-reporting? I remember well when I was 18 and suicidal. If someone asked me about my depression and suicide ideation I would’ve answered no to both. The taboo nature of those subjects placed me in deep denial regarding my own emotions at that time. If couldn’t admit those realities to myself, I sure wasn’t going to admit them on a government chart.
I suppose taking an alarmist stance moves books because she states the current generation “is at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades.” She’s got the data to back it up: spikes in middle school and high school age kids experiencing depression and loneliness. Meanwhile the group reports declining happiness and life satisfaction. I would suggest these young people aren’t at the forefront. They mirror what’s happening in the adult world that raised them. We were already in a mental health crisis, a big part of which is the denial that we’re in a mental health crisis. And now society has raised our kids to become as dysfunctional as us. Surprise!
In her book iGen, Jean Twenge connects this crisis to a single technology, the smart phone. Her research found that in 2012 the percent of Americans with a smart phone crossed the 50% mark. Now, she says, 90% of teens own a smart phone and of them 2/3 have an iPhone. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is the one that counts the average teen checking her phone at over 80 times a day. Of, course it begs the question, don’t most adults also check their phones obsessively? At least at certain times? Prof. Twenge admits she only looks at young people’s behaviors and acknowledges she has not done that research but her gut says yes, adults also spend exorbitant amount of time on their phones. So how can we be surprised that the younger generation exhibits the same terrible phone behavior that’s been modeled for them since day one?
The smart phone problem outlined in iGen is reminiscent of sociologists like Fredric Wertham’s report entitled the Seduction of the Innocent, although her magic bullet is considerably more diabolical than a comic book. Although history recalls the Wertham report as a laughable condemnation of the youth culture’s penchant for comics, today’s correlation between social media usage and unhappiness is clearly documented in studies. Early findings state that people who log-off of Facebook are happier at the end of the week than those who remained regular users.
While smart phones are the newest technology trend, the author also laments dead trends. She takes pause to comment that children do not know what a Rolodex is. Which is like her great-grandfather rising from the dead and deriding her for failing to identity a snaffle bit for horses: neither is a technology that’s in common usage by the general public anymore. One wonders about the purpose of highlighting the generational abandonment of obsolete technologies? Does she know Morse code? How about new ones? Does she know what a Kik account is?
In the interview, the author lists some of the distinct markers for this generation, perhaps the most profound is their plummeting amount of facetime and huge increase in electronic media usage. She goes on to say they’re highly individualistic and egalitarian. The bedrock of personal identity is far more important than conforming to gender roles, sexual identity, and other traditional social rules. The outcome of this focus on individualism and equality is a rejection of grouping people into stereotypes.
Jen Twenge dislikes the value judgements about various generations. Damning statements like Baby Boomers ruined everything or millennials are self absorbed are not productive, she says. But the author is forgetting that the 40 year trend of global warming, gun violence and economic disparity have only increased since the Baby Boomers assumed control; plus, how can she forget millennials are self absorbed? She’s enumerated the evidence in her previous book, entitled Generation ME! Instead she’s a moral relativist, saying “we’re all in this together,” and in doing, she absolves past generations for their crimes against our collective future. I guess there was nothing they could do and no one’s to blame. This sentiment is horseshit and let me tell you why:
There is one and only one generation that proclaimed peace not war and free love then went on to capitalize on the military-industrial complex and the largest period of economic growth in American history. There is only one generation that benefited from the total lack of competition after the second world war and did nothing to protect future American workers from globalization and the dominance of foreign manufacturing. There is only one generation that continually balks at a federally mandated living wage for workers and has then has the nerve to ridicule twenty-eight-year olds that still live with their parents. No, Jean. They really did ruin everything and they can fuck off and die. Her laissez faire moral relativism exempts people from taking responsibility for the future. It’s fatalism to decry that no one’s to blame.
Determining generational culpability does have a purpose: to identify what the hell went wrong and unpack who made what choice so we can understand how those motivations don’t serve us moving forward.
Curiously, she dislikes our negative assessments of the various generations and the finger-pointing that goes on while, and yet, the author has already condemned this future generation as “completely unprepared for adulthood.” Did her publisher make her use that language? Isn’t that finger pointing?
She states the iGen generation is growing up slowly, taking longer to mature. Her adulthood metrics are mundane things like getting a driver’s license, having a job, driving a car, drinking alcohol as if these physical manifestations indicate real “adulthood.” These metrics are purely generational in their own right. For instance, was Abraham Lincoln immature as a 21-year-old rail splitter because he did not aspire to drive a motor car? The question is ridiculous on face because that was not an aspect of adulthood then. Expecting the values of a vastly different generation and then declaring the absence of that value as a rejection of adulthood is not only a negative assessment and a judgement statement but one couched in a discriminatory, myopic point of view.
The author infers iGen is ill prepared because they don’t engage in so-called mature behaviors like getting a job. Why did kids get jobs in the past? To earn money to buy a car and pay for gas. But the studies she sites indicate the current generation has no interest in individual transportation and the fossil fuel economy. So why do they need teenage jobs for $7.25 an hour?
There is a subtle maturity that’s missed when static metrics are the benchmarks of adulthood. What this next generation quietly accomplishes in is a certain maturity of thought. They recognize worth. My iGen kid realizes it’s not worth the time, trouble and expense of having her own car and instead prefers public transportation. She even moved of her own volition to a municipality that has a superior bus system in order to realize her values. I think that makes her pretty “adult,” regardless of the behavioral metrics. Instead, one might ask what kind of pathology exhalts inefficiency and marginalizes public transport as immature?
The interview always returned to the love/hate relationship with the smart phone. The author states that kids avoid risky behaviors so much so that physical and emotional safety are sought at the expense of mental health. Every possible activity one can pursue in the safety of a room on a screen (TV, internet, social media, gaming) is correlated with less happiness. Every single activity one can engage in that’s not on a screen is connected to more happiness. But they’re addicted to the screen time and so they continue with in an activity that is ultimately dissatisfying to each of them, the true definition of addiction.
The author says that kids do not develop social skills on screen, social skills develop during in-person interactions. But these skills are not difficult to acquire, all is not lost because kids are slow to engage. At the same time people who display polished social skills can in actuality be incredibly manipulative and anti-social. Prof. Twenge calls for more moderation and community interaction. She says that we need to stop using smart phones and social media as a surrogate for actual social interactions. On that point I totally agree.