Different generations love to cast aspersions on each other. Boomers think Millennials and Gen Zers are fragile narcissists. Those younger generations think that Boomers are selfish, closed-minded pinheads who helped themselves to economic success and then pulled the ladder out for everyone else.
But are these and other generational stereotypes true? Here to unpack that question for us is Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology and the author of Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future. We begin our conversation with some background on the study of generations and why Jean thinks the Strauss-Howe theory of generational cycles has been disrupted. We then work our way through the generations, from the Silent Generation to the present, and talk about the characteristics and particular challenges of each cohort. We dig into the myths and truths of the generations, such as whether Boomers are doing financially well and Millennials are doing financially poorly. We talk about why Gen X gets overlooked, why there’s such a sharp break between Millennials and Gen Z, why Gen Zers are taking longer to get their drivers’ licenses and feel darkly pessimistic, and much more.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM article on the Strauss-Howe generational cycle theory
- AoM Podcast #236: What the Generational Cycle Theory Can Tell Us About Our Present Age (With Neil Howe)
- AoM Article: A New Generation of Prigs, Prudes, and Squares
- AoM Article: How Millennials Could Be the Next Greatest Generation of Personal Finance
- AoM Podcast: #751: The Rise of the Religious “Nones” (And What It Means for Society)
- Atlantic article by Jean: “The Myth of the Broke Millennial”
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Different generations love to cast aspersions on each other. Boomers think millennials and Gen Z’ers are fragile narcissists. Those younger generations think that Boomers are selfish, close-minded pinheads, who helped themselves to economic success and then pulled the ladder out for everyone else, but are these and other generational stereotypes true? Here to unpack that question for us is Jean Twenge, professor of psychology and the author of ‘Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents-and What They Mean for America’s Future.’ We begin our conversation with some background on the study of Generations, and why Jean thinks the Strauss-Howe theory of generational cycles has been disrupted. We then work our way through the generations, from the Silent Generation to the present, and talk about the characteristics and particular challenges of each cohort. We dig into the myths and truths of the generations, such as whether boomers are doing financially well and millennials are doing financially poorly. We talk about why Gen X gets overlooked, why there’s such a sharp break between millennials and Gen Z, why Gen Z’ers are taking longer to get their driver’s licenses and feel darkly pessimistic and much more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/generations.
Alright, Dr. Jean Twenge, welcome to the show.
Jean Twenge: Thank you.
Brett McKay: So, you are a psychologist and you’ve spent your career researching, writing, and speaking about generational differences, and you’ve published several books before your latest book, ‘Generations,’ you’ve published a book about generation X, about the millennials, and then your latest was about generation Z. And what’s great about your work is that it’s not based on antidotes, it’s all data-driven, and you have all these charts and you have access to data that a lot of lay people don’t have access to, where you’re backing up these claims you’re making about the traits to these generational cohorts.
Jean Twenge: That’s really what it’s all about, of course, it’s great to have stories and interviews with real people as well, and I rely on that too, but really the bread and butter is that we have these huge surveys often going back decades of millions and millions of people, these are amazing resources, and we can compare the generations when they were the same age. And because we have big numbers, we can look at the average differences and be pretty confident, we know what we’re seeing. Some of these also have data on behaviors as well as attitudes, and the way people spend their time and what’s important to them, and political beliefs, and all kinds of things. So, each project, the universe of data just keeps getting bigger, and for my previous book for ‘iGen’ about gen Z is about 11 million people, four data sets. And this one is 25 data sets on 39 million people.
Brett McKay: Wow. Okay, so let’s talk about generations. I think it’s a topic that fascinates a lot of people, they’re interested in the topic, definitions for us, how do you define a generation?
Jean Twenge: So, generations at one point meant generations in a family. And now, we use a much more to mean social generations. They’re about how when you grow up, how that influences your life choices, your time use, your family patterns, just everything. And historically, people grouped generations based on birth year, and there’s reasonable agreement on birth year cut-offs. So, I’ve used those birth year cut-offs in the book, there’s a chapter on each generation, and it just allows us to compare people very similar to the way that another researcher might look at age differences and group people who are in their 20s versus those who are in their 30s or in their 40s. How we compare people who live in different countries, that there’s lots of variation within these groups as well as between them, but if you’re gonna do research and really try to wrap your mind around the differences are, you have to group people somehow.
Brett McKay: What do you say to the criticism, I’ve heard this one… ‘Cause I really get into this topic, and I’ve had this conversation with friends and they’re like, “Oh, this whole generational… Like there’s generations that have a certain personality trait or blah, blah, blah.” That’s not a thing, it’s sort of like horoscopes and you’re painting with too broader brush to actually be useful. What’s your response to that criticism?
Jean Twenge: Well, if they’re getting this from a lot of the stuff that has… It is out there on generations, I could understand why people… A lot of people have that view point. ‘Cause there is a lot of stuff out there on generations that will make statements that are not really backed up, but when you look at this universe of survey data that’s available now, you don’t have to guess, you can really look at what the differences actually are, and it is absolutely true that generations group people born in these 15 to 20 year periods and there’s lots of differences between them, but that’s true of any study of group differences. And I don’t think anybody disputes that living now is completely different from what it was like to live 50 years ago or 100 years ago. That’s usually not what people are arguing over, we know that. And given that, there are generational differences, period. No matter how you cut the data, there are differences based on when you were born. I don’t think people dispute that, I think… Which basically means we’re pretty much in agreement, we’re just scribbling over the details.
Brett McKay: Right. And what do you do about… I think the other thing people get nitpicky about is the cut-off dates, it’s like, “Well, I was born in 1982, so am I a millennial or Gen Xer?” What do you do with those borderline cases?
Jean Twenge: Basically, you draw a line and acknowledge that it’s somewhat fuzzy. So, I’ve certainly drawn lines in this book, I had to, to be able to just group the generations into chapters and do data analyses and so on, but one way I try to get around that in the book is a lot of the figures show all of the years. So, certainly some of them I have are grouped in bigger chunks of people, but a lot of them are year by year, and then you can see that yes, there was change between people born at the beginning of the millennial generation to the end of the millennial generation, for example, that’s absolutely true. And I’ve tried to document that.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, yeah, depending on where you’re born in that generation, you could have more or less of certain traits, for example.
Jean Twenge: Yeah, on average, you can definitely see those trends often build on themselves from one year to the next.
Brett McKay: Do you find people who are born on those borderline areas, do they end up being a hybrid of both generational trends, there’s a guy who’s born on the cusp of baby boomer, Gen X.
Jean Twenge: I think there are people who are born on those cusps who just based on where they grew up or experiences they had or their own personal characteristics, feel more like they belong in one generation versus the other. And I think that’s absolutely valid.
Brett McKay: How can generational trends influence you as an individual, even if you’re an outlier to those generational trends, so for example, some guy reads an article about millennials, and millennials are da da da. It’s like, “Well, I’m not like that.” How are they still influenced by the larger trends amongst their generational cohort?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things here. First, there’s a common idea that if you can find one exception then the rule isn’t true, and of course that isn’t how it works. These are differences based on averages, there’s gonna be plenty of variation. There’s gonna be plenty of people who do not necessarily fit the average for their group. Even those people though are influenced by being born at a certain time in the experiences that they have, particularly around technology, is the argument that I make in the book, but in other ways too, some of the downstream effects of technology, like the people take a long period to grow up. So, I use the example in the book of say, a Gen Z’er today, who’s a young man, he’s 22, just graduated from college, and he’s decided or decided last year, you know, “I really wanna get married right after college.”
So, that would be an unusual choice for someone of his generation, so he has to find another young woman who is willing to get married at 21 or 22, there’s gonna be a lot fewer of those than there would have been had he being a boomer or a member of the Silent Generation. And then, let’s say he finds that young woman, they do get married at age 22, they’re gonna be the only ones in their peer group who are married, probably, especially if they’re college graduates, they decide to have kids a couple of years later, they’re gonna be the only ones who are parents.
Their experience is gonna be very different from a member of the Silent Generation who married at that age where all of their friends and peers were doing the same thing.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, you gave another example too about the kids thing, how the generational cohort you belong to can influence that. So, let’s say you’re a Gen Z’er and you want kids. Well, the trends show, we’ll talk about this here later on, the trends show Gen Zs not really interested in having kids like the Silent Generation or boomers, and so there’s gonna be less services for your kids, less products for your kids, people on airplanes, they might not like having kids on airplanes, they’re not used to it. So, if you bring your toddler on an airplane, people are like, “Why you bring your toddler on the airplane?” It has all these downstream effects you don’t think about.
Jean Twenge: Exactly. Yeah, if you are the exception, especially when it comes to some of these things around careers or marriage or having kids, then what your generation does, what the average does is still gonna have an impact on you.
Brett McKay: So, we’ve had Neil Howe on the podcast to talk about his theory of the generational turnings, how is his theory of generations different from your theory?
Jean Twenge: So, their theory, Strauss and Howe, their theory is generations come in cycles of four different types, and their 1991 book makes a really amazing case for this, but I think that the acceleration in technological change has thrown a wrench into those cycles, it’s really thrown them off, and you can see that especially in the more recent generations, Gen Z is a good example. So, by their theory of generational cycles, Gen Z is supposed to be like the Silent Generation. Well, Silent Generation had some political activism, there might be some similarity there, that’s about as far as it goes. Silent Generation married young, had a lot of children, and that is not what’s happening with Gen Z. And the oldest of Gen Z, I have to point out are 28, so we do know it’s not happening, and we know from surveys that they say, this is not what they want, at least they want children less than previous generations.
So, clearly something is off, so the theory that I rely on in this book, is that cultural change and this generational change primarily comes from changes in technology, that has the biggest impact on how we live and how we spend our time, and it also has two really big downstream effects, which explain why the generational cycle is broken down. One is individualism, which is very linear change, more focus on the self and less on others.
Probably explains why millennials didn’t turn out the ay they were supposed to, they were supposed to be like the greatest generation, very civically-oriented and communal, very little data back set up.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Didn’t happen.
Jean Twenge: In fact, it’s the opposite, and it basically didn’t happen. And millennials have lots of strengths, I’m not suggesting they’re bad or any of that, it’s not what I’m communicating, it’s just they didn’t fit the theory. And then, the other piece is the slow life strategy, as technology advances, people live longer, education takes longer to finish, and so the entire developmental trajectory from infancy to old age slows down. And so that’s one reason why Gen Z, for example, is not getting married young and having kids young. So, individualism means that’s not as attractive, and then the slow life strategy means that when it does happen, it’s going to happen later. And we certainly saw that with millennials as well, that they got married later and had kids later than previous generations because of this overall trend of the slow life strategy.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, the Strauss-Howe theory says that there are four basic generation types, and that each generation has their own particular set of values and characteristics, and that these generational archetypes, they cycle through every 80 years or so. In Strauss-Howe, they argue that the characteristics of a generation are created or developed by big historical events, so things like World Wars, economic depression, things like that, what you’re arguing is that technology and the individualism that has grown out of technology, and then also the things are just… It’s taking longer to read certain milestones in life, those things have disrupted the pattern that Strauss and Howe found. And I think also just in general, what you’re seeing is that because each generation is experiencing these milestones at different times, like when they get married, graduate college, have kids, all those things have shifted. So each generation is going to be different because they experience those things at different points in their life.
Jean Twenge: Exactly. Yeah, the time of life when you do those things, just reverberates, it means how old are you as a parent, how old are you when you’re an empty nester and your kids are out of the house, there’s all of these things that just… It’s just different, it’s completely different. And this is where there’s a lot of generation gaps, and I think a lot of misunderstanding too. And this is really my goal in the book, is more understanding that we can understand each other better, that grandparents who look at their millennial kids and go, “What do you mean you’re 28 and not married. What’s wrong with you?” Well, that’s the way it is now, and there’s good reasons why it’s that way now.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s something you do throughout the book. I think you did very good with, you’re never casting aspersions at generations like, “Well, look at, what is wrong with these kids,” but you’re trying to explain, like, “Well, here’s why they make the decisions they do on average, and here are the factors that influence that.”
Jean Twenge: That’s the most important thing to me in doing this work, is to get it right, and getting it right is to at least try to step back from your own bias, ’cause everybody has biases, right? And to try to see what the data is telling you, and I think that’s really key because it’s so common in work on generations, first for it to be very observational of managers saying, well, this is how young employees are now, why don’t we serve the young employees that might be more informative, plus there’s so much language that’s so negative around generational differences, like whose fault is this and which generation can we blame. And my view is these are big cultural changes, that’s what leads to these generational differences, we’re all in this together, it might be better to step away from that kind of charged language, and instead think about what can we do to solve this problem, if it is a problem. And let’s look at the positives, ’cause there’s also an enormous number of positives to living right now, and with younger generations, there’s so many good things and that often gets left out of the conversation.
Brett McKay: Alright. So, let’s talk about how increasing technology, this is your main theory, that increasing technology has increased individualism and has slowed down our life strategy, slowed down how much we grow up, basically. It even… This carries on into your elder years, people are living longer, right?
Jean Twenge: Exactly.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about how this is affected the generations. Right now, we’ve got six main generations in the United States, and we had a few greatest generation left, they’re not really a big cohort anymore, so you focus on the Silent Generation, the baby boomers, generation X, millennials, gen Z and then gen alpha, they’ve been called different things. Well, let’s talk about the Silent Generation, this consists of people born between 1925 and 1945, and they’re called the Silent Generation because a Time Magazine article in 1951 pointed out how there were no young people from that generation stepping into leadership roles, and they just kept their heads down and started families and got to work.
What is interesting, the data you highlight suggests that that description isn’t very fitting for them. So, what are the common traits of the Silent Generation and some of the misconceptions we have about them?
Jean Twenge: Yeah. So, that portrait from the early ’50s did have some accuracy to it, it is true that the silence got married younger than the greatest generation right before them, and a lot younger than gen X’ers and millennials would later in the century. You talk about the baby boom, they were the ones who were having a lot of those children, and during the baby boom, they did settle down into careers and families at a relatively young age in that post-war era, that’s where the label somewhat fits, where it doesn’t fit is, when you look at equality movements, civil rights movement, feminist movement, movement for gay rights, it was silents who were leading those movements, they were anything but silent.
These are moments we often associate with baby boomers, but in fact were really led by silents. One way they illustrate that, arguably the two most famous members of the Silent Generation, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right there, it kind of shows you some of the change that they effected in society.
Brett McKay: And then also this idea they weren’t very politically active, ’cause everyone’s kind of talked about, “Oh, there hasn’t been a member of… The Silent Generation got skipped in the election of president until Joe Biden snuck in there at the very end.” The last of the Silent Generation. But you point out data that while they might not have been president during that time, the Silent Generation they were filling other roles, political office roles as well, the legislative, the state level, etcetera.
Jean Twenge: Yeah. Exactly. So there has been that, and it is true, the presidency did skip the Silent Generation for a long time, it went straight from George H. W. Bush, a member of the greatest generation, although barely by a year to Bill Clinton, 1946 at the beginning wedge of the Baby Boomers. Yet, if you look at state governors, if you look at senators, you can see that silence were absolutely politically represented very well. They did almost as well as the greatest generation right before them, which is really stunning because the generation did very well in politics, given that a lot of them were war heroes from World War II.
Brett McKay: Any other traits that make the Silent Generation stand out from the other ones?
Jean Twenge: Well, they are very resilient, their mental health by a lot of measures, was better than the greatest generation before them and the boomers after them, even during COVID, Silent Generation, they had the worst time. During COVID, they were the most likely to die from the disease, get hospitalized, so thus a lot of people of that age were in much stricter lock down than younger people. Yet, if you look at their mental health during COVID from a big census survey, they did pretty well compared to younger people, they kept a more positive attitude, they had less anxiety, and it might be in their younger years that the country was relatively stable, fewer of them were drafted, some were drafted to Korea, but a lot less and for World War II and Vietnam, and some people have referred to Silent Generation as the good times generation because of their adolescents and young adulthood in a time of stability in the post-war period, and that may have served them well, even when they face this enormous challenge as older adults.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the Boomers, so the Baby Boomers, they get a lot of flack these days in the popular press and on social media and the whole. Okay, Boomer, and all these books written about how terrible boomers are, what are some common misconceptions that people have about boomers based on the data that you’ve looked at?
Jean Twenge: I think the biggest misperception is that Boomers haven’t made economically, even more so that all boomers or most boomers haven’t made economically, and I think that misperception comes for somewhat understandable reason, social psychology, we call it the availability heuristic, that that’s what you see, you see the rich Boomers and the ones who are in Congress and so on. And yeah, they’re probably doing pretty well. But if you look at the way the economy shifted in this country, it really disadvantaged a lot of boomers who didn’t have college degrees at a time when that was shifting under their feet. So by the time Gen X-ers came along, there was much more of the accepted idea that you want to do well, you should probably go to college, with Boomers, there was still when they were young, the idea that, “No, you can go into these working class jobs and make a good living,” and then that changed and that changed just late enough that it was harder for them to readjust and for many of them say in their 20s, and so there are a lot of boomers who are economically disadvantaged who didn’t get a college degree, some of them did find if they didn’t get a college degree, but a lot of them found themselves stuck and there’s downstream effects of this too.
So this is one of the things that I looked into as a psychologist, of course, very interested in happiness and mental health, and the trends are really, really stunning that here’s one example, for the Silent Generation, very little difference in the percentage who fit clinical criteria for depression, higher income versus lower income, and if you look at it by birth year, those lines just diverge, and by the time you get to the boomers born in the ’50s and early ’60s there’s this enormous gulf that the boomers with lower incomes are much much more likely to be depressed, like three or four times as likely to be depressed as those who have higher incomes.
So we have a big segment of the generation who is unhappy, who is depressed, that has a lot of overlap with the groups that are dying of opioid overdoses, and it really defies this idea that boomers, have this economic success and then pulled the ladder up. So nobody else could come and that they just ruined everything for everybody, there’s a lot of them who are not doing very well.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s an interesting… The Silent Generation, what you’re saying is, there was really no difference between happiness and mental health, whether you made a lot of money or less money it’s kind of even, with the boomers, mental health got tied to income, is that what happened?
Jean Twenge: Much more so, yeah. There is a little bit of variation and out of some measures there was still certainly a gap even among silence, but that gap really, really grew when you transition from silence to boomers.
Brett McKay: What’s behind that, is it technology, is it the increasing individualism. What do you think is going on there?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, it’s hard to say. I think some of it is due to growing income inequality, that there is kind of a bigger difference, and that difference was felt much more strongly over this time period, and it is… It’s a little bit of a mystery. I think this is something we need a lot more research to try to figure out what is it that led to these diverging paths.
Brett McKay: You point out the data shows that a lot of the deaths of despair people have been talking about opioid overdoses, suicides. If you look at, it’s like guys in their 60s and 70s, that’s happening to, which is crazy, you typically think of overdoses as being a young person’s thing, but it’s older people.
Jean Twenge: It is, and to be fair, this has been something that the boomer generation has struggled with their whole lives, so drug use is just much, much higher among boomers than it was among silence. It’s one of the biggest generational differences. Now, a lot of that is marijuana, which of course is not gonna be behind those deaths of despair for the most part, but it shows up in hard drugs as well. And then these days that’s what you get, you get those overdoses and also alcohol. Much more binge drinking and problems with alcohol as the generations of older people turn over from silence to boomers.
Brett McKay: Another trait that people kind of pin on boomers is that there’s a lot of self-focus, what’s going on with the boomers and self-focus?
Jean Twenge: The self focus piece does certainly show up for boomers, if you look in the culture in terms of some of the things that as they were young adults, there’s certainly a lot more focus in the culture on being true to yourself and self-expression, and a lot of this individualism, there’s also a lot more emphasis on equality, all of this appears, but we don’t see as much evidence for that having an impact on individuals until we get to Gen X.
Brett McKay: That makes sense. Yeah, I can see anecdotally in my own life. My wife and I, I think it’s interesting, our parents, they’re boomers, and they’ll say something like, “Oh hey, your third cousins in town, you should go see your third cousin,” ’cause they’re like very family-oriented, and I think people in our age is like my third cousin like what. I saw them when I was four at a family reunion or like boomers are more likely to do family reunions, than say like me and Millennial, it seems like the boomers are more family-oriented than my generation.
Jean Twenge: Yeah I mean, and I think that’s something that’s often misunderstood. There’s sometimes this idea of like, “Oh, in the ’60s and ’70s, there is all the self-focus and then that stopped with Boomers,” and it didn’t stop with Boomers, it kept going and building generation after generation.
Brett McKay: Right ’cause the technology allowed for that, the technology allows for more individualism.
Jean Twenge: Right, basically, technology allows people to be more independent of their family, and it allows people to have the time to focus on themselves more, as opposed to just surviving.
Brett McKay: Oh another thing about the boomers kinda chameleons in a lot of way, they started off maybe idealistic sort of Woodstock thing, but then in the ’80s, they came like these yuppies, that’s sort of the popular idea, is there anything to that backed by the data?
Jean Twenge: There is some, and I think some of that is that with the hippies, you were seeing one portion of the generation and with the yuppies you were seeing another that often happens with generations maybe in particular with boomers who are… Because they were such a big group, there were so many of them, the variations in them, even a small portion of bombers could have a big impact because there were so many of them, but there is some true to that when you look at political ideology and party affiliation among boomers. There’s this just amazing, enormous shift in Boomers political party affiliation, that in the early ’70s, 70% of them identified as Democrats, and that had gone down to about 55% by the ’80s and then was below 50% in more recent years.
Brett McKay: What do demographers attribute that to?
Jean Twenge: Well, there’s a couple of schools of thought about political affiliation and how it works. One is that people get more conservative as they get older. And that’s part of it. Then there’s also generational differences, just even apart from age, the idea is that your politics will be somewhat influenced by the people who were in office, particularly the president who was in office when you were an adolescent and young adult. So that shows up later with Gen X-ers as well, in terms of influencing their political views, but boomers somewhat defy this because their views changed and their affiliation changed so much over the decades.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Well, let’s talk about Gen X. This is your generation. I remember I was in elementary school, middle school. When you heard a lot about generation X, but Generation X often gets overlooked. In fact, this is kind of like a trope, you see in social media. Oh, people forgot about Generation X again. Why does Generation X get overlooked?
Jean Twenge: Well, Gen X is a much smaller generation population-wise than the boomers before them, and the millennials afterward, they’re a generation that is caught in the middle, they are almost literally the middle child of generations right now, they’re in between the boomers and the millennials. And they’re the middle child, and that the middle child always gets neglected. That’s the trope. And I think part of it is Gen X, kinda like being neglected, they like flying under the radar, and some of it too is that the cultural changes that define Gen X are more linear, there’s not as many sudden changes for them, say individualism is a great example that that was building with the boomers, continue to build with Gen X and then continued to build with millennials, as opposed to say, the break between millennials and Gen Z, where did you have a smartphone when you were in high school or not? And that had so many effects and we’ll get to that. Right?
So I think that’s part of it as well, that Gen X is kind of slippery. They’re hard to define. I found that in writing this book, I am a Gen X’er, and this was in many ways the hardest chapter to write.
Brett McKay: So they are slippery, but what are some of the defining traits that you found in your research based on the data?
Jean Twenge: So one that people love to talk about is our love of shared pop culture, because millennials had some of that, particularly older millennials. We are in a lot of ways, the last generation that have a really truly shared pop culture in terms of there were only three channels and you watched what was on them. So a lot of us watch the same Saturday morning cartoons, many of which were just terrible, but there’s nothing else on, so you watched it. And that theme comes up a lot in pop culture generated by Gen X-ers. And in that realm, Gen X-ers were at the forefront of a lot of the changes around the internet, a lot of the companies that are still around like Google and YouTube were founded by Gen X-ers.
So other traits. If you look at trust, so trust in other people, this is something that again is linear, this kept building, but Gen X-ers were the first young adults where posters started to notice, wait, there’s just some cynicism here, there’s some distrust here in a way that they were not used to seeing among young people that young people are supposed to be idealistic and they’re supposed to be more trusting, and that really shifted with Gen X.
So one of the big surveys is of high school seniors, so 18-year-olds, and questions like, would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful or mostly just looking out for themselves, would you say most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.
So there’s a huge decline in people saying other people be helpful, I can trust other people between the boomers and through the course of Gen X, so this is the ’80s and ’90s, all of those went way down, and then trust in institutions. Same types of things, you start to see that the trust in government and the press, even in medicine, just plummets.
Brett McKay: What was driving that? Do we think.
Jean Twenge: So some of it is individualism, I’m not gonna trust anybody else other than myself, and just the idea of do experts really know more than me, and that’s a good amount, is that everyone for themselves attitude, and some of this is also rooted in the internet and in TV and just responding to those mediums, just responding to some of the natural incentives that… I mean gosh, think about how news changed over the course of the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s as it moved from the three channels to cable to the internet, just much more driven by what gets viewers, what gets clicks, and that’s a lowest common denominator, and then… So it gets the clicks. But then trust starts to erode.
Brett McKay: Did this cynicism and this eroding trust in government, did this influence the level of political involvement of Gen X?
Jean Twenge: It may have, and that is what you see is Gen X-ers as young adults were not voting at anywhere near the rate that boomers were when they were young adults. So a lot of political apathy. Now that turned around as Gen X-ers got older and as we transition more, especially after the great recession, voter participation went up among all groups, people started to become more interested in politics after that time, but admittedly, the picture for political involvement for Gen X as young adults is a pretty dismal one.
Brett McKay: Okay, so Gen X, they just continued the individualism that you really start seeing a lot with the baby boomers and the things that go along with that. And the other thing just thinking about Gen X you pointed out, a lot of times when we talk of the self-esteem movement, we typically just talk about millennials, but you have like this started with Gen X, this is where it started and just got ramped up even more with the millennials.
Jean Twenge: It did. Yeah. And I think that it’s definitely worth emphasizing that a lot of these things around having high self-esteem and having high expectations, thinking you’re above average, all of this got going with Gen X and millennials continued it, but you can really start to see it happen with Gen X and I have to say too, that that is consistent with my own experience as a Gen X-er. When I was a child, I can absolutely remember the beginnings of a lot of that emphasis on just be yourself. And self-expression and feeling good about yourself being important, and so on that would continue into the ’90s and 2000.
Brett McKay: Alright, let’s talk about millennials. This is people born between 1980 and 1994. I’m a millennial, I was born in 1982, I know a lot of our listeners are millennials too, and they’re gonna be interested in this. So going along with what you said about the self-esteem movement, starting with Gen X and growing out from there, one of the defining traits of millennials is that they report high self-confidence, what do you see in the data that points to that?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, so just all kinds of things. So thinking that you’re above average in your school ability or intellectual ability, in your leadership ability and your drive to achieve, there’s been this consistent trend from boomers to Gen X-ers to millennials of college students and high school students having more self-confidence, and it’s important to know that that’s how the data is. If we’re not looking at people at one time, or of course, maybe 22-year-olds that might have outside self-confidence compared to older people, we’re looking at 18-year-olds across time or 19-year-olds across time with these measures and that it’s a pretty consistent trend. And you can see it culturally too.
The Google Books database allows you to look at words and phrases and how much they’ve been used in books back to the 1800s, and there’s a big rise in words like identity and unique and personalized, and in phrases like, I love me or you are special, all of these things became much, much more common over the childhood of Gen X and especially of millennials.
Brett McKay: Is there anything to the idea that millennials are more narcissistic than other generations?
Jean Twenge: So yes, and then no is the answer because it’s a curve. You don’t see this that often, especially with these things around self confidence, but it is what happened here. So if you look at college students, and I did this back in the mid 2000s, if you look up to then there’s consistent increase in scores on the most commonly used measure of narcissistic personality traits. And just to be clear, narcissism is a very misunderstood trait. It’s about that oversized self confidence. It’s also about just being very focused on the self, about thinking that you’re special. If you ruled the world, it would be a better place. Some people argue about how you measure it, but well, pretty much 80-90% of the studies that have looked at narcissism in the field have used the same measure.
So pretty much the two are synonymous at this point. And if you look at that measure, there was an increase between college students in the early 80s. So that’s gonna be late boomers, early Gen Xers, and then it rises up until about 2007. So it’s gonna be like the first half of the millennial generation. So it builds, then it goes down, then narcissism scores go down. So we get to the second half of the millennial generation and then into Gen Z. So like say, are college students now more narcissistic than they were in the 80s? No. Were they in the late 2000s? Yes.
Brett McKay: Is that because just what’s happened in between that time? So maybe late millennials, they experienced a bad economy, so maybe they’re less narcissistic.
Jean Twenge: Yeah. So here’s my theory. So between that early 80s to 2007 period, all of this emphasis on the self and the culture, it was everywhere. So that’s clearly gonna increase those scores. And it’s very consistent with the other data that we have on thinking you’re above average and self confidence and so on. So self confidence didn’t really go down much with the Great Recession, but narcissism did. I’m not exactly sure why. I think though, the recession was a reality check that maybe we’re still gonna believe some of this stuff about self confidence, but maybe we’re not actually gonna believe we’re special anymore. So it kind of cut off the top portion of that, which might have been consistent with narcissism. Then the economy improved though, so why didn’t narcissism go up? We’ll get to this later, I’m sure, but that’s when the story becomes more about Gen Z because that’s who’s transitioning into college after 2011-2012, and then there’s all kinds of other influences that are gonna keep narcissism low or keep it going down.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk another thing about millennials you hit on with the data is how they’re doing economically. And there’s a lot of talk on social media. There’s all these memes about millennials are worse off economically than boomers at similar age, right? So there’s a meme like, “Here’s my dad at age 25. He’s got a house and a car, and then here’s me, a millennial, I’m doing terrible.” What does the data say? Are millennials actually doing worse than boomers at a similar age?
Jean Twenge: And I have to emphasize just how pervasive this narrative is. It’s everywhere online, in books. Last night, CNN had an entire hour on how millennials are not doing well economically. So when I was writing this book, one of the first things that I did is to just say, “Okay, let’s go look at median incomes. Is this true?” And it’s not. And not only is it not true that millennials are doing badly, they’re actually doing better than Gen Xers and boomers at the same age. And these are not obscure statistics. These are the standard statistics from the Census Bureau on median household income in the United States. You could find this in ten minutes. And you graph it, it’s extremely clear. Yes, there’s some ups and downs with the recession, and yeah, the Great Recession was bad, but since about 2016, 2017, 25 to 34 year olds, 35 to 44 year olds, so these are millennials in these periods, have higher median incomes than Gen Xers and boomers did at the same age.
And it holds up across everything, that’s household income, personal income looks the same, wages look the same. The percentage of people under the poverty line is less for millennials in this age group than it used to be. The St. Louis Fed, who got all kinds of press for saying that millennials were falling behind in wealth building, they updated their data. That’s no longer true. Millennials are neck and neck with Gen X now in terms of their wealth building, owning a home, that’s a very, very common meme online is, millennials are so poor, none of them can buy houses. If you look at the percentage of 25 to 39 year olds in the US who owned a home, and you group it by generation, the difference between boomers and millennials is about two percentage points. That’s it.
And then the other piece of it with homeownership, most people buy their first house when they’re in their early 30s. For older millennials in particular, they were in that age range when houses were a relative bargain, historically speaking, say, the late 2000s and early 2010s, right after the housing crash. So Gen Xers buying their first house at that age were buying at the peak right before the housing crash, and the millennials five years later were buying at the low point. And if they still own those houses, they’re worth a lot more than what they paid for them in 2011.
Brett McKay: Are these income numbers, have these been adjusted for inflation?
Jean Twenge: Yes.
Brett McKay: Okay. So why is the common perception out there that millennials are struggling? I mean, this is the thing. If you’re a millennial listener, you might be struggling like I’m struggling. Okay, yes, you could be struggling, but you’re talking about averages here.
Jean Twenge: Exactly. These are averages. Very important to point out.
Brett McKay: Right. So what’s going on? Why is there this idea that all millennials as a whole are struggling?
Jean Twenge: So I think there’s a couple of reasons. There’s some theories that don’t really hold up, but there’s others that do. There are some good explanations. So one obviously is college loan debt. That probably, I mean, as first we can tell I think the primary reason why millennials are doing so well economically is because more went to college. It makes sense. College graduates make more money, and that’s probably why incomes are so much higher. But that comes with a cost. And that’s often college loans. So that’s one piece.
Another piece is based on gender. So men’s salaries are actually slightly worse than they used to be in this age group, say it peaked in the 70s. Women’s salaries are just astronomically higher. So you average it out, you don’t see that gender difference. So this is overall just amazing news that young women are making a lot more money, like quadruple as much almost than they used to say in the 50s.
But here’s the problem. If you’re part of a heterosexual couple, you have kids, who’s gonna stay home with the kids? Well, men still make more than women. So if it’s the guy, you’re gonna lose out on a lot of money. If it’s the woman, you’re gonna lose out on a bigger proportion of your household income than you would have in 1985 or 1965 or even 1995. So I think that’s one reason is then you have to pay for childcare. You have to make these tough choices when it comes to taking care of children. So that’s, I think, clearly another reason why millennials, even if they are doing well, may feel more strapped because of some of these expenses, even if the overall idea about income is not true.
Brett McKay: Okay, so they’re making more money, but might be paying more on their student loan debt or if they have kids, they’re spending a lot of money on childcare.
Jean Twenge: Although it is important to point out that there are other things that are cheaper than they used to be when you adjust them for overall inflation. So a lot of things like consumer electronics, furniture, toys, all that stuff we now buy on Amazon that’s actually kind of surprisingly cheap, used to be much more expensive. And I think the tough thing for young people now is that the essentials, college education to do really well, housing are more expensive and these other things are cheaper, but they’re not quite as essential. So that is one of the big economic challenges these days for people of all ages, frankly.
Brett McKay: Right. And health insurance… Healthcare is also…
Jean Twenge: Health care is another great example of something that is an essential and is a lot more expensive.
Brett McKay: Okay, so overall, some things are cheaper, some things are more expensive. But overall, millennials, they’re not struggling as much financially as people commonly think. Their median income is higher than previous generations of the same age. That’s adjusting for inflation. They’re similar to gen X in terms of wealth building. And I think it’s important to point out on that point that that even takes into account college debt. So, yeah, they’re doing better than we think. So moving on to family life, what does family life look like for millennials?
Jean Twenge: So it starts later. So the slow life strategy means that you get married and have kids later. So it leads to some really striking statistics. So if you look at men in their late 20s, in 1970, almost 80% of them were married. In 2020, 27%. That’s about as big of a generational change as you ever see. That age of marriage has gone up so much. And then in terms of fertility, people having their kids a lot later. So if you look at the birth rate by age for women, for those in their early 20s, it’s gone way down. Also, teen births as well have gone way down. Even births for people in their late 20s have gone down. But where you get increases is people in their early 30s, and especially those in their late 30s having children.
Brett McKay: In general are fewer millennials getting married and having kids?
Jean Twenge: Yeah. So marriage, yeah, down by a little bit, but having babies is way down. So the story there has been discussed quite a bit that the birth rate started to slide pretty significantly in 2007. It was a recession. The theory was that that birth rate is gonna come back up after the economy improved. And it didn’t. Not only did it not come back up, it kept going down. And now with millennials aging into their 40s, it’s looking likely that there’s gonna be a lot more millennials who do not have children compared to the previous generations.
Brett McKay: What about religious life? What does that look like for millennials?
Jean Twenge: So I cover the changes in religion in the millennial chapter just because that’s where a lot of the change happened. And this is another example, something that’s linear and has affected a lot of generations, but really, really big decline. So let’s take, say 8th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders, and college students, the percentage who ever, ever attend religious services. So that used to be pretty high, 90% in the 70s and 80s. And when millennials were in that age group that’s when it really starts to slide. So the late 90s through the 2000s, and it just starts to plummet.
So that 90% in the early 80s for the high school seniors ever attending services goes to about 72%. Now that’s still a pretty high number. Most are attending religious services at some point, but you see it also in those who say they go once a week. You see it in the percentage who believe in God or pray. All of these are much, much lower than they were, say, in the 80s and the early 90s.
Brett McKay: Got you. So declining religiosity, are we seeing that affect other generations as well? Are maybe older generations, like are baby boomers dropping out of religion.
Jean Twenge: You can see declines among older people as well. They do show up, but if you look, say, I don’t know, I have this one graph from 2018, and there’s a pretty big generation gap. Say, let’s take prayer. For boomers it’s almost 90% who ever pray. And then it’s about 75 to 80 for millennials. Not enormous, but still you can see the gap appearing.
And I think the other thing that’s important to point out is a couple of things. So one, there was a theory for a while that, okay, millennials moved away from religion when they were young, but they’ll come back when they’re older and they have kids, and they didn’t. The decline in attending religious services also shows up among 26 to 40 year olds, and it looks very similar. So that non affiliation with religion that was happening during the teen years is persisting as they grow up, get married, and have kids.
Brett McKay: So family life, religion, that’s been a big source of meaning for people for millennia. What are millennials replacing family and religion with to find meaning?
Jean Twenge: That’s a good question. And I don’t think we have the answer to it.
Brett McKay: Don’t have the answer. Okay. Are they working more? Are they consuming? I guess there’s no data yet.
Jean Twenge: Well, I think it’s almost more of a philosophical question, right? Because where they find meaning, you can say, well, where are they spending more time?
Brett McKay: Okay. Yeah, I guess you could say, like, where you spend your time and money.
Jean Twenge: Right. Online. I mean, that’s true for all generations, but there have been people who have argued the Internet is the new religion, and maybe that’s true.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. Let’s talk about Gen Z. So I got a son born in 2010. So Gen Z is 1995 to 2012. So he’s at the tail end of Gen Z. What are the defining traits of gen Z?
Jean Twenge: So the generational break between millennials and gen Z was the most sudden and stark I’ve ever seen. ‘Cause I get used to working with these big data sets. I looked at them a lot and got used to seeing generational changes that were big, but they’d take a decade or two to get there. Then in the data on teens, around 2012, things started to change much more suddenly. More teens started to say that they felt lonely and left out, that they felt like they couldn’t do anything right, that their life wasn’t useful, that they didn’t enjoy life. So these are symptoms of loneliness and depression. And at first I thought, okay, maybe a blip, but it kept going, and then it kept going. It kept going. And that’s what made me and many other people realize, okay, there’s a generational break here. We thought millennials were gonna last until those born in 1999. Now, that cut off is more mid 90s.
So the Pew Research Center uses 1997. I use 1995. I’ve stuck with 1995 because those breaks, especially in mental health and time use, show up for teens around 2012. And so that fits a little bit more clearly in that era. Plus, 1995 is the year the internet was commercialized, so it really shows that technological break as well.
So the biggest break between millennials and Gen Z is around mental health. It’s around expectations, it’s around optimism and self confidence. So millennials were reaching the peak of that mountain of individualism and self confidence and high expectations and optimism, and then top of the roller coaster almost. What goes up must come down. And it came down spectacularly for Gen Z. Happiness went down, depression went up, optimism started to fade, pessimism started to become more prominent. Things like, do you have hope for the situation of the world went down. What are your expectations for your future life? Those went down. So optimism to pessimism.
Brett McKay: So what’s behind that? What changed?
Jean Twenge: So for the loneliness and depression, I think it’s pretty clear that what changed was smartphones and social media and their subsequent effects. So the end of 2012 was the first time the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. This is also the period when Facebook bought Instagram, when social media use went from relatively optional to virtually mandatory among teens. It’s when teens started sleeping less, probably because technology interfered with that. They also started spending less time with each other face to face. So pretty much every measure we have in these big surveys of teens spending time with each other in person had been going down slowly since about 2000, at the beginning of the internet, and then just plummeted after 2010. So the way teens spent their time outside of school fundamentally changed. They started spending more time online, less time sleeping, and less time with their friends face to face.
And that is not a good formula for mental health or for feeling like you belong, because social media communication is a poor substitute for actually being with people face to face if it interferes with sleep. Not sleeping enough is a huge risk factor for depression and self harm. So it gets pretty clear that that was, at least especially for teens, the instigating factor. It may also explain the pessimism as well, because depression isn’t just about feelings and emotions. It’s about how you view the world. It’s about cognition, it’s about thinking. By definition, depression means seeing things in a negative light. And I think that’s why expectations started to fall and why more teens started to be so pessimistic about so many different things.
Brett McKay: How is that pessimism? What are the downstream effects of that? How is it affecting other things like work, political involvement, family life? What’s the data showing?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, well, it’s hard to tell if this is a direct line of causation. But for political activism there’s actually some upsides if that’s what we got from it, because Gen Z young adults are voting at a higher rate than young adults before them. Anecdotally a lot of people talked about this generation being very political and politically involved and we could definitely see it in the voting statistics. So if that’s the case, then pessimism means you want things to change. There can be some positives to that. Where there are potential downsides is when it’s taken more to extremes. And I think the issue is for pretty much everybody of all generations, but particularly for Gen Z in this current cultural moment that we’re in, there’s just so much negativity and it is relatively extreme.
So there was this one poll that I came across, it was done a couple of years ago and it asked things like this thinking about the fundamental design and structure of American government which comes closer to your view? Significant changes to the design and structure are needed to make it work for current times versus the design and structure serves the country well and does not need significant changes. 75% of Gen Z agreed that we needed significant changes to the design and structure of American government. About 45% of Boomers said the same.
So there’s a fair amount of negativity among the older generations too, but it’s a lot higher among Gen Z. And another question they were asked do you agree America is a fair society where everyone can get ahead? 65% of Gen Z said no, it’s not a fair society. Then the last one is, do you believe the founders of the United States are better described as villains or as heroes? 40% of Gen Z said villains. Only 10% of Boomers said villains. So they’re not just negative about times right now, they’re negative about things 250 years in the past.
Brett McKay: And what are the consequences of those views, do you think?
Jean Twenge: I think there’s a number of ways this could go. The positive is, as I mentioned, like political activism. From the viewpoint of older generations. That may not be the best if political activism becomes a revolution. And it also may not be the best if you combine these attitudes with depression and nihilism. And then there’s the idea of everything is so messed up and we can’t do anything about it, which I think observationally is very, very common on social media. It’s the meme of the dog sitting in the burning house saying this is fine. It’s the dumpster fire idea. It’s that we’re living in a modern hellscape. It’s like this everything is bad all the time. Which again, I think is affecting everybody, but is having a particular impact on Gen Z teens and young adults.
Brett McKay: It’s like learned helplessness. They have an external locus of control.
Jean Twenge: And they do. We do see that in the data. So there’s a question on one of the big surveys. Do you agree every time I try to get ahead, somebody or something stops me. And Gen Z teens are more likely to say yes to that than millennial teens were.
Brett McKay: Is this pessimism? Is this affecting relationship and family formation amongst Gen Z?
Jean Twenge: It very well might, because when you look at birth rates and you look at fertility intentions, the theme that comes up over and over is that people who are optimistic about the future have children. Gen Z is not optimistic about the future. And that might be why, when they’re asked, “Are you likely to have kids?” They’re less likely to say yes. Then the majority still say yes. But this statistic and the percentage of teens who say they want to have children had been consistent since 1976. It had barely changed. And then in the transition between millennials and Gen Z, it suddenly started to go down.
Brett McKay: Interesting. So there could be the pessimism, but also going back to the idea of technology increases individualism. Maybe people are just feeling more individualistic, and they think, well, kids, they kind of put a hamper on myself, so I don’t want to do that.
Jean Twenge: If that were true, though, I would have expected that fertility intentions at 18 would have started to go down with Gen Xers and especially with millennials, but it didn’t. They stayed pretty constant until we got to Gen Z.
Brett McKay: Interesting. What about so the idea of this slow life strategy, this really peaked with Gen Z. I’ve noticed this, this is anecdotal, but I noticed a lot of my friends who have kids who are 16 years old, 17, 18, they don’t have their driver’s license. I asked myself, what’s going on with that? Yeah, I’m bugging him to go get his driver’s but he won’t do it. Is there any data to back up my anecdotal observation?
Jean Twenge: There is indeed. So, yes, in that high school senior survey, they’re asked if they have their driver’s license, and there has been a big big decline in the number of 18 year olds about ready to graduate from high school who have a driver’s license. We have to put this in context, though. First of all, no, it’s not Uber, ’cause you can’t take Uber when you’re under 18 and doesn’t exist in rural areas. And we see the exact same decline in rural areas and urban areas when it comes to driver’s licenses. It’s also part of a bigger picture. So there’s a decline in teens getting their driver’s license. There’s also a decline in the number of teens who drink alcohol, who have a paid job, who go out on dates, and who have sex. So these are adult activities. These are things that adults do and children don’t. And 18 year olds, 17 year olds are less likely to do these things than they were for millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers.
Brett McKay: The technology is driving that ’cause if you’re 18 years old today, you don’t need to go cruise with your friends or cruise over to go see your friends. You can just get on Snapchat or whatever to talk with your friends.
Jean Twenge: And that explains the getting together with friends piece a little bit more. And maybe the dating piece a little bit more. It doesn’t really explain why there’s also been a decline in getting a driver’s license. Well, a little bit, maybe, but it definitely doesn’t explain why there’s a decline in getting a job.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Why wouldn’t you get… I needed a job if I wanted to do anything when I was a kid. But I mean, maybe you don’t need a job because a lot of stuff online, it’s free, right? You can play video games. It doesn’t cost as much.
Jean Twenge: True. Yeah. Yeah. Mostly entertainment. That might be part of it. Yeah, I think it’s certainly an interaction between technology and the… But a lot of it is the slow life strategy, just people taking longer to grow up.
Brett McKay: Okay, so then the final generation is Gen Alpha. We don’t know much about them yet. They’re like still little kids, so we don’t know much about them. But I imagine it’s more of the same of Gen Z.
Jean Twenge: So these are the kids who will barely remember a time before COVID. The oldest were in the lower grades, first grade, kindergarten when the pandemic hit. They were those poor kindergartners who were squirming through the Zoom lessons. That their early days in the pandemic, they’re gonna have some consequences, but kids are resilient. It doesn’t have to doom them. The Silent Generation was another generation born during difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II. And they actually have the best mental health of any other generation.
Brett McKay: Well, Jean, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, so the book is Generations. My website is jeantwenge.com, so J-E-A-N-T-W-E-N-G-E and I have a lot of FAQs about Generations and academic publications and all kinds of other stuff on the website.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jean Twenge. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jean Twenge: My pleasure as well.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Dr. Jean Twenge. She’s the author of the book Generations. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, jeantwenge.com. And Twenge is spelled T-W-E-N-G-E.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/generations, where you can find links to resources we delve deeper into this topic.
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