From The Wall Street Journal:

“Every generation blames the one before,” sang Mike + the Mechanics in their chart-topping 1988 song “The Living Years.” There’s a certain truth to that. It’s also true that every generation can’t help blaming the one that comes after. They’re lazy. They don’t know how to dress. They speak in strange slang. They’ve never heard of groups like Mike + the Mechanics.

In America, the generations seem to be engaged in a low-intensity forever war: Baby Boomers vs. the Silent Generation, Gen X vs. Gen Z, Millennials vs. Everybody. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, wants to broker a truce. She has made it her mission to spread peace and understanding among cohorts she likens to “squabbling siblings.” In books like “iGen” (2017) and “Generation Me” (2006), she has tracked the development of generational gaps and tried her best to bridge them. “The more we understand the perspective of different generations,” she writes, “the easier it is to see we’re all in this together.”

Are we though? An old theory has it that each generation adopts its group characteristics by way of the shared experience of “major events at impressionable ages,” as Ms. Twenge puts it in “Generations,” her latest book. The privation of the Great Depression and the national sacrifice of World War II instilled in the Silents, born in 1925-45, an urge to live stable, frugal lives. The idealism of the Baby Boomers (1946-64) was the product of the 1960s youth culture and the era-defining achievements of the civil-rights movement. The end of the Cold War gave Gen X (1965-79) its insouciant self-confidence. The 9/11 attacks and the financial collapse of 2007-09 shaped the fatalism common to Millennials (1980-94). The personality of Gen Z (1995-2012) isn’t fully developed yet, but the pandemic and digital media loom over everything they do.

Ms. Twenge doesn’t buy this theory. “History is not just a series of events,” she writes. “It’s also the ebb and flow of a culture and all that entails: technology, attitudes, beliefs, behavioral norms, diversity, prejudice, time use, education, family size, divorce.” She has her own theory: Technological change is the main driver of generational differences. Unlike wars, pandemics and economic cycles, she notes, “technological change is linear.” It moves toward ever more sophistication and convenience. It has the power to change things completely, making our lives “strikingly different from the lives of those in decades past.”

By “technology” she doesn’t just mean microchips and satellites. She means everything from air-conditioning to sanitation to birth control to architecture. The progressive development of technology shapes us, she writes, primarily by nudging us toward a greater degree of self-reliance—Ms. Twenge calls it “individualism”—and a “slower life trajectory.” Every generation has had the privilege of living “longer lives with less drudgery” than the lives of their parents and grandparents.

The “slow life” thesis may do more to explain the friction between the generations than anything else. Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers have a hard time understanding why Millennials and Gen Z’ers have so enthusiastically refused to grow up. Ms. Twenge’s explanation is that technology has arranged it so that they don’t have to. Young people can put off education, career, marriage and child-rearing in ways their parents and grandparents couldn’t. Labor-saving devices and longer life spans have given Millennials and Gen Z’ers the “priceless gift of time.” Why so many of them choose to use it watching cat videos and filming themselves dancing is one of life’s great riddles.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

7 thoughts on “Generations”

  1. Tsk Tsk.
    Talk about generation gaps.

    Ms. Twenge even copies the titles of an older, *predictive* book that covered the same subject and actually reached some high level politicians:

    William Strauss and Neil Howe’s GENERATIONS from 1991 and its sequels have a decades long track record of predicting what we’ve lived since then.

    The new book treading the same ground has a tough tow to hoe. Especialy since Howe is releasing the latest in his series in two months. I’m more inclined to go with his.

  2. Unstated irony alert: Mike + the Mechanics is a second-generation parallel iteration-band, nearly two decades (two internet centuries!) after Genesis got its start. Think of it as “Uncle Bob has another family in Bermuda, and everybody gets along just fine regardless.” Sadly, I remember my irritation when I missed seeing Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower on stage (about to be “trimmed” by a lawnmower — 1970s Genesis made 80s hair-band stage antics look rather unimaginative) due to a scheduling conflict. tl;dr I’m old.

  3. If her theory is that current tech allows delaying adult hood, an obvious question is: are these childish adults happier than traditional adults?

    I’m not convinced it’s all due to tech, anyway – for example, delaying getting a first job by going to college for 4 years or much more is made possible by student loans, not tech.

    • How mature were the flappers of the “Lost Generation”?
      What about the hippies?

      More importantly, it isn’t just the varios cohorts of the “saeculum” that change over time but each cohort changes as they age. We saw it with the Roaring 20’s and the boomers and we’ve already seen it with the older millenials: back ’round the oughts the narrative was that Millenials were choosing the big cities over smaller metro areas and suburban life. Small urban living was their preferred choice and they were going to adopt the 80’s DINK hedonistic lifestyle and revitalize the megacities.

      Except they didn’t.

      Even before the pandemic, as Millenials started to grow up and slide into adulthood–delayed or not–they were starting to realize they didn’t want to spend their entire lifetime in Manhattan closets barely making ends meet. And the 2008 crisis sent many back to the ‘burbs to hunker down in the old folk’s basement, driving home the idea that owning a chunk of dirt to call their own had its uses.
      Then, as they were starting to get their adult lives going, the pandemic hit; reinforcing the realization that big cities may be fun to visit, even hang around for a while, but their long term livability isn’t exactly the best. Not if you have a choice.

      Millenials aren’t done evolving because the world isn’t done beating their idealistic illusions about being “special” out of them. But they’ll get there as they navigate this decade of crisis and learn what it really means to be part of the species or the price of opting out.

      They may yet rise to the occassion like their grandparents of the WWII era or fail as misserably as their ancestors of the mid-19th. Time will tell.

      It is way to early to pass judgment on the millenials; they’s just victims of their upbringing and the dated ideologies of the gerontocracy.

      • Felix, when talking ’bout m-m-m-my generation, I have completely failed: I did not die before I got old (I became the Old Man a week prior to my 24th birthday…).

        That said, part of the problem is that the purported “generations” are not comparable in length — and, much more importantly, they are not comparable in “median life or politicocultural-awareness expectancy.” It’s not just that my generation — the Boomers — won’t shut up; it’s that we’re older and crankier than the generation before, and the generation before that. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average (arithmetic mean) age of US Senators in February 2023 was a couple months short of the “canonical” retirement age of 65; fifty years ago, it was 51, implying just about two Senatorial terms until “retirement.” One might say that means there’s more benefit of experience; one might equally, and more compellingly, say that means those in office got their experience upon which they’re relying in an entirely different social context than now exists, and that therefore their “experience” should be relied upon just as much as “experienced farmers'” experience with what-it-takes-to-work-the-land in 1922. (How’d that work out with the Dust Bowl, anyway?)

        • The problem with the gerontocracy isn’t that they won’t leave, but (at least on the blue side) that they didn’t allow for the growth of competent successors. The red guys haven’t left either but they have allowed a cadre of competent potential successors to build up a national level presence. Even the guy who refuses to take a hint helped a couple of younger figures burnish their credentials.

          Come 24 and beyond, who is going to stand for that tribe? Ms Cackle? The moscow honeymooner? They’re still working from the ’68 playbook and that is way past the expiration date.

          Losers used to concede gracefully when they blew it. Not in 2000.
          Ex’es used to fade into the shadows instead of making war on their replacements. Even Carter!
          Not in 2017.

          Actions breed reactions and today’s IdiotPoliticians no longer believe in the good of the country, not even in appearances. There is no longer room for honorable opposition, only scorched earth.

          We can only hope the X-folks might bring back at least a shred of cooperation; it wasn’t that long ago that a Kennedy and a Bush got behind the same bill. There is some hope still. And room for new ideas along with the inevitable new blood.

          But that same kind of scorched earth politics ended up literally scorching the land sixteen decades past.

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