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