Generational warfare is fierce. Millennials accuse Boomers of ruining everything, and Boomers call the younger generations a bunch of entitled, lazy, and stupid kids. Dr. Jean Twenge’s new book Generations offers a different approach, attempting to describe each generation on its own terms, rather than writing another generational polemic. Although she’s evenhanded to a fault, the result is a fascinating, often surprising, book fit for intergenerational consumption and discussion.
Our impressions of generations can be heavily shaped by photos from Woodstock or our TikTok-addict nephew, but by analyzing survey data on more than 39 million people, Twenge (pronounced “twang-ee”) helps clarify and contradict our vague, anecdotal impressions. She contends that technological advance is the prime factor in generational differences, creating greater individualism and slower maturation, with major events like Vietnam or 9/11 putting the finishing touches on a generation’s identity.
Data on Generational Reputations
Parts of Twenge’s book crystallize and validate generational reputations. Boomers did indeed revolt against their parents’ norms. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 1 out of 25 American adults said they had ever tried marijuana. As Boomers entered adulthood, usage shot up. By 1977, that number was 1 out of 4.
For the high school class of 1979, 94 percent had tried alcohol and 42 percent of those binge drank, 75 percent had smoked cigarettes, and 62 percent had tried marijuana. Twenty-five percent had used amphetamines, 17 percent tranquilizers, 12 percent barbiturates, and 16 percent had used cocaine. These remain record highs. Similarly, in 1967, 85 percent of all U.S. adults said that premarital sex was wrong, but by 1979, that number was down to 37 percent. In the battle over sexual mores, the Boomers won.
The individualism, high self-esteem, and irreligious attitudes that Boomers are credited for truly came to fruition in the following generations, who slowly abandoned the idealism of their forebears. In the early 1950s, only 12 percent of teens agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” By the late 1980s, 80 percent of teens claimed they were important.
When Boomers were entering college in the mid-’60s, about 85 percent believed “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was important, while about 40 percent believed “becoming very well-off financially” was important. By the time Gen X kids were wrapping up college, that had reversed, with nearly 75 percent valuing financial success compared to 45 percent a meaningful philosophy.
In 1970, nearly 8 in 10 men in their late twenties were married. When millennial men reached their late twenties, the statistic flipped: More than 7 in 10 men had never married. More than four times more millennial women, 1 in 4, had never been married by their late thirties compared to Boomers at the same age. For millennial men, almost twice as many in their late thirties have never been married compared to Boomers.
Thus, women are having fewer children later in life: For the first time in American history, women in their early thirties have a higher birth rate than women in their late twenties. While you might think this is due to fears of climate change or that millennials are broke, that is not what these would-be parents self-report. Instead, most mention individual concerns: desire for more leisure, more independence, or simply “I just don’t want them.” With that individualism comes less organized religion: Nearly as many millennials now identify as religiously unaffiliated as Christian, while nearly three times more Boomers are Christian than unaffiliated.
Gen Z is in many ways the sum of its predecessors: the cynicism of Gen X, the materialism of millennials, and the individualism that started with Boomers. They are a pessimistic, “gender-fluid,” and secular lot indeed. Their prominent members are often notably vapid — the Jenners, Jaden Smith, Lil Nas X — or famous more for their traumas than their accomplishments: Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, David Hogg. This is the sad consequence of an extremely online generation, raised with minimal moral formation by institutions, whose identities elevate victimhood.
Gen Z is often confusing to older generations. Their “speech is violence” stance baffles more thick-skinned Gen X’ers, who saw wide-ranging viewpoints as a feature, not defect, of college life. Their terms around sex and sexuality — pan, AFAB, enby, demiboy — are often incomprehensible to anyone over 30. And the voluntary segregation — in housing and graduation ceremonies — that they increasingly demand strikes Boomers as retrograde, the exact opposite of what equality means. Yet Zoomers bull forward with a Boomer-like self-assurance and disregard for the old way.
They don’t think much of America. In a 2020 survey, 4 out of 10 Gen Z’ers believed that the founders of the United States are “better described as villains” than “as heroes.” In a July 2021 poll, only 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they were “very” or “extremely” proud to be an American. In contrast, 86 percent of those 65 and older (Boomers and Silents) said they were proud to be American. When asked to describe America, millennials used words like, “diverse,” “free,” and “land of abundance.” Gen Z said “dystopic,” “broken,” and “a bloody mess.”
Gen Z is negative, depressed, and politically polarized, and Twenge has an explanation that the data keeps supporting: Digital media has ruined this generation. Teen depression and digital media use increased in lockstep following 2012. This same pattern of digital adoption and depression repeated among teens around the world. That rise tracked with smartphone use and internet time but not with unemployment, income inequality, gross national product, or family size. Teens today spend less time together, go out with friends less, and sleep less. A majority of high schoolers now sleep less than seven hours most nights.
There’s a prevalent view among young adults that Boomers climbed the ladder and pulled it up after them. Twenge is emphatic that this is untrue on both sides: Boomers did not have it so easy, and millennials don’t have it so bad.
Compared to their Silent Generation parents, Boomers “have been less happy, have had more days of poor mental health, were more likely to suffer from mental distress, and were more likely to be depressed than Silents at the same ages.” The “deaths of despair” in the news are a Boomer, specifically white Boomer, phenomenon. From 2000, when Silents were the entirety of 55- to 64-year-olds, to 2019, when the group was all Boomers, fatal drug overdoses increased by a factor of 10, fatal liver disease by 42 percent, and suicide by 60 percent.
Twenge argues Boomers were actually the first casualties of income inequality. As manufacturing jobs were disappearing due to off-shoring and automation in the ’80s and ’90s, it was Boomers who were suddenly adrift as young adults. By 2001, college graduates earned twice as much as non-college graduates, and this gap in income corresponded with a gap in happiness and mental health. Inequality was a problem Boomers inherited, not one they created, and while some made out like bandits, many were left behind and embittered.
As for broke millennials, adjusted for inflation, median household income for 25- to 34-year-olds is higher for millennials than the three prior generations. Additionally, median individual incomes rose rapidly from 2015-2020, reaching all-time highs for young adults as millennials entered their twenties and thirties. Comparing 25- to 39-year-olds who owned a home by generation, about 50 percent of Boomers and Gen Xers did while 48 percent of millennials did.
Yet, millennials still feel poor. Twenge attributes this to unrealistic expectations. Millennials received a steady diet of Kardashians and “you can do anything” encouragement growing up, and when they did not end up becoming glamorous influencers, clickbait articles were quick to offload blame on Boomers and capitalism — thus, “OK, Boomer,” AOC, and a 2018 Gallup poll finding that 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have a positive view of socialism while only 45 percent have a positive view of capitalism.
In millennials’ defense, cost of living, especially in certain areas, has skyrocketed, and student loan debt, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1990. And although Twenge acknowledges it, it’s worth emphasizing that the rise in income is due to women’s increasing pay rather than an overall increase in wages. Men’s incomes have fallen slightly since 1970.
In 2021, millennial women ages 35 to 44 made three times more than 25- to 34-year-old Greatest Generation women in 1950. Women 25 to 34 in 2021 made 69 percent more than Boomer women had in 1980. So, the median income and household incomes are up, but supporting a family on one income or without a (pricey) college degree has not gotten any easier.
An Unlikely Conservative Message
Twenge seeks to be descriptive and impartial, but parts of her book unintentionally make conservative points. Her attempt to describe Gen Z’s burgeoning LGBT population makes it sound less like mature self-realization and more like immature attention-seeking. Here’s one 13-year-old girl: “When I came out to my best friend, I wanted to make sure my parents couldn’t see, so I sent her a letter through [an online game]. She later texted me saying, ‘Aw, I’m so happy for you! I completely support you.’ This was two days ago, and I’ve never felt better.”
On the theory that the female-to-male trans explosion is a social contagion mediated by TikTok et al., Twenge is conspicuously silent. She discredits theories that it is a blue-state phenomenon (it is equally prevalent across the country) or a product of greater acceptance (it is an increase specifically occurring among Gen Z), and then concludes that “there’s no easy or verifiable answer.” Her choice to dodge rather than engage with the “social contagion” theory implies that the view could not be easily dismissed, but to seriously consider it is too great a professional risk.
Finally, conservatives decrying our headlong rush toward individualism, secularism, and “trusting your feelings” will find plenty of validation in Twenge’s research. The living generation with the best mental health across time is the Silent Generation — or the most communal, religious, family-oriented, and patriotic generation. Even during the pandemic, when they were at highest risk, they were less anxious and depressed than all younger generations.
Silents grew up before television (and the resulting rise in expectations) was common. They had both the all-time low for age of first-time brides — 20.1 in 1956 — and the all-time high for birth rate: 3.8 children per woman in 1957. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Hardly the modern recipe for happiness.
Yet it is Gen Z, living in unprecedented safety, prosperity, and leisure that claims “things are worse than ever.” Seventy years of discarding the tradition and trust once common among Silents has left Gen Z depressed, anxious, and hopeless. Perhaps looking back with a little humility rather than smugness might help Gen Z and its successors move forward.