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Real Differences: The Danger of Radical Individualism: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future, by Jean M. Twenge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023, 560 pages, $32.50.

The 1960–61 Broadway production of the Adams-Strouse play Bye Bye Birdie was an enormous success both in the United States and London and spawned off-Broadway versions for many years, including amateur versions by high school and college students. Among its more-memorable musical numbers was “Kids,” memorable for the question: “What’s the matter with kids today?” Generations attempting to understand (and, hopefully, endure) each other is therefore not a new human phenomenon. As the pace of cultural change has accelerated in the third millennium, however, the endeavor may be more pressing than usual.

Into this pressing endeavor strides Dr. Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State University), whose professional life has been devoted to generational questions and has resulted in two previous books on the topic: Generation Me: Why Todays Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before; and iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—And What That Means for the Rest of Us. She also co-authored (with W. Keith Campbell) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.[1] The present volume reflects a mature analysis of generations informed by decades of labor; Twenge’s knowledge of the subject is only equaled by her nuanced analysis thereof. The passage of time from her first book to this one has equipped her with growing understanding and nuance and has provided ever-increasing knowledge of the subject from many sources. As she herself says, “In these pages, you’ll find the results of generational analyses spanning twenty-four data-sets including thirty-nine million people” (2).

Publishers and reviewers of her earlier books perhaps suggested a toned-down title to this volume; and “Real Differences” is indeed milder than “Miserable,” “Unprepared,” “Entitlement,” or “Narcissism Epidemic,” but Twenge’s evaluation of generational differences still does not shrink from at least raising evaluative/normative questions. Early on, she rightly distinguishes individualist culture from collectivist cultures:

Individualist cultures such as the U.S. value freedom, independence, and equality, while more collectivistic cultures such as South Korea instead value group harmony and rule-following. Levels of individualism also vary over time. . . . By the 1960s and 1970s the highly individualistic world we know today had begun to emerge. . . . Sacrificing for the greater good was less prized. . . . With so much reliance on the self, it was important that people feel good about themselves, so viewing the self positively received more emphasis. (9)

This distinction is critical to grasping Twenge’s evaluations. A recurring theme in each of her books is that unchecked individualism can easily become narcissism, which is a poor foundation for a richly humane society. One constant across the six generations is the increasingly unchecked individualism in each subsequent generation. Twenge’s point of view is neither original nor idiosyncratic; within her particular sphere of expertise she joins concerns expressed by culture observers such as Robert N. Bellah, Robert D. Putnam, Christian Smith, Sherry Turkle, and Charles Murray.[2]

The book consists of eight chapters, the first of which, “The How and Why of Generations,” introduces both the topic and the proposed method; the last of which, “The Future,” discusses trends and tendencies we may expect, and a chapter each is devoted to the six generations in their chronological order:

  • Silents (Born 1925–1945)
  • Boomers (Born 1946–1964)
  • Generation X (Born 1965–1979)
  • Millennials (Born 1980–1994)
  • Generation Z (Born 1995–2012)
  • Polars (Born 2013–2029)

In the introductory chapter Twenge explains that generations potentially differ from one another for three reasons: cultural changes (e.g., stay-at-home mothers vs. working mothers), major events, and technological changes. Among the major events that have shaped these generations, she discusses World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, fears of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the September 11 attacks, the 2008 Financial Collapse, the Internet, Smartphones, George Floyd (and the following riots), Donald Trump, and the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. However, Twenge believes an exclusive attention to such events is inadequate in studying generations:

The classic theories of generational change focus almost exclusively on just one aspect of cultural change: major events. . . . Major events can certainly shape a generation’s worldview. Those who lived through the Great Depression, for example, were often frugal for the rest of their lives. However, this view of generations as shaped by cycles of events misses the rest of cultural change—all the ways in which life today is so different from life twenty years ago, fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago. . . . The average woman born in 1930 ended her education with high school, married at 20, and had two kids by 25, while the average woman born in 1990 went to college and was unmarried with no children at 25. (4, 5)

Having two children at age 25, compared to being unmarried and without children at the same age, is not a “major event” in the ordinary sense of the expression; but being married vs. single, and having children vs. not having children, are profoundly different experiences of life. Twenge’s goal is to describe “real differences” between generations, and marital and child-rearing differences are “real differences” indeed.

Traditional analyses of generations either focused on the regular family dynamics of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood/parenting, or on the influence of significant cultural events (such as wars or economic collapse). Twenge acknowledges the value of such but proposes an approach that augments such analyses. Twenge employs a three-pronged approach to generational analysis, but the prongs are not of equal length:

“So what is the root cause of these cultural changes—and thus the root cause of generational changes? . . . The strongest candidate is technology . . . This model—let’s call it the Technology Model of Generations—is a new theory of generations for the modern world. . . . there are intervening causes as well. . . . Two of these intervening causes are individualism and a slower life trajectory. (6)

Note, then, that the remainder of her book benefits from the two more-traditional analyses but adds her additional three (individualism, slower life trajectory, technology), with a strong emphasis on technology. I am especially alert to, and appreciative of, her approach to technology as a significant factor in cultural change. She even believes technology profoundly influences those very “major events” that some propose to be the primary influence on generational experience:

Technology also contributes to many of the major events prized in classic generational theories. Consider airplanes, a key technological development of the 20th century. Airplanes played a role in at least four major events of the last one hundred years: World War II (where planes were used in combat, including dropping the first nuclear bomb), 9/11 (where planes were used as weapons), and the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics (where both viruses spread via airplane travel). (8)

Twenge joins such earlier culture analysts as Lewis Mumford and Elisabeth L. Eisenstein[3] in recognizing the culture-shaping influence of technological change. In my final eighteen years of teaching, I taught an introduction to Media Ecology each year and even required Twenge’s 2018 book as one of the texts for the class.[4] I was therefore especially eager to read her current book, and my eagerness was generously rewarded. Cultural change occurs more rapidly now than at any other historical moment, and technological change is one of the most influential dimensions of cultural change.

The breakneck speed of cultural change means that growing up today is a completely different experience from growing up in the 1950s or 1980s—or even the 2000s. . . . In fact, when you were born has a larger effect on your personality and attitudes than the family who raised you does. (2)

Twenge makes thorough use of the concept of “slow life strategy,” especially observing at each generational moment that this life strategy gets increasingly slower. She acknowledges that the pace of life is increasingly rapid, but the life strategy gets slower. It takes longer and longer to move from infancy, through childhood, through adolescence to adulthood, to retirement. Indirectly, technology contributes to this slower life strategy, because technology has decreased the role of manual labor in the American economy, causing many young people to pursue college degrees (and often beyond) in order to be competitive in a market that rewards brains more than brawn. The slowing of the life strategy is one of the consistent traits that distinguish each successive generation from the previous.

People who involve themselves in what I call the “generation wars” will find little fodder in Twenge’s work. She candidly concedes that there is some arbitrariness in ascribing dates and/or labels for the various generations,[5] and she ordinarily works with the consensus, saying of the last generation, e.g., “I call them Polars; some marketers have called them Alphas” (2). Her sub-title explains her motivation, which is to explain “the real differences” that exist between the several generations, not the (often unreal) perceptions they sometimes have of each other. Using such tools as the General Social Survey and the U. S. Census Bureau’s findings,[6] Twenge resists the huffing, flame-throwing, and blaming, to demonstrate that particular generations are often quite different than common conceptions suggest; Millennials, for instance, are actually doing much better financially than the doom-predictors had said. Adjusted for their somewhat slower life strategy, once they have been in the job market for the same amount of time, they do as well as (or better than) their predecessors. Indeed, throughout the book, Twenge displays a “light touch,” as it were, permitting frequent charts and graphs to speak for themselves with no need for exclamation marks. She exhibits the soft-spoken manner of a family physician who calmly presents diagnosis, prognosis, and options of proposed treatment. She consistently avoids either canonizing or demonizing each generation and is content to note paradox when it is called for, as when she says, “Polar children are less likely than ever to be injured, but more likely than ever to get little exercise and to be overweight” (459).

Aided by the many surveys available to her, Twenge explains similarities and differences in attitudes and beliefs in many areas: family, human sexuality, the American Republic, patriotism, racism (white females today are more concerned about systemic racism than black Americans are, male or female!), labor, marriage, child-rearing, self-esteem (getting higher), self-harm (also getting higher!), materialism, politics, “cancelling,” the First Amendment, and more. Sometimes the generational differences are small, and sometimes they are very large.

A pleasant surprise amid all the statistics and graphs is the presence of two impressionistic parts of each chapter. Early in the description of each generation, Twenge includes a list of the ten “Most Popular First Names” for males and females in each generation (with asterisks for any first-time appearances on the list); I was surprised to find my half-year-old grandson’s name (“Liam”) was ranked second on the list for the Polars. This list of names is followed, in each chapter, by the names of well-known actors, comedians, and filmmakers in each generation. While neither of these lists has any particular explanatory consequences, the lists personalize the perception of each generation in a whimsical-but-interesting manner.

Readers of this review may be disappointed that it contains no brief, pithy description of each of the six generations; but no perceptive review of Twenge’s book could do so; her analysis of each generation contains many specific traits but no defining trait. This makes for rewarding and interesting reading, but unsatisfying reviewing.

The concluding chapter on “The Future” describes seven trends that are likely to characterize the next decades barring some unusual event:

  1. Remote work will be the new norm in the workplace.
  2. Safe spaces and speech will likely move from the universities into workplaces.
  3. Workplaces will need to adjust to emotionally fragile Gen Z: “That means a transition from optimism to pessimism, entitlement to insecurity, and self-confidence to doubt. Millennials were challenging because they expected praise as a given; Gen Z’ers are challenging because they need praise for reassurance.” (467)
  4. Everything will be political. “Gen Z’ers can barely remember a time before the country was so sharply divided politically. Everything is political, and politics has become about morals and values, not just candidates and debates. There is a new feeling that it’s us versus them, and you must take a stand one way or another. . . . Companies will increasingly feel pressure from employees to speak out about political issues, no matter what their business.” (471)
  5. Mental health will be recognized as real illness. What was once stigmatized is now expected to be acknowledged openly: “Gen Z knows how to advocate for their mental health needs and is determined to eliminate any stigma around discussing mental health issues.” (472)
  6. Flattening of social roles and relations will continue, and the corporate culture will be more collegial than hierarchical: “Individualism has flattened the authority structure everywhere, with distinctions between managers and employees fading. Relationships are less formal and more casual. . . . The days when managers could tell employees to do something and they would just do it are long gone. Gen Z is, at times, skeptical of the need for leaders at all.” (473)
  7. The future will be nonbinary. Gender-neutral bathrooms will become the norm in most public places. “Stating pronouns will become standard practice in businesses. As Gen Z becomes the bulk of new hires, they will request (and possibly demand) it.” (475)

In the concluding chapter, Twenge notes that the birth rate had dropped to barely replacement levels in 2008 (at 2.1), but by 2020, it had dropped to 1.64, the lowest ever in the United States, and it will likely stay that way or decline further, due to the three causes of generational change:

All three of the major causes of generational change point toward birth rates either continuing to decline or stabilizing at low rates. Technology makes birth control possible, so having children becomes a choice. Individualism deemphasizes family and tradition, which leads to fewer people choosing to have children. The slow-life strategy means people wait to have children and have fewer of them. (480)

Policy makers will need to address this population decline. Too recent for Twenge to include is President Macron of France addressing the matter by raising the retirement age to keep people in the workforce longer to provide for state-funded retirement benefits. Other western democracies will need to follow suit or discover another solution.

Readers of Ordained Servant will appreciate one aspect of Twenge’s analysis that some readers will not: from 2006 to the present, her writings have consistently, if with increasing sophistication, called attention to untempered individualism, or what we might call “self-centeredness.” Even the word “individualism” occurs nearly two hundred times in the volume, as Twenge adds her voice to the now-chorus of culture observers over the last four decades who express concern that even a culture that promotes individual freedom must not do so at the expense of the well-being of the society as a whole. Self-fulfilment has never been consistent with biblical teaching about self-denial; Twenge’s portrait of the recent six generations describes a slow but inexorable march in the wrong direction. In the midst of that narrative, however, she provides remarkable insights into the distinctive traits of each generation, and I would be pleased if her book were the most-read book this summer. Preachers and teachers will especially find her analysis to be helpful in understanding and serving our generations.

Endnotes

[1] Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Atria, 2006); and iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—And What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria Books, 2018). She also co-authored (with W. Keith Campbell) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria, 2009).

[2] Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Touchstone, 2001); Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: University Press, 2005); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011) and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown, 2012). Twenge is familiar with some of these, citing Smith on pages 296–97 and Turkle on page 413.

[3] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Harcourt Brace, 1990; original 1934); Elisabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[4] Twenge, iGen.

[5] Regarding the Polars, she says, “Two aspects of the period form their name: the political polarization that gripped the country beginning in the 2010s that rose to new heights during the pandemic, and the melting polar ice caps that serve as a symbol of global warming. Polars will grapple with these two issues for most of their lives. This generation has also been called Alphas, after the Greek letter A; after Generation Z, this gambit argues, the only way to use letters is to go back to the beginning of the alphabet.” (451)

[6] I noticed more than sixty references to the U.S. Census and nearly fifty references to the General Social Survey. Twenge also makes good use of the Google Books database, citing it well over a dozen times.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August/September, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2023

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