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

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

Reviewed by Mike Males | June 8, 2023

2 Out of 5 Stars: Leaves Out Huge Issues 

Generations sounds at least the hundredth alarm in the last hundred years proclaiming a “new mental health crisis” among teenagers (did you know 75% of 1930s “Greatest Generation” boys tested mentally defective “due to anxiety”?). Alan (Closing of the American Mind, 1987) Bloom lambasted Jean Twenge’s and endorser Jonathan (Coddling of the American Mind, 2018) Haidt’s 1980s Gen X as mentally disturbed, intolerant, and pop-media warped (plus uneducable and unemployable), Now, Twenge and Haidt find Gen Z troubling.

Still, Twenge is right: “Gen Z is different.” That signals caution in how we clueless old folks assess it. Her and others’ traditional interpretations of Gen Z’s self-reported depression, anxiety, social media use, etc., risk serious misunderstanding – just as Twenge’s 2006 Generation Me misinterpreted narcissism scales (they now track social disadvantage) and confused pop-culture quips with “evidence,” producing disastrously wrong forecasts. Twenge-2006 predicted youthful epidemics of social disorder, school failure, disconnection, “hooking up,” dishonesty, and “dangers that were once unknown.” Twenge-2023 now admits these never happened.

Generations is much better, with interesting generational surveys (which can dictate answers that may not reflect respondents’ true choices) and detailings of Gen Z’s gender fluidity and rejection of traditional milestones. Unfortunately, Generations suffers from Twenge’s usual refusal to engage major facts that challenge her thesis. “No other plausible culprit has emerged,” Twenge declares, for  the “very large and sudden changes in mental health” among teenagers other than “technology, especially social media” (p. 401).

Yes, culprits have emerged. Big, obvious ones, requiring much effort to overlook.

The same CDC survey reporting increased teenage depression and anxiety also reported a doubling in violent abuses and a quadrupling in emotional abuses – the latter victimizing a staggering 55% of youths– inflicted by parents and other household adults. Grownup violence and bullying toward teenagers at home exploded over the last decade to levels far higher than teens experience at school or online – all to deafening silence by Twenge, Haidt, and social-media blamers.

Additionally, depression tripled among parent-aged grownups to diagnostic levels higher than among adolescents. Among ages 25-54, deaths from suicides, drug/alcohol overdose, and guns soared from 35,635 (2000) to 110,184 (2021) as Gen Z grew up, a tripling in per-capita rates and an increase 1.7 times faster than among teens. By 2021, parents’ risks of dying from self-destructive causes increased to four times higher, and criminal arrest rates to twice as high, as among high-school-age teens; plus 130,000 more parent-age COVID deaths.

Generations spends scores of pages on mental health, yet “abuse” doesn’t appear in Twenge’s index. Twenge’s 515-page book dismisses sexual harassment and assault in scant sentences as something only celebrities or young peers do. In fact, household adults’ 1+ million sexual abuses victimizing children and teens substantiated by the Administration on Children and Families as Gen Z grew up argues otherwise. (Twenge’s Generation Me likewise deployed one idiotic Wavy Gravy quip to dismiss the mammoth Boomer drug scourge.)

Twenge, Haidt, and other academics and professionals – who should brand their own Xers and Boomers the “you can’t say that!” and “stay safe” generations – owe their popularity to ignoring and downplaying parents’ and grownups’ skyrocketing, widespread depression, addiction, self-destructive deaths, and violent and emotional abuses victimizing teenagers. While studies blaming social media are conflicting and methodologically limited, an overwhelming research consensus links parental abuses and troubles to teens’ depression, anxiety, and other ills.

Twenge hints at but fails to present what a profound revolution younger Millennials and Gen Z are bringing. Remember the terrors teenagers traditionally were lambasted for? Crime, shootings, school dropout, “teen pregnancy,” stealing, vandalizing, all-around savagery. Gen Z has all but abolished that teenager. Using consistently reliable California statistics and comparing 2021 to 1995 and 1970 (that is, Gen Zers versus Xers and Boomers), the trends are astonishing: Rates of criminal arrest: down 96%, down 92%, respectively. Violence arrest: down 81%, down 83%. Gun deaths, down 35%, down 69%. Suicide: down 11%, down 18%. Juvenile probation referrals: down 93%, down 92%. Youth incarcerations: down 80%, down 88%. “Teenage” births: down 89%, down 84%.

A Gen Z that has sharply reduced its school dropout (by 70%), increased its college attendance and graduation rates (by 30%, despite larcenous costs), and sharply boosted political activism and voting is not “struggling with mental health,” as Twenge and others insist. A better interpretation is that the depression and anxiety expressed by today’s youth are logical, healthy, even motivating responses to the anxiety-driving conditions they experience.

Proof that external conditions, not internal mental processes, are paramount is the biggest reasons younger Millennials and Gen Z show such dramatic behavior improvements: the 75% reduction in child poverty fostered by increased tax credits for poor families, and the 95% reduction in children’s neurotoxic lead levels due to environmental regulations since 1990. When economic and environmental conditions improved, youth behaviors improved astonishingly. Imagine 16-year-olds with lower crime rates than 46-year-olds… that’s Gen Z.

The massive, definitive 2022 Pew study (more pivotal research Twenge fails to engage, possibly because it challenges her claims) found teens use social media to connect and find support during tough times. That liberal and (recently) more educated modern populations are more anxious and depressed indicates more realistic comprehension of the crises we face.

Twenge, Haidt, and others readily judge and prescribe even as they ignore younger Millennials’ and Gen Z’s most crucial features – their parent generations’ extraordinary troubles alongside youths’ spectacular improvements (are these related?). Teens were accused of growing up too fast and taking too many risks; now they’re growing up too slowly and risking too little. Like Bob Dylan’s “Mister Jones,” we older folks don’t know what is happening here, and fear and self-superiority fueled by works like these too easily resonate with us. We need to leave those kids alone and fix our own grownup problems.


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