Generation Me – Book Review

Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable than Ever Before

Jean Twenge, 2006

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge won vast media accolades in 2007 for fulminations that “more kids these days are behaving badly,” with a “decline in manners and politeness,” “rise in narcissism,” and “disrespect for teachers” (pages 26, 71). By the time this is published, will have been replaced like an overplayed Top 40 hit by the latest cloned youth-basher who manages to disgorge exactly the same thing.

Unlike other youth-bashers, Twenge at least mentions some real problems: “Generation Me” (teens and young adults of the 1990s and 2000s) bears crushing education debt, health costs, and housing costs, will (with few exceptions) never own homes, and will (she might have added) be the first Americans to be poorer (much poorer) than their parents. But never mind these genuine economic and social crises afflicting millions of young. Twenge insists the worst “monster” is… young people enjoy “too much self esteem.” Since (obviously!) modern youth could have no legitimate reason to feel good about themselves, Twenge claims “they were taught it” by indulgent school programs and consumerist media (page 53). This school-injected, unearned youthful self-love is driving “new” epidemics of social disorder, disconnection, “hooking up,” upstart students, cheating, depression, and “dangers that were once unknown” (page 134).

About three-fourths of Generation Me represents this kind of breathless sensationalism: selected asides from news clippings, quips from television shows, anecdotes, and unsupported assertions Twenge’s introduction admits she clipped news and popular press stories because they supported her views. Imagine if an author used this same pick-and-choose tactic of media citation to assemble evidence for a book on how criminal and violent (say) Latinos are; living in San Diego, she most assuredly could fill a dossier of news stories and broadcast quotes on crimes by the Spanish-surnamed while ignoring crimes by other ethnicities. Twenge, like others, takes full advantage of tactics that would be condemned as crude bigotry if applied to other groups.

Twenge rightly admits that the popular media hype “flimsy statistics and nonexistent trends,” “mythology,” and “unmitigated crap” (pages 199-200). She then turns around and uncritically cites press luridness about youth as proof of the “decline in manners and politeness,” the decline in “parental authority,” “eroding respect for authority” (pages 26-28) and hackneyed complaints by teachers and employers that every new generation has heard. She supplements news clippings with anecdotes of self-important, anti-social, media-corrupted youth supplanting yesterday’s young, who are imagined to have been polite, honest, dutiful, “internally controlled” romantics. All of these complaints, phrased in the terms of their time, are thousands of years old.

In the sacred 1950s, I heard of the most vicious, racist public speech, grownups shrieking obscenities and black children going into newly integrated white schools, lynchings, epidemics of drunken driving and forced breathing of others’ tobacco smoke in public, the acceptability of men beating wives and children, gangfights after every high school football game, gang rapes that victims were afraid to report, adding up to a primitive lack of “social rules” that have become stricter in subsequent decades—let’s face it, if Twenge and modern youth-bashers can tell stories, Fifties-bashers can tell stories as well.

“The 1994 movie Clerks is a pretty accurate illustration of how young people talk, with about two swear words in every line” is a standard example of Twenge’s disdain for scholarship and eagerness to stereotype a highly diverse younger generation (page 40). In a stunning triple obtusity, she quotes fictional television and movie dialogue scripted by Boomers (which she dubs “Generation Prude”) as the real way today’s “young people [‘Generation Crude’] talk.” She recommends more discipline, counseling, and modest liberal reforms that, in psychology’s worst tradition of blame-fixing and promoting passive adaptation to social injustice, amount to urging young people to accept the severe economic oppression imposed on them. Twenge’s promotion of younger-generation passivity towards intergenerational economic attritions even she agrees are real is deeply destructive.

Unlike others, however, Twenge does offer some original research asserting that “Generation Me” represents a “profound shift in American character.” Unfortunately, it consists largely of inconsistent meta-comparisons of dubiously comparable surveys of self-reported behaviors by youth today with surveys (or, worse, memories) of the youth of yore. The problem with Twenge’s approach becomes evident in her introduction and final methods chapter. Her method is to compare surveys of different populations done under different conditions over time, few of which are consistent even in the questions asked. On top of that, Twenge lends her own, always-negative interpretations.

For one example of many, note how Twenge justifies her claim that “cheating in school has…increased. In 2002, 74% of high school students admitted cheating, up from 61% in 1992,” she reports. “In 1969, only 34% of high school students admitted cheating, less than half of the 2002 number” (page 27). Not only do these numbers come from very different sources that defy comparability, they can be interpreted in two radically different ways. One could argue they represent a real increase in cheating over time, or that they represent a real increase in honesty about defining and acknowledging dishonest behaviors—that is, an increase in honesty about one’s dishonesty. That students of 1969 may have refused to define their cheating as rigorously as we define it, or refused to admit their cheating as candidly, as students do today, is an alternative conclusion amply supported by Twenge’s own characterizations of other differences between 1960s and today’s youth.

That is, Twenge’s conclusion that past generations valued community, conformity to others’ opinions, and “strict social rules” while today’s young revere individuality and directness dodges the complication that cultural teachings go both ways. Extending Twenge’s logic, the frankly admitted sins of today’s young could result from their being “taught” self-gratifying introspection while past generations’ lower rates of self-reported sex, school cheating, and depression likewise might reflect their being “taught” “the “need for social approval” rather than honestly confessing disapproved behaviors. Today’s healthier tolerances for candor, racial diversity, women’s rights, and human flaws, and rejection of the past’s sexual hypocrisies and harsh stigmas against mental illness, hardly evidence a “decline of social rules.”

Nevertheless, Twenge argues that today’s youth represent an “age of anxiety (and depression and loneliness),” the title of chapter 4. To these charges, she adds the charges of materialism, obsession with appearance, stress, externality, cynicism, and narcissism. What’s her evidence?

One the anxiety and loneliness questions: zero. Twenge tosses in some quotes from television shows and books, news anecdotes, and citations from impeccable sources like People magazine and 7th Heaven. She could have cited the report of the American Youth Commission, which found 75% of the 100,000 young men studied “were suffering from some health defect induced mainly by mental anxiety.” No, wait; that was said in 1935… about the youth we now call the “Greatest Generation.”

On the issue of obsession with appearance, Twenge is quick to indict younger people no matter what they say. “In 2004, 8% of twelfth-grade boys admitted to using steroids,” she says (page 94), without explaining how the 8% represent an entire generation. (Twenge’s “source” for this statement is People magazine. However, our most reliable survey, Monitoring the Future, shows 5% of high school senior boys had ever used steroids in their lives.) Likewise, the fact that MTV has a show on plastic surgery for young people is held up as evidence of “Generation Me” obsession with looks. Strangely, Twenge fails to mention that fewer than 2% of the 11.5 million medically unnecessary cosmetic surgeries in 2005 were on teenagers (175,000, a large decline); some 75% were on persons 35 and older (some 8 million, a number that is skyrocketing; see Table –).

Are teens today more materialistic? Twenge correctly cites the American Freshman and Monitoring the Future surveys (see Table 1) showing that more college and high school students value making money today than in the past. She admits that this could be due to the fact that “necessities like housing being more expensive—it takes more money to get by now… Housing, health care, day care, and education costs have all far outstripped inflation” (pages 99, 120). Specifically, today’s college students carry debts averaging $19,000, versus virtually zero 40 years ago. Housing costs consume nearly half of media incomes today, versus less than a third before 1970.

Thus, students could want to make more money for very practical reasons—to pay their much higher bills—rather than being greedy fashion hounds. Legitimate concerns such as more difficult finances could also account for increases in anxiety. In fact, all of Twenge’s evidence that “materialism has increased” consists of entertaining but meaningless quips and anecdotes (“the coffee choices at Starbucks amount 19,000 combinations”).

There are two more fascinating nuances. First, while considerably more 12th graders today (62%) say having lots of money is important than in 1975 (46%), all of this increase took place from 1975 to 1985 (61%), with a subsequent decline from 1990 (70%) through 2005. Thus, it could not have been the product of self-esteem education or any recent influence on materialism. Second, the percentage of high school seniors who say they want “a job which provides you with a chance to earn a good deal of money” has not changed in 30 years (86% in 1975, 87% in 2005). Apparently, students in 2005 were not greedier than students in 1975 so much as they were more attuned to the fact that to have money, they were going to have to earn it themselves. Further, 2005 students value “making a contribution to society” (65%) much more than their 1975 counterparts (53%) and have backed up that sentiment with record-high levels of volunteering. Students today are not disengaged and self-fixated, as Twenge charges.

But is she right that more young people are depressed? “Only 1% to 2% of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode during their lifetimes,” she writes, compared to “between 15% and 20%” today. But, Twenge then reveals the definition used by studies: “depression severe enough to warrant medication or long-term therapy” (page 106). How many psychiatrists were around in 1915—an era in which any kind of mental illness was considered a sign of weakness, even sinful? The few who were certainly branded the young were more depressed. In 1913, psychologist Lewis Terman announced an “epidemic of child suicide,” driven by school and social stresses on the young. An exhaustive national report on the adolescent generation described teens as “listless… melancholic… confused, disillusioned, and disenchanted” and “rapidly approaching psychosis”—in 1936. In 1945, a psychologists’ text warned of “the seriousness and extent of adolescent problems of adjustment… at this time, as probably never before.” On and on.

The more psychologists, the more depression they find. Mental health diagnoses didn’t become popularized until the 1950s, and medications for mental disturbances until the 1960s. Even then, the stigma of mental illness was so great that politicians such as Richard Nixon tried to hide psychiatric treatment or were punished (such as Thomas Eagleton in 1972) by disqualification for office. Comparing the percentages of people on medication or in therapy today, when diagnoses and treatments are pushed by large, aggressive industries, with older people’s vague memories about whether they recollect being depressed decades ago is ludicrous.

Twenge nowhere tells us how the researchers she cites could possibly have controlled for such serious confounds. Instead, she buys self-serving psychiatric/pharmaceutical industry propaganda that the 600% leap in anti-depressant medication prescriptions from 1987 to 2002 really means Americans of all ages (though she focuses only on young over-esteemers) suddenly got vastly more depressed.

Well, are young people today lonelier and more isolated, then? Twenge presents no evidence whatsoever for her claim that “this situation is so dire,” unless you consider random quips from Sex and the City or Avenue Q (note: these are fictional shows). Are modern youth more cynical, alienated, and externalizing (the latter meaning the belief that outside forces control one’s fate)? No evidence there either—just more tales and generally snotty commentary.

On the question of narcissism, Twenge’s evidence of “self-focus” among “Generation Me” reveals serious—and unpretty—biases. Once again, skip her silly pages citing Britney Spears, Prudential Insurance ads, and someone’s autobiography and go straight to her research evidence. One might think that a generation that says it “focused on internal cues,” believed “creativity comes from within,” and concentrated on “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” would be considered narcissistic. What could be more me-me-me than idealizing one’s own notions over all others’, insisting creativity is internal, and navel-gazing about one’s life? Yet, when it turns out that “Gen Me” endorses these notions far less than Boomer youth did, Twenge describes Boomers not as narcissistic, but as “abstract and spiritual” (pages 47-48). As a Boomer, let me add: outasight.

Needless to say, though, Twenge bestows no such beneficial interpretations to surveys of “Generation Me.” Where, in earlier pages, she most decidedly did not attribute today’s students’ honesty in acknowledging lying or cheating to refreshing, self-effacing candor, Twenge takes the opposite tack when it comes to self-esteem. In a mean-spirited discussion, she argues that the fact that more students today say they feel good about themselves, responsible, and (mostly) attractive and intelligent are really bad things. Why? Because young people today haven’t done anything to give them the right to feel good about themselves. “Boomer children in the late 1950s and 1960s gained self-esteem naturally from a stable, child-friendly society; Gen Me’s self-esteem has been actively cultivated for its own sake,” she writes (page 55). (Perhaps, if you ignore the doubling in divorce, rampant child poverty, and nightstick-enforced racial segregation, among many child-unfriendly features of the 1955-65 period.)

There’s also the problem that self-esteem measures are cyclical. Twenge notes from attitude test scores that “the average child (ages 9 to 13) in 1979 scored lower than 81% of kids in the mid-1960s” and “the average kid in the mid-1990s…had higher self-esteem than 73% of the kids in 1979” (pages 52, 53). Perhaps, then, the real self-esteem problem lay with 1979 kids, who felt unusually bad about themselves compared to earlier and later generations. And who gets to decree how much self-esteem is too much?

Skipping several more pages of meaningless anecdotes and assertions from the likes of MTV’s Daria and Ladies’ Home Journal, we arrive at some actual research on narcissism. “Narcissists are overly focused on themselves and lack empathy for others, which means they cannot see another person’s perspective,” Twenge writes. “(Sound like the last clerk who served you?)” (No, Jean, it does not. The service people I encounter, young and old, typically are wonderful. Maybe your perpetually bad attitude toward everyone in the modern age is the common denominator in your bad experiences. Ever factor in that variable?)

“All evidence suggests that narcissism is more common in recent generations,” Twenge continues. “In the early 1950s. only 12% of teens ages 14 to 16 agreed with the statement, ‘I am an important person.’ By the 1980s, an incredible 80%” (pages 68, 69). If these two surveys three decades apart really polled comparable populations under equivalent conditions (key factors that Twenge doesn’t show), my interpretation was that kids of the 1950s suffered dangerously low levels of self worth. Perhaps their feelings of worthlessness contributed to the massive rise in juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, violent deaths, and sexually transmitted disease featured in the news media, congressional reports, government documentaries, books, and movies of the early 1950s (plenty of anecdotes and quips for Breathless Sensationalism then). In any case, when I asked this question of students I tutor, their first question was, “important to who?” It would be heartening that 80% of students today feel important to someone.

Other questions supposedly establishing narcissism are dubious. For example, Twenge berates GenMe for being more likely to agree (she doesn’t say how many actually do) that, “I have often met people who were supposed to be experts who were no better than I.” She interprets this youthful response to mean: “those other people don’t know what they’re talking about, so everyone should listen to me” (page 69). I suggest an alternative interpretation: students were better at reading this poorly-worded question than Twenge was. It doesn’t ask whether supposed experts know more, but whether they’re “better.” Better how? Likewise, it’s hard to see how affirmative answers to questions like, “I would be willing to describe myself as a pretty ‘strong’ personality,” “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” or “I am a special person” demonstrate self-infatuation. I suspect Twenge would have been equally derogatory if students today said they were weak, incompetent, cookie-cutter clones.

The really big problem Twenge fails to explain is why the best survey diametrically disagrees with her claims. Instead, she ignores disagreeable evidence that today’s teens are happier both with themselves and with things they couldn’t possibly have been just “taught” to like—and they are much more likely to value contributing to society.

Once again, we turn to a key source Twenge ignores (Table 1 shows why she ignores it): America’s best and only consistent survey of youth, Monitoring the Future. Whatever the drawbacks of surveys, Monitoring minimizes them by asking the same questions of a consistent sample administered in the same fashion over three decades. Further, Monitoring asks dozens of questions on a wide variety of topics, preventing the biases that can arise when subjects perceive a single purpose to the survey (i.e., identifying depression).

 

Table 1. But don’t teens themselves say they’re unhappier, more depressed, and overly full of self-esteem today? NO!
Percentages of high school seniors telling Monitoring the Future:
Question: 1975/76 1980 1990 2000 2005
Happiness
   I’m “very happy” 18% 17% 19% 24% 24%
   Satisfied with life as a whole 63% 66% 68% 69% 69%
   Having fun 66% 68% 69% 68% 69%
   Enjoys fast pace and changes of today’s world 44% 42% 58% 57% 51%
   Daily participation in active sports/exercising 44% 47% 46% 42% 43%
Self-satisfaction/narcissism/caring for others
   Satisfied with self 79% 73% 78% 80% 78%
   Takes positive attitude toward self 82% 85% 76% 82% 73%
   Feels “I am a person of worth” 86% 87% 81% 81% 77%
   Feels “I can do things as well as most people” 90% 92% 90% 89% 86%
   Feels person “is master of own fate” 71% 71% 73% 70% 67%
   Feels I can do little to change the world 45% 51% 33% 34% 37%
   Important to be a leader in my community 21% 23% 36% 40% 44%
   Important to make a contribution to society 53% 53% 60% 59% 65%
   Participates in community/volunteer work 1+/month 20% 24% 21% 32% 34%
   Contributes money to community charities 10% 7% 6% 6% 5%
   Wants job with status and prestige 56% 64% 70% 68% 66%
   Wants job with provides a lot of money 86% 90% 88% 88% 87%
   Wants job with opportunity to help others 85% 84% 83% 80% 81%
   Women should have equal job opportunity (males) 71% 70% 76% 81% 87%
   Wants to correct social/economic inequality (whites) 29% 30% 36% 30% 31%
   Happier to accept things than create change 36% 36% 35% 39% 36%
Depression/pessimism
   Dissatisfied with self 12% 10% 13% 11% 11%
   Sometimes thinks “I am no good at all” 26% 24% 23% 24% 21%
   I’m “not too happy” 14% 18% 13% 14% 13%
   Feels I am “not a person of worth” 6% 4% 6% 7% 8%
   Feels lonely a lot of the time 35% 34% 35% 35% 27%
   Often feels “left out of things” 32% 30% 31% 31% 27%
   Feels there’s usually no one I can talk to 8% 6% 8% 8% 7%
   Feels “I can’t do anything right” 10% 11% 11% 15% 13%
   Wishes “I had more good friends” 51% 49% 48% 48% 40%
   Not having fun 18% 12% 15% 17% 16%
   Can’t get ahead because others stop me 22% 23% 26% 27% 23%
   Thinks “things change too quickly” today 53% 54% 42% 43% 42%
   Thinks “times ahead of me will be tougher” 50% 55% 48% 41% 41%
   Don’t participate in sports/exercise (<1/month) 19% 15% 18% 18% 19%
   Feels “people like me don’t have a chance” 8% 6% 6% 7% 8%
*Source: Monitoring the Future, 1975-2005.

 

It would be hard to imagine a pattern that more stunningly refutes Twenge’s claims of more misery, depression, anti-sociality, and unwarranted self-esteem and narcissism among modern teenagers.

First, contrary to her central point that youths today show vastly elevated self-esteem and -satisfaction, high school seniors report no change in self-satisfaction over the last 30 years. Further, the biggest drops occur on exactly the questions we would most expect to balloon if Twenge is correct: students’ feeling that “I am a person of worth” (a notion she claims self-esteem programs injected into 1980s students en masse). Yet, self-attributed youthful worth fell more rapidly than any other measure! Nor did teens show increases in other areas of self-satisfaction, such as increased assumptions of personal competence. They report a less positive attitude toward themselves (82% in 1976, 73% in 2005). The difference was made up in neutral responses; there is no change in either personal satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Second, far from being more miserable, teens seem happier today than in the past in most dimensions. Asked directly if they’re happy, many more teens today (24%) than in past decades (18%) say “very happy.” Considerably fewer say they sometimes feel “no good at all.” A few more say they can’t do anything right; slightly fewer say they’re not having fun. Teens today are considerably less likely to fear tougher times ahead; more seem to welcome the rapid social changes they’re experiencing. The results on the unhappiness question are mixed and not large, but there’s no reason to label youth today any more “miserable” than those of the past.

Third, are youths more lonely, alienated, cynical, and externalizing (believing their fate is controlled by outside forces)? Not at all. Fewer kids today feel left out, fewer yearn for more friends, fewer say they are lonely, and there is no significant change in the percentage that feels they have no one to talk to.

On the alienation and externality (“locus of control”) question, there is no change in the percentage of teens who say it makes people happier to accept things as they are than to work for change or the percentage who feel their success is sabotaged by others. There is a small decline in the proportion who agree that people are masters of their own fate, a larger decline in the percent thinking they can’t change the world, a small decrease in the proportion thinking people like them have no chance—and a huge increase in the proportion of youths who say they want to be community leaders. One could as easily argue that today’s young are less alienated, more idealistic, less externalizing, and more civically engaged.

Finally, are teens more anti-social and uncaring? Again, there is little support for Twenge’s view. There is a slight increase in the importance white students attach to working to correct social and economic inequalities, and a slight decline in the percentage of those who feel it’s important to have a job that helps others. Youth today are less likely to donate money to community charities, but—strikingly—they are much more likely to donate their time to actively participate in volunteer work and community affairs (and only a small percentage of this is to fulfill school requirements). Male teens today are substantially more supportive of equal job opportunities for women.

The only question Monitoring asks that in any way upholds Twenge’s views involves student cheating on tests. In 1976, high school seniors reported they believed 79% of their peers either would “would not care” (including a few who would even “like it”) if they cheated on a test. In 1985, that figure was 85%, a level that stayed constant through 2005. Thus, there was a 6% increase from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a trend that predates the self-esteem movement Twenge decries, in the percentage of students reporting peer tolerance for cheating on tests. This is hardly a sea change, and it hasn’t risen in the last 20 years.

By our most consistent, long-term measures, this is not a younger generation wallowing in misery, materialism, anxiety, selfishness, fear, and social disconnection. By large majorities, they seem pretty sane, not full of themselves, and generally optimistic. The real sanity question is why youth-bashing authors so relentlessly attempt to depict the young as crazier and miserable.

Young people today “thinks there’s little point in voting,” Twenge adds (page 143). You’d think an author who prides herself in science and who claims the fact that young people’s voting had declined from 1972 through 2000 evidences a decline in civic participation would feel obligated to take note of the recent, record increase in voting among young people (Table 2).

 

Table 2. Younger voter turnout increased massively in 2004
Number voting Percent voting 2004 percent voting:
Age 2004 2000 2004 2000 Democrat Republican
18-29 24,460,000 15,710,000 50.6% 33.7% 55% 45%
30-44 39,130,000 35,610,000 61.0% 54.2% 48% 52%
45-64 44,025,000 38,750,000 62.3% 62.1% 46% 54%
65+ 14,675,000 14,660,000 40.5% 41.8% 45% 55%
Total 122,290,000 104,740,000 55.7% 49.9% 49% 51%
Source: Edison/Mitovsky exit poll, 2004, CNN, 2005.

 

But you’d be mistaken if you think Twenge would acknowledge anything that contradicts her ideology, beyond noting that “youth turnout was rumored to have increased in 2004” (page 144). Her book (published in 2006 and containing 2005 citations) also skips over 2004 election exit polls revealing a massive, 50% leap, in voting by the young and their strong communitarian values. Her recent press comments continue to pretend the young-voter increase didn’t happen, just as she continues to downplay or ignore emerging studies showing community volunteering and civic engagement increasing among the young but falling among the old (see www.civicyouth.org).

Twenge even manages to make the increase in youth volunteering for community services (which she spends a whopping one paragraph mentioning) sound selfish, something that occurs only “as long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals” and, somehow, part of a larger generational pattern of putting “the individual first” (page 5). Unlike. presumably, the Baby Boomers she admires, who volunteer less, slashed their own taxes, and made themselves the richest generation in the history of the world.

But let’s put aside mere reality and assume, for a moment, that Twenge is right that other surveys indicate youths are more narcissistic. Why (aside from the fact that young people feeling good about themselves seems to annoy Twenge and others on principle) is it such a terrible thing that more kids check paper-and-pencil surveys affirming they’re good, intelligent, strong, and/or special people? Because, Twenge tells us, “narcissists are more likely to be hostile, feel anxious, compromise their health, and fight with friends and family… they don’t feel close to other people… narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected” (pages 68-69, 70). “Externality,” Twenge argues, is “correlated with the impulsive actions that tend to get young people in trouble, like shoplifting, fighting, or having unprotected sex” as well as “powerlessness” and “a society of dropouts” (pages 156, 157, 158).

Well, are any of those bad results Twenge predicts from paper-and-pencil surveys actually happening in real life? This is a crucial point, and the answer is unequivocal: NO. Even she admits this when she decides to rise above the self-indulgent quips and anecdotes and face some facts.

Twenge’s tactic of ignoring the best survey findings if they contradict her views is epidemic among youth-bashers, as is her complete disdain for reality. If youth today truly are more materialistic, anti-social, dishonest, impulsive, aggressive, risk-taking, having unprotected sex, and other ill behaviors her findings predict, we should see skyrocketing, record-high levels of crime, violent crime, drug abuse, drunkenness, pregnancy, and—especially—youthful property crime such as theft and burglary (sneakily taking others’ property) and robbery (taking it by force). More property crime would be expected because it satisfies a big range of the supposed youthful disorders arising from narcissism, materialism, and anti-sociality.

So, let’s talk reality. Virtually every solid social measure shows young Americans today act better than their elders did or do. As we’ve seen, serious and petty crime, homicide, rape, robbery, property offenses, violent fatalities, drink driving, drug deaths, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, school dropout, school violence, and other ills among the young have reached their lowest levels in 30 to 40 years (and, in many cases, ever). In fact, these crimes show identical trends—a rise from 1960 to a 1974 peak, then downward to a 2005 low.

In particular, the kind of offense we would expect to rise the most of Twenge is correct—property crime—actually shows the biggest drop to its lowest level ever recorded (Table 3). Given that a massive decrease in property offenses also shows up on the National Crime Victimization Survey over the last 30 years, it’s safe to say that today’s young people are probably the least likely of any generation for which records exist to steal, and the least likely in at least four decades to rob.

 

Table 3. Felony arrests per 100,000 population ages 10-17
Year Property crime Robbery Total
1960 (first year available*) 1,457 57 1,514
1974 (peak year) 2,854 167 3,021
1990 2,667 156 2,823
2000 1,640 87 1,727
2005 (latest year available) 1,257 87 1,344
Change, 2005 vs. 1974 -56% -48% -56%
*The FBI warns that arrests for 1960 may be underestimated because they are based on fingerprint records, and juveniles often were not fingerprinted before 1970.

 

Let’s move to another area: Are today’s students, who Twenge berates herself and by quoting teachers who cite one or two examples of bad behavior as evidence of how all students have changed for the worse (this kind of mass indictment by anecdote is rampant in youth bashing books), doing worse, scoring lower, or dropping out more? NO. Twenge’s repeated statements that today’s purportedly more narcissistic, overly-esteemed, entitled youth would be slacking by the legion, evading hard work, and dropping out when they don’t get their way is solidly refuted by every educational index we have.

First, are more alienated egomaniacs saying “screw you” to education at the slightest whiff of victimization? Just the opposite. The dropout rate (flexibly measured by the U.S. Department of Education as the percentage of 16-24 year-olds who have not completed high school and are not enrolled in school) has plummeted steadily over the last 40 years. This is even more remarkable, given that demographies with higher dropout rates (blacks and Hispanics) comprise a much larger share of high schoolers today than in past decades.

 

Table 4. Percentage of school dropouts* by race and sex, 1965-2004
Annual average: All Male Female White Black Hispanic
1960 27.2% 27.8% 26.7% n.a. n.a. n.a.
1965-69 16.1% 15.5% 16.6% 14.6% 27.6% n.a.
1970-74 14.5% 14.1% 15.0% 12.5% 23.3% 20.2%
1975-79 14.2% 14.3% 14.1% 11.8% 20.9% 32.1%
1980-84 13.7% 14.7% 12.8% 11.3% 17.9% 32.3%
1985-89 12.6% 13.4% 11.8% 9.9% 14.4% 31.0%
1990-94 11.6% 12.0% 11.2% 8.3% 13.4% 30.9%
1995-99 11.4% 12.1% 10.7% 7.7% 13.0% 28.6%
2000-04 10.5% 11.8% 9.1% 6.8% 11.6% 25.6%
2004 10.3% 11.6% 9.0% 6.8% 11.8% 23.8%
*Dropouts are 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and who have not completed a high school program regardless of when they left school.Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 105.

 

So the little thin-skinned GenMe’rs aren’t jumping ship at the slightest obstacle. Are they slacking in areas that can be measured—not grades, which we know are inflated—but by standard indexes of competence? Tables 5 and 6 show reading and math scores along a constant measure of competence. Here we see a bit of backsliding by 17 year-olds after 1990 in reading and math, but the kids supposedly most drenched in self-esteem (9- and 13-year-olds) show impressive improvements in both skills. Note that by 2004, the average math skills of 9-year-olds were approaching those of 13-year-olds of 1975.

 

Table 5. Average reading scale scores*, 1971-2004
Year 9 year-olds 13-year-olds 17-year-olds
1971 208 255 285
1975 210 256 286
1980 215 258 285
1984 211 257 289
1990 209 257 290
1994 211 258 288
1999 212 259 288
2004 219 259 285
*Students at reading score level 200 are able to understand, combine ideas, and make inferences based on short uncomplicated passages about specific or sequentially related information. Students at reading score level 250 are able to search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations about literature, science, and social studies materials. Students at reading score level 300 are able to find, understand, summarize, and explain relatively complicated literary and informational material.Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 108. Years are chosen by the Department of Education.

 

Table 6. Average mathematics scale scores*, 1973-2004
Year 9 year-olds 13-year-olds 17-year-olds
1973 219 266 304
1978 219 264 300
1982 219 269 298
1990 230 270 305
1994 231 274 306
1999 232 276 308
2004 241 281 307
*A score of 200 implies considerable understanding of 2-digit numbers and knowledge of some basic multiplication and division facts. A score of 250 implies an initial understanding of the four basic operations. They can also compare information from graphs and charts, and are developing an ability to analyze simple logical relations. A score of 300 implies an ability to compute decimals, simple fractions and percents.   They can identify geometric figures, measure lengths and angles, and calculate areas of rectangles. They are developing the skills to operate with signed numbers, exponents, and square roots.Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 118.

 

Well, surely the entitled, handed-everything-on-a-platter brats of today are dodging the tough classes for “Sparkle Mind,” “Me Poem,” and other New Age frills Twenge seems to think are taking over modern schools? Table 7 shows, yet again, exactly the opposite is the case. Note massive leaps in the percentages of high schoolers taking Algebra II and all three major science courses; only trigonometry has slipped, in favor of more Calculus. While the increasing percentage of Asian students (100% of whom take math and science coursework) influences these trends, they occurred for all races.

 

Table 7. Percent of high school students taking math and science, 1982-2000
Percent taking 1982 1990 2000
Any math 98.5% 99.9% 99.8%
Algebra I 55.2% 63.7% 61.7%
Algebra II 39.9% 52.8% 67.8%
Trigonometry 8.1% 9.6% 7.5%
Calculus 5.0% 6.5% 11.6%
Any science 96.4% 99.3% 99.5%
Biology 77.4% 91.0% 91.2%
Chemistry 32.1% 48.9% 62.0%
Physics 15.0% 21.6% 31.4%
All three 11.2% 18.8% 25.1%
Honors physics 1.2% 2.0% 3.9%
Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 134. Years are chosen by the Department of Education.

 

Are the uninflated Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores plunging as GenMe replaces the tougher Boomers among high school grads? Yet again, exactly the opposite transpired. The low points in SAT scores occurred in 1979 and 1980, long before the self-esteem movements took hold. Since 1980, SAT scores have generally improved, which is very impressive for two reasons. First, the percentage of high school seniors taking the test has risen rapidly, meaning that test-takers are no longer the elite students as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s (the high test scores of 1966-74 reflect very few test takers). Second, black and Hispanic students, who have lower scores than whites, increasingly dominate public schools, and they show rising scores as well.

 

Table 8. Average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores*, 1966-2005
Average annual score, all students Total scores Percent
Years Total Verbal Math Male Female taking test*
1966-69 1056 541 515 1072 1038 ?
1970-74 1030 524 506 1049 1010 ?
1975-79 1000 506 494 1027 977 23%
1980-84 1000 504 495 1028 974 25%
1985-89 1006 505 501 1033 981 26%
1990-94 1003 500 503 1026 983 31%
1995-99 1016 505 511 1038 998 30%
2000-04 1024 507 517 1046 1004 34%
2005-06 1021 503 518 1041 1004 35%
*Past scores are recentered to be consistent with past scores. Percent taking test is test takers divided by total population age 18.Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 127.

 

Finally, are younger people going to college more, given all their supposed personal and financial obstacles? More than ever, especially women, whose rates of college attendance nearly doubled while men’s rates rose only slightly. Due to costs, full-time enrollment has risen less than part-time.

 

Table 9. Percentage of age 18-24 enrolled in college
All age 18-24 Male age 18-24 Female age 18-24
Year Total Full Part Total Full Part Total Full Part
1970 26.1% 21.8% 4.3% 30.5% 26.2% 4.4% 21.9% 17.7% 4.4%
1980 25.2% 20.3% 5.8% 25.2% 20.8% 5.4% 25.1% 19.8% 6.2%
1990 29.8% 23.0% 6.8% 29.0% 22.6% 6.4% 30.6% 23.4% 6.9%
2000 34.2% 26.1% 8.2% 31.0% 23.3% 7.7% 37.6% 29.0% 8.3%
2005 36.0% 27.8% 8.2% 31.5% 24.5% 7.0% 40.8% 31.3% 9.0%
Source: Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, Table 172.

 

And even if high school students’ attitudes and behaviors have generally improved, can the same be said of college students? The four million first-year college students (“freshmen”) ages 17-19 comprise around half of that age group and thus may differ from surveys of high school students or all youth. The American Freshman survey of hundreds of thousands of first-year students nationwide since 1966 charts many of their attitudes relevant to Twenge’s claims. A summary follows:

 

Table 10. Percentages of college first-years students who
say they (are)… 1970 1990 2006
Aiming to obtain high degree (PhD, EdD, MD, JD, etc) 23% 31% 31%
Female 12% 32% 32%
Male 31% 29% 30%
Financing education through loans (first asked 1978) 26% 42% 62%
Female 27% 42% 64%
Male 23% 42% 57%
Planning to work off campus to pay for education 24% 21% 29%
Female 23% 21% 31%
Male 26% 22% 27%
Drank beer in the last year 56% 57% 42%
Female 43% 51% 37%
Male 67% 63% 49%
Smoked cigarettes in the last year 12% 8% 5%
Female 11% 8% 5%
Male 14% 7% 6%
Came late to class 60% 60% 61%
Female 59% 60% 59%
Male 61% 61% 62%
Agree an individual can’t change society 35% 28% 27%
Female 34% 24% 24%
Male 41% 32% 31%
Think married women should stay home 45% 23% 20%
Female 33% 18% 16%
Male 54% 29% 26%
Agree it’s important to be community leader 16% 35% 35%
Female 12% 34% 35%
Male 19% 35% 35%
Agree its important to be well off financially 36% 72% 73%
Female 25% 68% 72%
Male 46% 77% 75%
Agree it’s important to help others in difficulty 72% 63% 67%
Female 75% 72% 73%
Male 59% 53% 59%
Source: The American Freshman, Forty Year Trends, 2006.

 

Again, the results do not support Twenge’s complaints of radical changes for the worse among young people. College students are much less likely drink or smoke, to think married women should be confined to family duties, and to believe individuals can’t change society (a direct measure of self-efficacy). The number who come to class late has not changed, and the number who agree it’s important to help others in difficulty dropped marginally. The percentage who say it’s important to be well-off financially rose rapidly into the 1980s (and then leveled off), which may reflect the realistic need to pay off skyrocketing student education debt (averaging $19,000 per year in 2005, versus virtually none in 1970) rather than greed. Note that compared to the 1970s, more than twice as many students today are financing their education through loans, many more plan to work off campus, and more than twice as many women plan to obtain Ph.Ds. or similar professional degrees—all reasons to need more money for education.

Having compared Twenge’s disparaging claims about “Generation Me” with several reality measures reveals a simple fact: Twenge has created a fiction. She and fellow youth-bashers recycle pop-media tripe precisely because a scholarly, contextual review of trends would demolish their thesis that “more kids these days are behaving badly.” If anyone sounds hostile, it’s Twenge, who sees only a world of “negative trends,” including “aggressive drivers, sullen clerks, and screaming children… breakdown in consideration and loyalty… decline in manners and politeness… the fall in social rules,” etc. (pages 22, 27, 103, the whole book).

At its best, Generation Me documents some real economic stresses and encouraging racial and gender equalizations among America’s young. But ultimately, Twenge’s baseless, People-magazine pop-silliness and potshot moralisms trivialize the daunting challenges the young face and add to the heap of bad books about youth.

Mike Males, YouthFacts.org