Transcript: Jean Twenge
My interview with the acclaimed author and professor
With the rising tensions in our society has come increased conflict, including increased generational conflict. There are now lots of stereotypes being thrown around about existing generations, from Boomers to Millennials. But my guest on this week’s program prefers to deal in facts. Her latest book analyses data from 39 million people, debunking dominant ideas about generational cohorts — and, in a departure from the consensus within her field, points to technology rather than major current events as the main driver of generational differences.
Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her new book is Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Jean, welcome to Lean Out.
JT: Thank you.
TH: It's wonderful to have you on. This book is absolutely fascinating. I have a feeling I'll be quoting it for years to come. The conclusions about generational differences here draw on 21 data sets, which go back to the 1940s and include about 39 million people. I want to start today by first talking about some of the overall trends for all of the living generations that you examined, from the Silents to the Polars. Can we start with income inequality? What do we know about rising income inequality and its significance on our culture?
JT: Yes. It's important to note first that a lot of traditional theories of generations focus so much on major events. Those do have an impact on people, but there's so many other things that have a much bigger effect on day-to-day life and people's values and so on. Income inequality is an interesting example because it doesn't just have an economic effect. It seems to have some downstream effects, like it's linked to less trust in others and less confidence in societal institutions. It has these broader implications.
TH: Another trend that you explore here — one experienced by all the generations is rising individualism. What impact does that have?
JT: Rising individualism, that's a cultural system that places more emphasis on the self and less on others. It's rooted in what I think is the biggest influence on cultural change and on generations, which is technology. So, not just the Internet, but also things like air conditioning and washing machines and labour-saving devices, better medical care. All of these things allow for individualism. It allows people to be more independent of each other. It allows people to have more time to focus on themselves and their identities. That has these downstream effects, where there's just much more emphasis on feeling self-confident. There's much more emphasis on equality.
I always want to emphasize with these things that it's tempting to look at things as just good or bad. But almost all the time there's trade-offs, and there's lots of things that come from it that aren't good or bad. They just are.
TH: With the rising individualism, one of the things you look at is this idea of a slower life cycle. What does that mean, and how does it impact us?
JT: That's one of the other downstream effects of technology — that when people live longer, because you have more time. The whole developmental trajectory slows down from infancy to old age. Kids are less independent. Teens are less likely to do adult things like get a driver's license or have a job or drink alcohol or go out on dates. Young adults take longer to get married and have children and settle into a career. Middle-aged adults look and feel younger than their parents, or especially grandparents, did at the same age. So, this is “50 is the new 40,” and even “70 is the new 60.” This has some truth to it — that we just have more time. And so, even though the pace of day-to-day life is sped up, because we have more time, we take longer to develop.
TH: The third overall trend I wanted to touch on is related to that, and this is the declining birth rate. Walk us through what we know about that.
JT: We're seeing this around the world. Many, many countries are seeing a declining birth rate. This is rooted in a number of things. Some of it is a slow life strategy — that our developmental trajectory slowed down, but basic biology is the same. If you're taking longer at each life stage, you're going to have your kids later, and after a certain point, especially 40, fertility is going to go way down. There's still biological deadlines, even though culturally and socially the trajectory has slowed down. So that has an impact on fertility. Even more though, I think, is the impact of individualism.
There's been a number of polls recently asking young adults who don't have children and don't plan on having children, “Why?” What is their reason? One of the most common reasons is personal freedom or personal independence. That's a very individualistic point of view — “I don't want to have kids because it'll interfere with what I want to do.” Again, not judging that as right or wrong. It just is. That is the logical outcome of that emphasis on the self that has been building across several decades.
TH: Going back now to the specific generations, we can see that starting with the Boomers. You write in the book that you hope that demystifying generational differences may also reduce intergenerational conflict. I want to start with the Boomers, who've had an outsized impact on our culture. There is this story about that generation that they had things very easy, particularly financially, and then pulled up the ladder once they got to the top. Why is the truth you've discovered in the data more complicated?
JT: It really is. I think you have to go back to, say, the 1980s, when the economy in most Western nations started to shift away from manufacturing and towards service and white-collar jobs. Boomers were the generation that really got caught flat-footed by that, especially the segment that didn't go to college. If you started your career, graduated from high school in late '60s or '70s, like a lot of the first wave of Boomers did, then you probably thought, “I could go get this factory job and be set.” And then things shifted, and often when it was too late — or at least they felt like it was too late to go back to college, or try to figure out a different path.
There's a big segment of Boomers who are really — even still — in big trouble, not just financially, but also especially around drug and alcohol abuse. There's a lot of deaths of despair. That has been documented by economists. I found that when I looked at the data as well, and just lots and lots of drug and alcohol problems.
TH: I was surprised to read about the mental health issues that the Boomers have. The Silent generation, born between 1925 and 1945, is actually characterized by fairly stable mental health, despite living through the Great Depression. But the Boomers, born between 1946 and '64, have less robust mental health, despite coming of age in more prosperous times. Why do you think the Boomers have a higher rate of mental distress?
JT: It's a good question. I think it has to do with just how much changed during their lifetimes, even though a lot of that change was positive, in the economy, in the culture — it's tough to keep up with. Individualism might also have something to do with it. Although there's a lot of upsides to individualism in terms of freedom, it also can lead to disconnection and relationships that are not as stable. That can have a negative impact on mental health.
That's also one of the biggest contrasts between the Silent generation and the Boomers, that the Silent generation tended to marry young, had their kids young, although they had a fairly high divorce rate as well. Boomers, it was even higher, and they started a little bit later. More of them didn't have children at all, so they didn't have as much of the family support around them as Silents did.
TH: Speaking of divorce, you also write about Gen X, born between 1965 and 1979. This is the group you and I both belong to. How big a role did divorce play for our generation?
JT: The traditional model of Gen X is that we're the children of divorce — that was the biggest thing that shaped us. I was surprised to find that actually most of us didn't go through a parental divorce. I think some of the impact was that we were worried when we saw other people going through that, that that would happen to us when we were kids. Yes, there were certainly changes in family structure over the Gen X childhood, but they weren't as big as they're sometimes made out to be.
TH: I'm curious, as a fellow Gen Xer, I heard you on Meghan Daum's podcast saying that the conversation around Gen X was what led you down the path to do this work, which is your life work. How so?
JT: I was in college working on my college honours thesis, which was on gender roles, and I found that my fellow Gen Xers, especially the women, were not scoring the same way that the 1970s test manual said they should — on this questionnaire that was about gender stereotypical personality traits. So, things like assertiveness and leadership. I realized that made sense because [there was] so much cultural change for women over that 20-year period, between the early 1970s and the early 1990s. So, that got me started on this path of looking at generational differences.
It was also because right around that same time there was a lot of attention paid to Gen X and how Gen Xers were different from Boomers. There were a lot of really interesting articles and books, and I devoured them. But I read them thinking, "A lot of this, I don't know how they can conclude this, because they don't have any data." I was doing a PhD program in personality psychology. They would say things like, "Oh, Gen Xers have low self-esteem." I'm like, "Hold up. You haven't told me if you gave a bunch of people a self-esteem questionnaire. Because that's how we would do it, and compare that with the responses of people in the past." Yes, they hadn't done that. That was one of the things that I did. I went and did that. Turns out Gen Xers have higher self-esteem.
TH: Well, that's good news for us, I guess. [Laughs] I also wanted to talk about Millennials, born between 1980 and 1994. Really, the Millennials have gotten the lion’s share of the media attention in recent decades. The dominant narrative about Millennials, given the recession in 2008, is that they got the short end of the stick financially. But your data says otherwise. You write, "Millennials actually make more money than previous generations did at the same age, and that's true across all racial and ethnic groups."
JT: And that is adjusted for inflation. That's data from the Census Bureau, and they use the usual adjustment for inflation. That takes into account costs for healthcare and housing and education. It doesn't completely take into account student loans, which of course Millennials have had to grapple with. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis looked at wealth for Millennials, which does take debt into account, and found that Millennial wealth is neck and neck with Gen Xers and Boomers at the same age.
The economic picture for Millennials has really changed, and I think the public perception hasn't. It got stuck at that time after the Great Recession. Even up to about 2015, wealth building for Millennials was not great. That's what the St. Louis Fed had concluded. Then there was this period — about 2015 to really definitely through 2020 and even the last few years, even during the pandemic — when Millennial salaries were doing very, very well. That helped make up for their tough start during a recession when yes, at that time they really were getting the short end of the stick. But then they ended up, like everyone, seeing that huge growth in incomes and low unemployment during that period between roughly 2015 and 2019 in particular.
TH: It's confusing though, because Millennials don't see themselves as thriving right now at all. I wondered looking at that, “Okay, if there's this big gap in perception, if they're much more pessimistic about their fate even though their incomes are good, maybe it's the high rents.” But you say the housing costs are factored into that. What is it, then?
JT: There's a number of things. So, one is that almost all of the income gains are for women. If you take a heterosexual couple and they want to have children, well, if both are going to continue working full-time and keep up those high incomes, then they have to pay for childcare. That's expensive and sometimes tough to find. The inflation piece takes that into account, however that's doing it for everyone. If you're a younger family, you're going to be paying more. There's definitely some problems there, to say the least. I think that is part of why they may not feel prosperous.
I thought it might be — yes, rents are taken into account. There's an interesting little mismatch I noticed here with the prices of houses. If you're going to buy a house, those prices have gone way up, but interest rates, until very recently, were lower. That kind of balanced out the housing cost. You still have to pay more for a down payment, so that's another issue.
I think, though, that a lot of the pessimism and negativity around Millennials and economic performance is due to technology and the way these things are discussed online and on social media, that the discussion is almost always negative. The news articles on Millennials not doing well get clicks. When the St. Louis Fed updated their data and said, "Hey, actually wealth building is fine," that didn't get half as much traction as when they said Millennials are falling behind. It's the social norm online, I think, at least on some sites like Twitter. Nobody goes on Twitter and says, "Hey, my salary is actually really good, and I think everybody's doing great." It's just not the norm. The norm is to go negative.
TH: I wonder, too, about this next generation, Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012. There's so much we could say about this generation, and they really are the ones that get talked about the most right now. One thing that stood out reading the book is: One of the hallmarks of that generation is that it places a huge emphasis on identity. The transgender issues in particular, we know this has become a major culture war issue. There has been debate about whether there is more transgender young people than there used to be. Your research shows in fact there is a rise within this generation of people identifying as transgender, but particularly among females identifying as males. Walk us through what that data tells us.