Photo: Courtesy of Jean Twenge
Generations Expert Jean Twenge Busts Some Myths about Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z
In a Q&A, the U.S. psychologist says today’s generational conflicts match that of the '60s, and understanding those divides is essential to our future / BY Dene Moore / May 4th, 2023
Are you a generational sell-out or a senior teenager (a.k.a sen-ager)? Are you counter-culture or just contrary? And what is it with Generation Z?
In her latest book, Generations, American psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, who previously wrote the book on Gen Z and Millennials, casts a wider lens to examine the real differences between Gen Z (1995-2012), Millennials (1980-1994), Gen X (1965-1979), Boomers (1946-1964) and Silents (1925-1945). Armed with dozens of data sets spanning decades and representing 39 million people in the U.S. and worldwide, Twenge turns her sometimes humorous and always informative eye to generational differences, which are crucial for understanding everything from family dynamics to work culture, and mental health to politics and public discourse.
“At a time when generational conflict – from work attitudes to cancel culture to “OK, Boomer” – is at a level not seen since the 1960s, separating the myths from the reality of generations is more important than ever,” she writes in Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents – and What They Mean for America’s Future.
In a Q&A about her research and the book, Twenge says the generation gap is larger than it ever has been, talks about the role technology played in creating that chasm and why some Boomers have a happiness inequality.
Dene Moore: This book seems to be the culmination of your life’s work. Why do you think it’s so important to understand generational traits and differences?
Jean Twenge: I think the generation gap is larger now than it has been since the late 1960s, when the Boomers and their parents were on the other sides of a generational divide. I think that’s mostly due to the fast pace of technological change. That’s meant that generations get their media from completely different places, so I think this is really a time when we need to understand each other better.
DM: What has shaped the generations?
JT: The traditional model of generations says that experiencing certain events at different ages leads to generational differences, but, in the long term, events don’t usually have a huge impact on day-to-day life. What has a big impact on day-to-day life is changes in technology. And by technology, I don’t just mean smartphones or the Internet, but also things like better medical care, air conditioning, washing machines – all of the things that make living now very different from what it was like to live 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 20 years ago.
There are a lot of things that we just take for granted. One of them is labour-saving devices. It really wasn’t that long ago that human existence was really about survival. You had to spend huge amounts of your day on cooking and doing laundry and shopping, or you had to pay someone else to do those things. Washing machines are one of my favorite examples that, had I been born in 1871 instead of 1971, I probably would have spent an entire day out of the week, if not more, doing my family’s laundry. You had to boil water on an open fire and put things in and use lye soap that was terrible on your hands, and it took all day. Now you put it in the washing machine and you go relax.
DM: Birth control is one of the important technological advances you single out in the book. How did that change society?
JT: That’s another technological change that had big downstream impacts. Birth control allowed premarital sex and casual sex to become more possible. It also created a lot of opportunities for women in building their careers, because it was more feasible for women to plan their families and plan when they were going to get pregnant.
DM: Are these technological factors more specific to the U.S. or are they appliable to Canada, for instance?
JT: One of the strengths of looking at technology as what really shapes generations rather than major events is it does make the theory a little more universal, at least your industrialized countries and, in particular, western industrialized countries. I was able to find some international data for the trends in mental health, particularly among young people, and that included several big surveys where there’s also Canadian data. And that data is pretty consistent with what we see in the United States.
DM: You did extensive research and relied on reams of data collected over decades to explore these generational divides. Were there surprises in the data?
JT: There is a really common narrative that Boomers are all rich and successful and they pulled up the ladder after they climbed it, preventing younger generations from succeeding. It turned out that was really not true at all.
Millennials have done very, very well, economically. Their median incomes are at all-time highs, even corrected for inflation. Their level of wealth-building is now neck and neck with where Gen Xers and Boomers were at the same age. One thing I puzzled over was, well, if that’s true, then how can it be that the price of housing is so much more, because it is. But at least until about a year ago, interest rates were also low, so that made up for a lot of that difference.
There are some challenges. A lot of the gains in income are among women, so then if a heterosexual couple wants to have children and wants to keep both of those high incomes, they have to pay for childcare, which is very expensive and sometimes hard to find.
DM: How has Generation X changed over the years?
JT: Gen X is an interesting generation because they started out more conservative and Republican as young adults than pretty much any other generation, and they have stuck with that as they’ve gotten older. But they’ve also changed in some ways that are important to consider, from a political point of view. If you look at support for same-sex marriage, Gen X was the first generation in which more than 50 per cent supported same-sex marriage as adults. Their attitudes on that issue shifted quite considerably.
At this current moment there is a pronounced generational break between Gen X and Millennials when it comes to issues around free speech. It’s usually Gen X on the on the side of more free speech and Millennials and Gen Z on the side of less. So, Gen X is going to have a role to play in the current cultural debate around how much speech should be restricted.
DM: What does the future hold for Boomers?
JT: One of the things that really stood out to me is mental health and happiness. It used to be that there wasn’t much of a difference in happiness or depression based on income or education, and then that started to change [as Boomers aged]. There’s not just income inequality, there’s happiness inequality, and that’s especially true for Boomers without a university education, or who are in the lower half of the income ladder. I think that explains a good amount about politics these days, and about a lot of the dissatisfaction out there, that there’s just a much bigger gap in terms of happiness.
DM: What is the future like for other generations?
JT: Although Gen Z has a lot of challenges, they are voting at higher rates than Millennials and Gen Xers and young adults. They’re getting involved in the political process. They are more likely than previous generations to say they want a job that’s helpful to others, and I think that’s going to be very, very useful going forward – that we have a generation placing a lot of emphasis on empathy and on helping others.