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Interview: Jean Twenge, psychologist
In which we talk all about generational differences, Millennial angst, and the effects of social media and cell phones
Few psychologists have been able to affect the national conversation as much as San Diego State University’s Jean Twenge. That’s because her topic of study is one that much of America is obsessed with: generational differences. Everyone wants to know how Millennials are different from Gen Xers and Boomers, what Gen Z’s politics and culture will be like, whether young people actually have a different work ethic, why young people are depressed, and so on. This is Twenge’s realm.
In the past couple of years, Twenge has come up with a grand unifying theory of Millennial angst that has set the discourse ablaze. Rejecting the idea that Millennials are suffering economically compared to former generations, Twenge argues that the depression and social isolation they display is a function of social media, amplified and empowered by smartphones. In this interview, we talk about that theory, and about generational differences more broadly.
N.S.: So, you've been doing a lot of work on the differences between the generations. That's what your new book is about, and it's also a thread that ties together your work on smartphones and social media and your writing about Millennials' economic situation. What got you interested in this topic? And what do you say to the people who think generational boundaries are arbitrary and that we shouldn't think in terms of discrete generations like "Millennials" and "Gen Z"?
J.T.: I became interested in generational differences when I was a 21-year-old college senior working on my honors thesis on gender and personality in the 1990s. My fellow students, especially the women, were more likely to agree they were assertive and good leaders (on a personality questionnaire) than college students in the early 1970s. Given the changes for women between the 1970s and the 1990s, that made perfect sense -- it was a generational difference. This was also around the same time the media discovered Gen X -- but most books and articles didn't rely on data. They would say things like "Gen X has low self-esteem" without having any actual survey data from young people themselves. I was surprised to find there wasn't much empirical work on generational differences, and finding an interesting topic without much previous research is a graduate student's dream. (And, as it turns out, Gen X'ers have higher self-esteem than Boomers did at the same age).
Pretty much everyone agrees that living now is a different experience than living 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. Thus, most people agree that being born at different times impacts life outcomes, attitudes, and values. So we're really just debating whether we should group people into somewhat arbitrary 15- to 20-year blocks of birth years or not. If we didn't, though, it would be very difficult to discuss or research differences based on birth year. Grouping people using somewhat arbitrary cutoffs is not unique to generations -- we also do it with age groups ("teenagers," "the middle-aged") and regions ("the Midwest.") Groupings simply make it easier to understand the differences. Also important: These groupings do not imply everyone within them is the same. Just as not every woman is a typical woman, not every Millennial is a typical Millennial. Yes, there is plenty of variation within generations, but that doesn't negate the differences between generations.
N.S.: Gotcha! So what are some of the most important characteristics or questions you analyze when looking at generational differences? When we assess the ways that, say, Millennials are different from Gen Xers, what aspects should we care about most? And which aspects are you most interested in?
J.T.: There are so many important characteristics -- mental health, politics, sexuality, gender identity, work attitudes, incomes. I have two primary criteria when I decide whether to focus on an area:
The first is practical: Has it been measured in a large survey, preferably one repeated across several decades? If not, it's going to be tough to document a generational difference with empirical data. Fortunately we're in the age of Big Data now. I drew from 24 datasets that included 39 million people, and those datasets measured many important characteristics.
The second is interest: Is this a characteristic that people are interested in and want to know about? I find all of the generational differences interesting, but I'm probably most interested in work attitudes, sexuality, and mental health. There has been lots of speculation about generational differences in work attitudes but very little empirical data, especially empirical data looking at young people in different years (so we can tell that differences aren't due to age or career stage). That's a gap I'm trying to fill in the book, by looking at work attitudes across decades. Discussions around sexuality are showing huge generation gaps right now, and I'm hoping having more solid statistics will help. Finally, mental health is extremely important because if people aren't happy, and if, even worse, they are depressed, it's imperative to know that and to figure out what's causing it. Then we can try to find solutions.
N.S.: Can you preview any of your main findings regarding differences in work attitudes? My own guess, based on anecdotal observation, would be that Boomers were very good at doing long hours of uninterrupted, heads-down routine work, while Millennials are used to being on call 24 hours a day and working in bursts. But of course that's just white-collar knowledge workers.
J.T.: When I look at generational differences in work attitudes, I mostly rely on a survey of high school seniors that's been done since 1976. That means we can see each generation's work attitudes when they were 18 and thus can be sure any differences are due to generation and not to age. Although studies done at one time can also look at each generation, they run the risk of mistaking differences due to age or career stage for those due to generation or time period.
In the over-time data, the biggest generational difference in work attitudes is around work-life balance. Millennials and Gen Z see work as less central to their lives than Boomers did at the same age. They are also less likely to say they are willing to work overtime. Gen Z had actually been turning these trends around until 2021, when they suddenly took a plunge -- we'll have to see if that's a blip or part of a longer-term trend. But it did seem to presage the rise of "quiet quitting" in 2022. Millennials and Gen Z are also less likely to say they want to make friends at work -- possibly because they have so many friends on social media.
N.S.: I've been hearing a lot about changing attitudes toward sex and romance among the youth -- that young people are sexless, that they're less likely to have romantic relationships, that they've used progressive attitudes as a reason to embrace what are fundamentally prudish values. How true is any of that?
J.T.: Yes, young adults are now less likely to be sexually active than Gen X'ers were at the same age and have sex less frequently than young adults did in the past. Gen Z teens are also less likely to say they want to get married or have a romantic relationship. The reasons behind these trends aren't entirely clear, though they are likely connected to the slow life strategy and individualism. Due to the slowing down of the life cycle, fewer young adults are married, and married people have more sex, so that's part of the reason for the decline. Dating apps seem convenient but they may disadvantage a large number of people. Gen Z's move away from relationships may be an outcome of individualism, which teaches that you don't need other people to make you happy. Overall, the long-term trends are away from sex, marriage, and having children. The majority of young adults still want these things, but there is a growing minority who doesn't.
N.S.: How much is technology a factor in these trends? You've been at the forefront of the investigation into the effect of smartphones and social media on young people's lives, so I was a bit surprised not to see you mention it!
J.T.: I do think technology plays a role in these trends as well, especially around sexual frequency. With social media and streaming video, there are more things to do at 10pm now than there were 20 years ago. Some observers have also theorized that increased access to pornography is a factor in the decline if some people are using porn to replace real-life sex.
N.S.: Let's talk about technology. Do you think the biggest impact on young people's lives has come from social media, from the smartphone, or from the combination of the two?
J.T.: I think it's a combination of the two. Both likely played a role in why teens started spending less time with each other face-to-face -- and why they (and many adults!) are often on their phones when they are socializing face-to-face. Both also impact sleep, and teens started sleeping less around 2012. They work together: The smartphone allows continuous access to social media.
N.S.: Let's talk about your most famous thesis -- the idea that smartphones and social media are behind the wave of depression, loneliness, and other emotional and social ills afflicting today's teenagers. What made you first think of this idea, and when did you start becoming convinced it was true?
J.T.: It takes 18-24 months for the data from the big national surveys of U.S. teens to be released, so the increases in depression and unhappiness beginning in 2012 weren't apparent until 2014, and there wasn't evidence for a sustained increase until 2015 or 2016. When I first started to see these increases, I had no idea what might be causing them. The economy was finally starting to improve, and there didn't seem to be any events in the early 2010s that kept going.
Then I saw a poll from the Pew Center for Research showing that smartphone ownership crossed 50% in the U.S. at the end of 2012. The big national surveys of teens also showed more and more using social media between 2009 and 2015; they also showed that the more hours teens spent on social media the more likely they were to be depressed. Plus the time teens spent with their friends in person went down over this same time, so teens' social lives were fundamentally different, and it all seemed related to the growth of these new technologies. It fit, and nothing else really did.
I was fairly convinced early on of the smartphones and social media explanation because there was such a big change to teens' day to day lives, and that's what is most likely to impact mental health and happiness. Once we found international data showing very similar increases in teen loneliness and depression in other countries, I became even more convinced.
N.S.: Got it. But here's a question. A lot of these time series -- for example, your data on teen depression -- show the negative trends beginning around 2013 or 2014. But smartphones came out in 2007, Facebook was around since mid-2000s, and the iPhone 4 came out in 2010. If smartphones and social media are to blame for young people's emotional and social problems, why was there that lag of several years?
J.T.: In the late 2000s, most people (including teens) had flip phones ("dumb phones") and were not constantly using social media. The majority of Americans didn't own a smartphone until the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, according to Pew's data. In 2009, only half of 12th graders used social media every day; by 2017, 85% did, so somewhere in that period social media use went from optional to virtually mandatory among teens. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, and it became more popular among teens and young adults shortly afterward. The algorithms of social media sites also started to get more sophisticated in the mid-2010s, increasing the number of hours people spent on the apps.
N.S.: Do we see the same correlation of unhappiness and smartphone-based social media usage in other countries as well?
J.T.: Yes. Teen loneliness and anxiety increased in nearly all countries in the last 20 years -- especially among girls, and with most of the increase after 2012, a pattern nearly identical to the U.S. data. In addition, social media use is linked to depression in studies in countries other than the U.S., most notably in UK teen samples.
N.S.: What steps could we take to fight the negative effects of smartphone-based social media on our well-being?
J.T.: The most crucial and straightforward is this: Raise the minimum age for social media to 16, and actually verify age. Then we can at least put off social media until kids are better able to handle it. Links between social media use and low well-being are largest among the youngest. Also, it takes away the social pressure so common at that age where kids don't want to feel left out. If virtually no middle school students have social media, then the "but all my friends have it" plea goes away.
N.S.: You've written that Millennials are thriving economically. Does this mean you think economic issues have been a distraction from the real social problems afflicting young people? Do you see the Bernie Sanders movement and the explosion of interest in socialism and other leftist movements among young people as a more of a displaced response to the anxiety and depression induced by smartphones and social media?
J.T.: During the early 2010s when Millennials were drawn to Bernie Sanders, economic issues were a big issue for young adults. The economy was slow to recover from the Great Recession, median incomes for young adults were down, and Millennial wealth-building was slower than for other generations. But that changed significantly after about 2015 when the economy improved, median incomes for young adults rose significantly, and Millennial wealth-building was neck and neck with previous generations. Yet there's still a lot of negativity about the Millennial economic situation, almost like views got stuck in the early 2010s. Oddly, depression started to increase among 26- to 34-year-olds only after 2015 -- so just as their economic situation was turning around, more became depressed. That suggests something other than economic factors are behind the rise. Disappointment with adulthood after an adolescence of high expectations might be one factor. The general negativity and political and social division in the culture after that time might be another.
N.S.: What are you working on now, research-wise? And what other psychological and social trends should the country be paying attention to that we aren't?
J.T.: I'm working on getting some of the analyses from Generations published in peer-reviewed journals, including those on trends in LGBT identification and the growing mental health gap by social class. I think the latter is a crucial issue: There is very widespread dissatisfaction -- and in some cases deep depression -- among Americans without a college degree. This is new: There used to be very little difference in mental health indicators by social class, and now there is a wide gap. The divide has been building since about 2000, but the post-2015 atmosphere of negativity and "us vs. them" thinking, exacerbated by social media, has made it significantly worse. We're not just polarized by politics; we're also increasingly polarized by class. I hope more psychologists will pay attention to social class -- it's historically been shunted aside in psychology, yet it's extremely important to understand.