What Makes Gen Z Tick?

Picture via Getty Images.

The Pew Research Center, one of the country’s most highly respected survey organizations, recently announced a major change to how it conducts generational research. In a May letter, it stated: “We’ll only do generational analysis when we have historical data that allows us to compare generations at similar stages of life.” That means that Pew will mostly compare the experiences of today’s Gen Z, for example, with the experiences of millennials when they were Gen Z’s age. The change came about after a yearlong review of its generational research, and is expected to severely curtail Pew’s work in this area. (Disclosure:  I served on the board of the Pew Research Center for eight years.)

The decision did not come as a complete surprise. In 2021, Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, sent a letter to Pew signed by more than 150 social scientists critical of the methodology behind contemporary generational research. Among the familiar criticisms: that generational divisions are arbitrary, that the research undermines important cohort and life cycle research, and that Pew’s generations “sow confusion.” Many were disappointed in Pew’s decision. The talented young Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson—herself author of a generation-themed book The Selfie Vote and an admirer of Pew’s work—tweeted that Pew’s announcement “lets the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, acknowledges the many criticisms of generational research at the outset of her new book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future. “Generational groupings are not perfect” she writes, but they “persist because they are useful.” (These groupings are useful, though there are many other lenses researchers use to understand what makes a complex public tick.) In her book, Twenge describes and uses 24 different datasets, many of which are long-running, invaluable government and university series that provide insights if one knows how to use them. Twenge does, and she writes about them clearly.

Each of Twenge’s chapters contains a short demographic sketch of today’s six living generations: the Silents (1925-1945), boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1979), millennials (1980-1994), Gen Z (1995-2012), and, adding her own coinage, “polars” (2012-present). She lists prominent actors and politicians from each generation, popular words and phrases they use, and common boy and girl first names they have. She also touches on their coming-of-age experiences, such as Vietnam, 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Twenge cautions against making historical events the cornerstone of generational research. This approach “misses the rest of cultural change—all the ways in which life today is so different from life twenty years ago, fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago.”

Twenge believes that technology is at the root of differences we see. “The generations did not become who they are by experiencing major events at an impressionable age,” she writes. “Instead, generations differ because technology has radically changed daily life and culture.” It “isn’t just about stuff” like tablets or phones, but rather about “how we live, which influences how we think, feel, and behave.” Downstream from technology are two prominent influences. Advances in technology, she argues, promote individualism and contribute to slower life trajectories—two defining features of her recent generations. Few would deny technology’s importance, but formative experiences are important as well.  

Those who study generations tend to look to young people as a harbinger of things to come, and Twenge writes extensively about youth attitudes. So who are the Gen Z-ers? Twenge tells us that they are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, the most likely to identify as multiracial. (This tracks with a striking finding from the 2020 census, which found the percentage of people identified as multiracial rose from 2.1 to 8.8 percent.) “Jacob” and “Emma” are their most popular first names. They have their own celebrities in film, music, and sports that many older folks will struggle to identify. But beyond their general profile, Twenge’s chapter on Gen Z may give us some clues about where we are heading on topics as varied as sex and gender, free speech, race and policing, and mental health.

Twenge argues that for many in Gen Z, “the whole concept of gender is more fluid.” In late 2020/early 2021, a bit more than 50 percent of Gen Z adults disagreed with the statement, “There are only two genders, male and female.” For most other generations, that response is around 30 percent. Most boomers and Gen X-ers who identify as transgender or nonbinary were assigned male at birth, while among Gen Z, most who identify as transgender or nonbinary were assigned female at birth. Now, just over 3 percent describe themselves as nonbinary; 2.3 percent as transgender, all higher than for any previous generation. These numbers are still very small nationally, and yet, as Twenge notes, there are now more trans young adults in the U.S. “than the number of people living in Boston.” Whether it is using gender-neutral pronouns or embracing gender fluidity, Twenge writes, “the culture around gender has shifted,” and Gen Z is at the forefront of that change. 

Gen Z’s maturation process is much slower than that of earlier generations—they are simply taking longer to become adults. Fewer U.S. 12th graders than in the past have tried alcohol, have driver’s licenses, have had sex, or have ever dated. The percentage of 20- to 24-year-olds who are married has declined sharply since the 1960s, and today, fewer 12th graders say they want to get married than ever before. Most want to marry, but they just aren’t thinking about it now. 

Twenge also looks at some emerging political attitudes. While she notes that free speech controversies have divided young and old for decades, in the past younger people and liberals tended to support free speech. Today, the script has flipped with young liberals demanding speech restrictions, especially among Gen Z. More than 70 percent entering college freshman say colleges should restrict speech deemed racist or sexist, and separately around half say they should be able to ban extreme speakers. These numbers are far higher than for other generations when they entered college. 

Gen Z’s willingness to accept certain forms of speech restrictions in order to set social standards speaks to another characteristic Twenge associates with the group. A chart based on Google Books’ interesting—albeit superficial—database shows a sharp increase in the use of phrases such as “safe space” and “stay safe.” Looking at the period from 1991 to 2021, the percentage of  eighth and 10th graders who like taking risks has plummeted. Twenge concludes that “Gen Z young people valuating emotional safety and safe spaces will not give up on these ideas when they graduate.” 

Current discussions of race and policing are particularly relevant to Gen Z. Twenge notes that black teens were “more critical of the police than white teens” in the 1970s and 1980s—although not by much, and there were few differences by political party. Until recently, partisanship was a poor predictor of attitudes about the police; now partisanship more accurately predicts their attitudes. By 2021, white Democratic teens were more critical of the police than black teens.

Today’s eighth, 10th, and 12th graders are more likely to feel lonely and left out than they were in the past, contributing to the newly popular “loneliness epidemic” often discussed in the news. They experience more signs of clinical depression, affecting women much more than men. More than 20 percent of teen girls and young adult women, far more than in the past and more than comparable young men, exhibit the signs. Twenge believes that new technologies like smartphones and social media are the main culprit, and she tracks the rise in teen girls’ depression alongside the internet, social media usage, and smartphone ownership—all are trending dramatically upward. The trends are alarming, and deserve continued research going forward to understand what is going on.

Generations is a book that has to be read in small doses, as Twenge herself suggests, perhaps by looking at her profile of your own generation first. She is a lively writer and has an impressive grasp of reams of data. But Twenge simply overwhelms with data, which detracts from her overall message about the centrality of technology and its downstream influences.

Jae Grace contributed to this review.

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