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Book Review: iGen

By (September 14, 2017) No Comment


by Jean Twenge

Atria Books, 2017

Boomer. Generation X. Millennial. These are the three major labels categorizing Americans alive today. Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, suffered through the Vietnam War, and preside over the toxic circus that is American politics today. Gen X arrived between ’65 and ’79, were called slackers for their love of skateboards and flannel, and cling precariously to the last few retail jobs in the nation. Millennials, born between ’80 and ’94, watched the world become digitized and now live up to their earlobes in college debt. There’s also the Silent Generation, those who survived the Great Depression, fought in Korea, and never had a member elected president.

What should we call those born after 1994? Generation Me author Jean Twenge wants to call these 74 million people (24% of the population) iGen, because they’ve never known a world without the Internet and came of age alongside the iPhone. Her latest book explores Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

To make her case, Twenge breaks her argument into ten chapters that all begin with the letter I, such as “In No Hurry: Growing Up Slowly” and “Insecure: The New Mental Health Crisis.” She relies on graphs from four surveys that offer data going back to the 1970s : Monitoring the Future, the Youth Risk Surveillance System, the American Freshman Survey, and the General Social Survey. These graphs—and they are plentiful—show everything from steady, decades-long declines in religiosity and the marriage rate, to correlations between depression and time spent staring at a screen.

Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, bolsters her deep data-plunge by interviewing young people, which is both enlightening and cringe-inducing. One of her students, 22-year-old Carmen, explains,

I do not quite understand people who say that they enjoy paying to go watch a movie at the movie theater… With today’s technology, you can stream the movie online, wear your most bum-like outfit (or don’t wear pants at all), and eat snacks straight from your fridge and pantry. You can also pause, rewind and fast-forward the movie as you please, something that does not happen in a movie theater. Ever.

Carmen sounds more like a ragged forty-something than a young person eager to enjoy the independence of new adulthood. Sure, trips to the theater—trips anywhere, for any activity—have grown rather expensive, especially for a cohort of teens that holds fewer jobs than any recent generation. But the most telling piece of her statement is that she doesn’t “quite understand” people who go to the movies, as if she herself has never known the thrill of speakers and a gigantic screen that override the senses.

In a movie theater you also have to—gasp—shut your phone off. iGen says that when smart phones became ubiquitous at the start of this decade, face-to-face interaction among young people plummeted. Teens and college students do everything less—work, venture outside, get into trouble, drink, have sex—because they’re glued to an endless stream of texts and cat videos. The result is less time spent “building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions.” In terms of having practical knowledge about—and being prepared to face—the real world, 18 is the new 15.

iGen is most engaging when Twenge studies the current reverberations of the screen-time-crisis afflicting the nation (rather than extrapolating how a business run by iGen may operate). She describes the upswing of political correctness and sensitivity to words on university campuses, where the casual question, “Where are you from?” might be considered racist. However, in this instance and most others she balances a negative blanket portrayal of a generation by quoting an individual capable of speaking rationally. Hearing “Where are you from?” often, one young man says,

Victimhood culture tells me this [question] is a ‘microaggression’ based on racism that should offend me. But it’s not. We live in a multicultural society, and it’s not always clear what someone’s background is. I don’t assume they’re racist just because they’re curious about my background. But victimhood culture tells me I should.

Twenge also occasionally reveals the frantic jockeying among researchers that goes on to coin phrases like iGen, noting that Neil Howe and William Strauss scored Millennial, though, “The prominent magazine AdvertisingAge has backed iGen as the best name for the post-Millennials since 2012.” Crowing aside, Twenge’s insights can be fascinating:

Another name suggested for this group is Generation Z. However, that label only works if the generation before them is called Generation Y, and hardly anyone uses Generation Y now that the term Millennials has won out. That makes Generation Z dead on arrival. Not to mention that young people do not want to be named after the generation older than themselves. That’s why Baby Busters never caught on for Generation X and why Generation Y never stuck for the Millennials. Generation Z is derivative, and the generational labels that stick are always original.

The author encourages parents and business managers to use iGen as a field guide to dealing with 24% of the population. That said, our youngest adults deserve the chance to grope at ideals and identities—and to initially fail at finding either—without too much hand-wringing from those already confident in life. Outside Twenge’s bubble, after all, lies the Trump Presidency, North Korean nukes, and White Nationalism. iGen may grow up faster than any data center can guess.