Book Review – Generations

Jean M. Twenge, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future. Simon & Schuster, 2023. 560 pp. $32.50

Social psychologist Jean M. Twenge is continuing her career as one of the leading scholars of generational differences in America. This time, however, instead of focusing on a single generation as in her previous works such as Generation Me (Millennials) and iGen (Generation Z), her new book, Generations, covers the five most influential generations of the nation since World War II, from the Silents to Gen Z, and the differences between them.

Earlier theories of generations have explained the formation of social generations in different ways. For instance, in the 1920s Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim argued that generational units are united by their shared experiences of their eras’ major events such as wars, economic depressions, and pandemics. In the 90s, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe developed the Strauss–Howe generational theory which posits that the generations move through a four-stage recurring cycle from social cohesion and stability (The High) to rebellion (The Awakening) and decadence (The Unraveling) to a period of destruction (The Crisis) and finally back again to The High.

Twenge departs from these explanatory traditions and instead puts technological development at the core of her analysis, calling it the Technology Model of Generations. Some might argue that bestowing the bulk of explanatory power on technology sounds arbitrary, but Twenge makes the compelling case that there is something distinct about technological progress that separates it from other cultural factors: it’s linearity. Economies fluctuate, wars begin and end, but once a technological advancement has been developed and applied it remains a permanent fixture in society.

Using technology as the First Mover of generational differences, Twenge next isolates two of technology’s major impacts on society: individualism and a “slow-life strategy.” A slow-life strategy refers to the process of rearing fewer children with the expectation that they will take longer to reach many of the milestones of adolescence and adulthood, for example, waiting longer to get a driver’s license and begin dating, spending more time in higher education, and putting off marrying and having children. In the first few decades of the 20th century, child mortality was exceptionally high, and 1 out of 10 children died between their 1st and 15th birthday. And with much of the country still agrarian, it was in families’ best interests to have numerous children early, to ensure that more of them survive into adulthood and can provide for themselves before their parents become too old.

Since 1950, however, medicine and public health policies have improved so drastically that child mortality has decreased by 80%, making the death of a child a shocking rarity as opposed to a tragic reality. During that time, however, the economy shifted in such a way that while surviving into adulthood could be expected, finding a role for oneself to guarantee economic self-sufficiency became increasingly less certain. These changes incentivized a different style of child-rearing wherein families would have fewer children and invest more resources in each of them — safeguarding them from taking too many risks too early in their lives and encouraging them to stay on the right educational pathway for a stable career, even if it takes a few more years.

As for technology’s influence on individualism, the connection is self-explanatory. Before washing machines, people would spend hours cleaning clothes over a hot cauldron, often with multiple families at the time. Refrigeration, frozen food, and fast food all make eating and meal preparation something anyone can do with minimal interaction with others. Media and entertainment shifted from crowded theaters to family televisions and finally to personal smartphones and tablets, meaning that no one has to argue about what to watch. These material changes, Twenge argues, had a direct impact on culture — with people becoming less and less reliant on others in their daily lives, attitudes such as “you do you” and “don’t worry about what other people think” slowly started to become real possibilities.

Taking as a starting point technology and its two major cultural impacts, individualism and a slow life strategy, Twenge sets out to examine their roles in forming the generational differences so hotly debated. She is committed to setting the records straight, even if that means poking a few nerves. Twenge comes to the table with spunk and more than a few preconceived conclusions, but with 24 nationally representative datasets conducted over several decades and assessing approximately 39 million people, she’s earned the confidence she brings.

With several previous books behind her, she’s also come prepared for criticism. For instance, birth cohort effects have been criticized on the grounds that they are merely the effects of age, i.e., people adopt more conservative positions as they grow older and have children. However, the datasets she uses follow each generation over the course of their lives so that attitudes of Boomers and Gen Xers can be compared not in any single year, but when each generation was in young adulthood. Of course, many generations have long age brackets (the Silent Generation was born from 1925 to 1945) and the cutoff points vary, inevitably leading to charges of arbitrariness. Twenge sustains this objection, though still affirms the importance of generational differences as areas of analysis, accounting for the uncertain and flexible borders with the use of line graphs instead of bar graphs to reveal the overlap.

And finally, what about all the people who don’t identify with their generations in one or several ways? Is this book for them, considering nobody enjoys being pigeonholed? Twenge argues that everybody is impacted by their generations. For example, she writes that if a 21-year-old college man decides that he is ready to get married and start a family, in 1963 he could much more easily find many women around him who want the same thing. However in 2023, far fewer women his age would be thinking about marriage. His friends and family are more likely to think he should wait. Hence, generational averages are something that affects everyone in a generation whether one is within those averages or without.

Silents (1925-1945)

Beginning with the Silent Generation (1925-1945), the first for which large-scale nationally representative data is available, Twenge demonstrates that while this generation was born too late to fight in World War II, and too early to bring the counterculture of the 1960s full swing, it was far from silent. In fact, many of the political and artistic movements of the 1960s and early 70s were led not by Boomers as they are often accredited, but by Silents. Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Bob Dylan were all Silents. So were Mohamed Ali, Gloria Steinman, Jimi Hendrix, and all four Beatles.

At the same time, the Silents were the most marrying generation of the 20th century, marrying even more than the Greatests, and built the stable suburban environments that sprawled the nation throughout the 1950s. They also married young, with a median age of marriage of 20.1 for women in 1956, making nearly half of them still teenagers when married. As Silent women moved into adulthood, most of them still considered themselves primarily wives and mothers, though the Second World War normalized the idea of women going to college and working outside the home, though positions for doctors and lawyers still almost exclusively went to men, while women could not move past nurse and secretary no matter how high their qualifications. Still, for women’s traditional roles in society, it was a period of great transition.

Likewise for Black Americans. Before interracial marriages were legalized in 1967, every member of the Silent Generation had already reached adulthood in a world wherein nearly every facet of public life was segregated. As with most of the social changes throughout America in the 1960s, Civil Rights was largely begun by Silents, though some were pushed into the activist role by circumstances, such as Richard and Mildred Loving, who were pulled out of bed in the middle of the night in their home in Virginia in 1958 and arrested for their interracial marriage. With the threat of imprisonment, they left for D.C., but wanting to return home they raised a class action suit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, with the Supreme Court eventually ruling in their favor two years later.

Sit-ins were another loud statement made by the Silent generation. Twenge records her conversation with a man she met named John, who related his childhood in a segregated hometown. As a college student, he and his friends sat down at a white-only restaurant in North Carolina. When the waitress told them, “We don’t serve n———s here,” one of John’s friends replied back, “Ma’am, we don’t want one of those—we want a cheeseburger.”

Still lagging behind were rights and respect for LGBT Americans, which the Boomers largely took up, though inspired by some Silent trailblazers. LGBT-identifying Silents are not numerous, with only 0.8% claiming an LGBT identity in 2020, compared to 2.6% of Boomers. However, data collected since 1989 in the General Social Survey show that 5.5% of Silent men and 2.3% of Silent women, a total of 1 out of 13, have had at least one same-sex sexual experience since their 18th birthday. Likely this number would be significantly higher if same-sex experiences before 18 were reported.

Twenge characterizes the Silent Generation as a two-faced Janus: inheriting the traditional family values of their parents and enjoying stable post-war prosperity while being the first to experiment with the new ways of living and thinking that would continue to this day.

Boomers (1946-1964)

With the bloodiest war the world has ever seen at a close, America was ready to rebuild. The GI Bill gave (mostly white) returning soldiers enormous educational and housing opportunities, and demographers expected birth rates to rise for the next couple of years, though few could have expected that between 1946 and 1964, 76 million babies would have been born—more than the population of France. The nation was not prepared for this; Twenge reports that in Pittsfield, Ohio, one man went to four different elementary schools as each of them filled up and new ones had to be built.

This baby boomers formed what Twenge calls a “demographic bulge,” and therefore the whole country’s desires and values changed as theirs did. And, as they entered into late adolescence and early adulthood, enough of them embraced the individualistic values that the Silents had begun to form the critical mass needed for the brewing social revolution. A particularly illustrative example of this is the contrast in the public reaction to the Korean War and the Vietnam War: the former received little public attention, while the latter was heavily protested and met with draft resistance, even though both wars were waged with high civilian casualties and with the same goal of containing communist expansion in Asia.

According to Twenge, a defining characteristic of the Boomer Generation was the focus on personal choice, from an upsurge in marijuana use to an increased acceptance of premarital sex to unconventional hairstyles. Part of this was driven by new technology. Between 1948 and 1955, the percentage of households with televisions skyrocketed from 1% to 75%, which meant that people had a chance like never before to see how other people lived.

Traditional attitudes on gender roles, family, and sexuality took one of the biggest hits. In 1957, three in four U.S. adults believed that women who remained unmarried were “neurotic,” “immoral,” and “sick.” That number dropped to one in four in 1978. Meanwhile, in 1938, three in four people believed a woman shouldn’t work if her husband could support her, while in 1978 only one in four thought so. Between 1967 and 1979, the percentage of Americans who believed premarital sex was wrong plummeted from 85% to 37%. Before these changes, when an unmarried woman became pregnant, and a shotgun wedding was not an option, she would be sent far away from their families to a maternity home, which one woman described as a “shame-filled prison.” Legalized abortions and a widening of opportunities for single mothers led to the closing of these institutions around the country.

As the Boomer Generation moved into early adulthood in the late 70s and early 80s, and the Vietnam War had come to an end, America witnessed a heightened interest in spirituality, introspection, and soul-searching—what Tom Wolfe called “the voyage to the interior.” Self-help books filled the shelves, and personal expression, authenticity, and openness were the virtues of the age, exemplified by the rise to fame of Oprah Winfrey whose personable style won the country over.

The Boomers were instrumental not only in leading the social changes of the time, but also in making them mainstream and unavoidable. However, Twenge writes, today Boomers are typically mentioned in conversation as the generation that broke the American economy and made it impossible for future generations to have a shot, with book titles such as Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster and, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. It’s true that income inequality and joblessness had begun to rise in the early 80s, but Twenge argues that Boomers were much less the cause of these problems than its first victims.

For example, in the early 80s when early Boomers were in their 30s and later Boomers were young adults, millions of manufacturing jobs began to disappear. Soon, the income gap between Boomers with and without a college degree widened greatly. So too did the happiness gap. While the two leading causes of death, heart disease and cancer, declined among older adults between 2000 and 2019, the death rate rose, disproportionately due to deaths of despair involving alcohol abuse, drug overdoses, and suicide. While income level was not significantly related to mental health among Silents, for Boomers, lower-income people were more than twice as likely to experience depression than higher-income people.

While it is true that college was more affordable for Boomers than for their children and grandchildren, many of them decided not to go, as well-paying working-class jobs were plentiful and it was expected to stay that way. Then, when the economic landscape shifted and degrees surged in importance, it was too late. Twenge observes: “This challenges the generational narrative of the past few years pitting rich Boomers against poor Millennials—the pervasive idea that Boomers climbed the ladder to success and then pulled it up once they got there, leaving younger generations with scraps. The truth is many Boomers never made it up the ladder to begin with. Most Boomers are not the perpetrators of this system—instead, they were its first casualties.”

Generation X (1965-1979)

Twenge begins her chapter on this cohort by writing, “One day in the early 1990s, the media woke up and realized something: Young people weren’t Boomers anymore. So who were they? Nobody was quite sure. There were a few clues: They wore a lot of black clothing. Youth protest was out, and cynicism was in. Independent self-reliance was a point of pride. Fond childhood memories centered on The Brady Bunch and Star Wars.”

According to Twenge, Generation X, like the letter in its name (“a placeholder for an unknown variable”), has been difficult to pin down. Sometimes so difficult to pin down that it’s been forgotten, as in a news graphic on CBS in 2019 showing the generations in America that skipped over Generation X entirely. As Twenge writes, in the culture wars waged on social media today which pit Boomers and Millennials against one another, few seem to remember that there is a whole generation between them.

However, Generation X does have many distinct characteristics. It was the first generation to grow up in a world where the social upheavals of the 1960s were taken for granted, and where having at least one TV in every household was the norm. It was the generation that normalized distrust in political authority. While media depictions of Gen Xers have focused on their slacker personae, they were the generation that built the internet and pioneered the tech industry. Gen Xers grew up fast with low parental supervision at the height of the Cold War, then, according to Twenge, slowed down, spending more time on their education and delaying their entrance into adulthood. Thus, Gen X is a generation of contradictions and deserves more exploration than it has received.

For Generation X, unlike Boomers, individualism was the rule, and it was expressed not through political protests and seminars on mindfulness, but with cynicism, political apathy, and pride in self-reliance. The one area where Gen Xers did connect with others was via pop culture, specifically television. While TVs were plentiful by that time, things to watch on them were not, which means that children and teens of this era had many of their shared experiences on the screen.

People born to the Boomers between 1965 and 1979 also had a very independent childhood, born after single parenting and working mothers became more common, but before the culture of safety and overprotection that characterized the childhood of the Millennials. During this brief reign of the latchkey kid, many of the “firsts” of growing up happened earlier than usual. The average age at first sexual encounter dropped for Generation X before returning to Boomer levels for Millennials. While earlier sex is indicative of the “fast life strategy,” the age of first marriage and first child progressively increased from 1970 all the way through to 2020.

During late adolescence and early adulthood, Generation X had a reputation for doubt and disillusionment, and this is especially apparent in the cultural productions of this time period. After the age of disco and the age of pop, young people were ready for a new sound which took a surprisingly dark and gritty turn with bands like Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam coming on the scene. Meanwhile, films like Reality Bites (1994) and Singles (1992) covered themes such as the emptiness of corporate life and marketing, uncertainty about the future, and the melancholy of wasted potential. From Black Gen Xers, rap was growing in popularity and was (in)famous for its profanity and frank depictions of crime and drugs.

It was during this period that violent crime surged, especially among Black communities, leading to media outrage over “superpredators” (mostly from Silents and Boomers) and the beginning of America’s policy of hyperincarceration. However, homicide rates for older adults actually decreased in the 90s, while for 15-24 year-olds it nearly doubled, with Black men nearly nine times more likely to be murdered than white men. At the same time, America’s old wounds of racial tension began to reopen, typified by the trial of O.J. Simpson, which revealed to everyone how much of a division between the races there still existed, with 8 in 10 whites believing Simpson was guilty compared to 3 in 10 Blacks.

At first, future prospects for Generation X didn’t look promising. Income levels and rates of home ownership in the early 1990s were lower for Gen Xers than for Boomers at the same age, leading to the prediction that the generation would live out their lives in a permanent dead end. However, just a few years later the economy would rebound and innumerable career paths in digital technology would open up, changing, as Twenge puts it, the public image of Gen X from “unemployed slacker to internet millionaire” almost overnight. Another reason why Gen X was lagging behind their parents was the fact that many of them were spending more time on their education, obviously leading to less income. However, the money they made after graduating did more than compensate for this delayed start.

Now that the hulking Boomer demographic, which for years dominated leadership positions in government and business, is reaching retirement age, Generation X has the opportunity to take the reins. That’s assuming, however, that Millennials don’t jump ahead of them, something that Twenge deems possible and journalist Matthew Hennessey dreads, viewing Gen X as the last line of defense against a world of digital surveillance and campus political correctness. Twenge doesn’t go this far, but she does write that Gen X “[has] a unique role to play as ambassadors between the pre-digital Boomers and the post-digital Millennials and Gen Zers…with one foot in the old physical world and the other in the digital ether, they will take the helm with an understanding of both the benefits and drawbacks of our technologically saturated culture.”

Millennials (1980-1994)

With birth control and legalized abortion available across the country by the time later Boomers decided to start having kids in the 1980s, Twenge writes that the Millennials were the most wanted generation America has ever known, and for those born between 1980 and 1994, the times started off good. The Cold War was at a close and the economy was strong. While most Millennials would be old enough to remember 9/11 and the shock and grief it caused (not to mention the lives that would be lost in the upcoming War on Terror) the unity and kindness that followed the tragedy led to many of them growing up with a sense of national solidarity, and the economy continued to prosper through the mid-2000s up until 2008 when the earlier Millennials were just entering the workforce.

Many generations continue to be imagined as “the young ones” well into their adulthood, and the same is true for Millennials, who were often blamed online for partying during spring break at the height of the Covid pandemic, despite the fact that the majority of them at that time were in their 30s. Unlike the generation before them, however, Millennials as a population have not been ignored by demographers and cultural critics, and are the subject of endless debate about their characteristics and, for better or worse, their role in America’s current socio-political climate.

One of the most pointed accusations against Millennials is related to their alleged “soft skin” and self-obsession, ostensibly stemming from their upbringing of participation trophies and emotionally affirming messaging. With labor-saving technologies now brushing away blue-collar jobs en masse and more competition than ever to break into the corporate world, it made the most sense to have fewer children and spend more time and resources on each of them. However, some have suggested that this plan might have backfired, with Millennials now too coddled and unprepared for life.

One trait that has definitely gone up is feelings of self-esteem. Belief in one’s own ability began to rise with Gen X and continued with Millennials, with seven out of ten Millennials believing that they would be in the top 20% performers in their future place of work in the early 2010s. Likewise, in the same period, Millennial high school students, compared to Boomers and early Gen Xers at the same age, were more likely to believe that they had an above average intelligence and school ability, despite the fact that the average time spent studying has been steadily decreasing, along with SAT scores.

With such high expectations Millennials had for themselves and their futures, the Great Recession came as a shocking blow. While Millennials were not to blame for the 2008 economic crisis, they were certainly not prepared for it. As cartoonist Matt Bors quipped, “Stop hating on Millennials. We didn’t create this mess. We came late to the banquet and were served up crumbs… which we will Instagram before we eat. #YUM.”

This is one of the reasons why so many Millennials are especially likely to view themselves as poor, as many of the statistics cited as evidence that Millennials are falling behind economically are from this time. However, Twenge reveals the surprising fact that as of 2019 Millennials are earning more on average than both Boomers and Gen Xers were at the same age, and income has increased among every racial group. Homeownership, meanwhile, has remained steady, despite beliefs to the contrary, and there are fewer Millennials below the poverty line as well.

There are some caveats, however. For one thing, most of this rise in income can be explained by the massive gains made by women. 25 to 34-year-old women in 2021 made 69% percent more than Boomer women in 1980. With more dual-income households, Millennials are spending more on childcare, the cost of which has soared; they also face greater college debt. Millennials are going to college at increasing rates, and there’s a reason for this, as while the median income of those with a 4-year college degree has been going up, while median income for those without a degree has been going down, turning college into almost a necessity. Obviously, that means that more Millennials are in college debt, and tuition is sky-high. The possibility of “working one’s way through college” is long gone, and these loans will still need to be paid off years after graduation day.

Generation Z (1995-2012)

Born between the years 1995 and 2012, there are some in this generation establishing themselves in the workforce, and some who are still losing the last of their baby teeth, though all of them will have grown up knowing the internet as woven directly into the fabric of life. They will also be the last generation to witness a world before COVID-19 and the political polarization of the 2016 election. Although implicitly lumped together on some occasions, they are not Millennials; notwithstanding, many of the trends begun by the preceding cohort such as the delaying of adulthood, increased focus on emotional safety, and worsening mental health, have only increased for Gen Z.

It’s in the Millennial/Gen Z chapters that Twenge begins to show her cards, emphasizing specifically the data that forms her narrative, and one cannot help but wonder if a broader perspective will paint a somewhat different picture. Still, her meticulous utilization of her sources does not waver, and they must be confronted by any critic who wishes to dispute her claims.

One trend that has increased at a stunning rate among Gen Zers is the embracing of transgenderism and gender nonconformity, as well as the adoption of LGBT identities. In fact, between late 2019 and early 2021, the percentage of Gen Z’ers who disagree with the statement “There are only two genders, male and female” rose from just under 40% to over half of the whole population. Among the previous four generations during that same period of time, opinions barely budged from approximately 30%.

So too has the number of Gen Z adults identifying as transgender skyrocketed. Whereas only 1 in 1000 Boomers identify as transgender, for Gen Z that number is 23 in 1000, a twentyfold increase. Among Gen Z teens, rates are even higher. In 2017, the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that out of 100,000 14-18 year-olds, 1 in 55 identified as transgender. In one high school, it was found that 1 in 16 students identify as transgender. Accounting for the number of students who marked themselves as non-binary, 1 in 11 teens identified as something other than cisgender.

Among older age brackets, the rate of trans identification has remained steady, even as it soared for Gen Z. Explanations for this are limited. It has been suggested that older generations are more reluctant to come out, having lived so long with their cis identity, but as Twenge points this would require a remarkable number of older people in the closet to explain this generational gap. So too has the rate of Gen Zers not identifying as straight increased, driven almost exclusively by the uptick in bisexual identification, particularly among women, so that as of 2021, nearly one in five young women (18-26) identify as bisexual.

Interestingly, none of this increased tolerance of gender and sexual diversity has been accompanied by any rise in sexual activity, and Gen Z is having markedly less sex than Millennials and Gen Xers at the same age, a trend that began before the COVID-19 lockdowns. The plethora of hookup apps has not led to more hookups, but they have made trying to find romantic/sexual partners in person look almost sinister. With the internet giving people the ability to decide precisely who is allowed to interact with them and to what extent, striking up an intimacy with someone in your office building or apartment complex is now a foreign-sounding idea. When journalist Kate Julian, for instance, described first meeting her husband in an elevator in 2001, several younger women have told her that a male stranger talking to them in an elevator would be “virtually unthinkable.”

Another distinct characteristic of Gen Z is the dire state of its mental health, which as many have argued has reached the point of crisis. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of teens and young adults experiencing clinical-level depression has more than doubled. Nor is this the result of medical overdiagnosing, as all of this data is cross-sectional and representative of the whole population, not just those at the therapist’s office, and the rise is uniquely sharp for Generation Z, making this undeniably a birth cohort effect. What’s more, these changes cannot be attributed to an increased willingness to admit depressive symptoms—teen suicide has doubled as well.

There are numerous hypotheses as to what is driving these tragic developments, but whatever the cause, all hands are on deck to put a stop to it, with college campuses (for better or worse) on the front lines, going to great lengths to make sure that students are protected from any speech or reading material that might upset them. For the first time, speakers are being disinvited from colleges on the basis that they may cause “emotional injury.” It is more than a simple matter of extreme ideological disagreement (a mainstay of university life); rather students are proclaiming that certain ideas are threatening their “safety” and “ability to function.”

Gen Z is also becoming much less optimistic about the state of the world and their chances in life. Expectations for one’s future prospects were high for Boomers and even higher for Gen Xers and Millennials but fell sharply for Gen Z. The perception of discrimination against women is a particularly illustrating example. Between 2012 and 2019, teen girls’ belief in discrimination in law and medicine rose by 50%. Yet during that period of time, the number of degrees in law and medicine being awarded to women leveled to the rate for men. So too had the belief that women were discriminated against in receiving a college education doubled between 2012 and 2019, even as women began earning more degrees in 2019 than men (6 in 10 compared to 4 in 10).

The feeling that the cards are stacked against oneself and that however hard somebody tries, something is going to hold them back, has real-world consequences. People who believe that they have the ability to direct the course of their lives (known as having an internal locus of control) are 40% more likely to practice healthy dieting and exercise and are also less prone to anxiety and depression. Twenge points out one report that revealed that an internal locus of control had more of an impact on academic performance among non-white children than any other variable. Whether or not this surge in negative thinking will remain high for Generation Z and what effects it will have if it does is yet to be determined.

Twenge traces most of these distinguishing features of Gen Z back to technology, specifically social media, something which few Gen Zers can remember a world without. In many ways, some of the fundamental aspects of social media embody the very nature of Gen Z’s mental health crisis, with its emphasis on highlighting the pessimistic, its raising of expectations for one’s life via social comparison, its discouragement of deep and engaged conversations between close friends, all of which parallels exactly what Gen Zers are reporting.

For more information on the sexual recession and mental health crisis among young people, see “Why Are Young People So Unhappy? – Mental Health, Sexual Development, Loss of Autonomy”

Generation A and Conclusion

Twenge ends with a brief chapter on Generation A, people born between 2013 and an unknown cutoff point (Twenge suggests 2029). She calls them “Polars,” a name referring to both the melting polar ice caps, and the increased political polarization gripping the country over the last several years, both of which are issues Generation A will be dealing with for much of their lives. After that, one can only guess. Twenge mentions one show that took a shot at predicting the future, The Jetsons, a 1960s animated series that featured flying cars, holograms, and robot assistants, yet for all this its creators still couldn’t imagine a world with George Jetson’s wife working outside of the home. This demonstrates, according to Twenge, that technological advancements are easier to envision than the impact they will have on people’s attitudes and behavior.

As for the generations that have already gone by, however, Twenge does an excellent job following their development through the years. There are roughly as many charts in this book as pages of text, and social scientists of all stripes will find some interesting facts. The problem is that while there might be something for everyone, there’s not enough of anything in particular. People looking for information on the trajectories of religiosity or race relations over the years will have to sift through a lot of information before finding what pertains to them. As a reference book, however, Generations belongs on many a researcher’s shelf.

Another critique, or rather counterpoint, can be pointed at Twenge’s idea of the linearity of technological advancement. Neil Postman offers several examples of technologies being developed and then, for whatever reason, promptly ignored—the same technology that other cultures used to revolutionize their ways of life. For instance, both the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons invented the stirrups, but only the Franks saw their massive potential in warfare. Likewise, the Koreans and the Chinese invented the movable type prior to Gutenberg, but without an alphabetized written language, they could make little use of it. Finally, the wheel, argued to be one of the most important pieces of technology in human history, was invented by the ancient Aztecs, who decided they were needed for nothing further in their society after incorporating them into the design of children’s toys. Thus, how technology alters the course of culture is no less predictable than how culture will determine technology’s development and the extent of its application.

Another claim that Twenge makes which seems dubious is her support for the regulation of social media, particularly in limiting its accessibility for minors. Some of her suggestions seem valid, such as changing the algorithm of social media sites to show negative content less frequently—cutting down on the amount of bullying, name-calling, and harassing that people witness on a daily basis. Less valid is her call to “cut down on misinformation” which she blames for the January 6 riot and the skepticism over the efficacy of masks and vaccines. She herself acknowledges the difficulty of this, as the most current information changes so rapidly. Still, she argues that there can (and should) be people trusted with this power. Anyone who has backed an unpopular idea in their lives and faced some degree of censorship for it may be less enthused.

All the same, Generations is an interesting and provocative take on a loaded subject. More than race, sex, religion, immigration status, etc., generational identity seems to be the area where people feel most comfortable taking shots at the “other side” and with the least amount of information. As a Gen Xer with arguably Boomer sympathies, Twenge cannot be said to have no horse in this race. Still, she organizes her data brilliantly and is committed to making empirical observation and mutual understanding a permanent fixture of this ongoing debate.

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