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The hermit generation: The young aren’t rebelling against society, but hiding from it

Three-week-old baby sulcatta tortoises.

Three-week-old baby sulcatta tortoises.

August 30, 2017   3 mins

UnHerd is for readers who choose the important over the new. But we aren’t so immodest as to think that we’re the only source for such content. Serious, significant, in-depth journalism is still being produced everyday; and though it might not get as much attention as each day’s screaming headlines, it has the advantage of enduring relevance.

That is certainly true of Jean M Twenge’s extended essay for the Atlantic, which will be relevant for years – and decades – to come. It concerns that oldest of subjects: young people. We’ve become accustomed to thinking about the young as the Millennial generation. However, the Millennials – i.e. those who came of age in the years around the Millennium – aren’t so young anymore. The oldest of them are now in their thirties and it won’t be long before we’re talking about middle-aged Millennials.

So, enough about them, let’s talk about the next lot – those who are teenagers now or soon will be. For reasons that will become clear, Twenge calls this generation ‘iGen’ – and argues that they represent a profound discontinuity in the evolution of society:

“I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out…

“Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it… The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind.”

What’s going on, then? Teens becoming a bigger nuisance than ever before? A ravening hoard of drunken, drugged-up super-yobs? Er, no:

“More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.”

For instance, in both Britain and America, rates of teenage pregnancy have been in long-term decline, but have dropped like a stone in this decade.

No need to worry about iGen, then? Actually, there is – but for different reasons:

“Psychologically… they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

Even among the majority who remain remain in reasonable mental health, one has to recognise that passivity has its downside:

“In earlier eras, kids worked in great numbers, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar. But iGen teens aren’t working (or managing their own money) as much. In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.”

Twenge argues that while previous generations stretched out their adolescence well into their twenties (remember the ‘lad culture’ of the 1990s?), this generation is, for good and ill, stretching out its childhood – not drinking, not driving, not going out, not working, not doing much of anything apparently.

Perhaps, prompted by the economic uncertainties of the 21st century, they’re too busy studying? But, no, that’s not it either:

“If today’s teens were a generation of grinds, we’d see that in the data. But eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s.”

So, what are they doing with their time? The answer, as I’m sure you’ll have observed, is that iGen are on their smartphones – and the consequences of that we’ll look at tomorrow.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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