By John McWilliams
In this book’s prefatory blurbs, Lisa Wade characterizes Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me (2006), as “the reigning expert on generational change” and Jonathan Haidt praises the “careful analysis” of Twenge’s “fascinating book.” Such praise of Twenge’s authority and sociological method is, on the basis of internal evidence, fully deserved. Originator of the term “iGen” (the generation born between 1995 and 2012, now ages 7 to 24), Twenge integrates statistical surveys, personal interviews, and her own university classroom experience. Her collective data survey almost 11 million people. She provides no less than 121 line graphs detailing the attitudes and practices of the iGen generation, graphs based on multigenerational statistical studies with large data bases. She knows that statistical generalities cannot be applied to individual instances and insists that the iGen generation, like all others, must be understood before it is judged. So, if you seek an informed context by which to check casual allegations and to better understand an emerging generation, read this book.
What is the import of Twenge’s evidence? The dominant influence that has defined and separated iGen from previous generations is their widespread addiction to the four kinds of “New Media” promoted by the iPhone (texting, social media, online searches and gaming). High school seniors spend about six hours per day on their iPhones, and eighth graders spend five hours. Because of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), some sleep with their phone under their pillow. The average teen checks her iPhone 80 times a day. Time for their iPhones has been taken from the common non-academic activities of preceding generations: hanging out with friends, working at a job, reading, hobbies and sports, face-to-face human contact in all forms. Twenge graphs the sharp rise, beginning about 2012, in iGen obsessions with emotional and personal safety, their shortened attention span, prolonged presence in the parental household, delayed career employment, delayed marriage, and fear for their economic future in a world of increasing income inequality. Accompanying these changes are clear statistical rises in clinical depression and suicide that contribute to a “culture of victimhood” requiring safe spaces, trigger warnings, and protection from micro-aggressions for the sake of their emotional safety. Twenge is careful not to claim that iGen obsession with their iPhones causes these developments. She presents them as strikingly concurrent, leaving the unprovable problem of causation to the reader’s determination.
Selected quotations from interviews with iGeners show the extremities of the cultural shift from the adolescent years of the Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers: “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people;” “The minute I start my homework, I have to have my phone by me to see what my friends are texting;” “I do not enjoy any books. They put me to sleep and they are boring;” “Without my phone I literally would be lost;” “The sight of a message box with no notifications gives me a really sad, gut wrenching feeling of loneliness. Facebook depresses me, so I’m going to stop using it;” “We grew up with iPhones. We don’t know how to communicate like normal people and look people in the eye and talk to them.” Other responses are even more troubling. One iGener unknowingly admits to seeking out a dead end of self-isolation: “No relationships, no problems.”
To Twenge, every cultural shift has positive as well as negative developments. iGens consume alcohol and experience sex later in adolescence and with greater self-control; they drive less and have many fewer car accidents; they avoid teenage pregnancy, and they have developed an admirable tolerance of LGBT people. Racism persists, but most iGens are firm believers in the equality of races, both equality under law, and equality of ability. Their skeptical indifference to religion and to political action often seems justified by events. Faced with daunting student debt, recent college students support federal funding of child care and college tuition. Whether Twenge’s account of these potential benefits can counter her premonitions of generational harm may, however, be doubted. The innermost iGen qualities to which she repeatedly returns are their fear, psychic fragility, and controlling need for safety. Twenge’s last chapter sets out to present “some possible ways forward” to “protect our kids from anxiety, depression, and loneliness in our digital age.” The chapter’s yield, however, proves to be revealingly limited and phrased in the negative: “Put Down the Phone.” If Twenge has been correct in her diagnosis, further and more constructive steps will be needed.
Twenge repeatedly uses the term “individualism” to convey a prevalent attitude among iGens. When Tocqueville introduced the term in Democracy in America (1835), he meant something akin to Emersonian self-reliance, the American instinct to go-it-alone, confident that one’s individual identity would enable you to make your way. In Twenge’s usage, “individualism” is more akin to the quality Christopher Lasch identified in The Culture of Narcissism (1979): an egoism (not egotism) that puts a reflected version of ME at the center of the universe. Twenge’s “individualism” partially explains the appeal of selfies, Snapchat, and Instagram to today’s iGens, but it is a darker version than anything Tocqueville or Lasch had imagined. At the heart of it there seems to be a chilling solitude, a search for value in a world increasingly devoid of meaning.
To end on a personal note, as a member of the “Silent” generation (born pre 1946) and a retired literary scholar to boot, reading iGen leaves me wondering what place I and my life’s work in the medium of print can any longer have in today’s world. When the percentage of adolescents who read even two books or magazines for pleasure per year has fallen 28% in the last twenty years, and an iGener can proudly declare “I never read any books,” is it not goodbye War and Peace, goodbye Middlemarch, goodbye Moby-Dick? The cultural shift extends beyond the iGeners. When Jean Twenge tells me that “a graph is worth a thousand words,” I can only reply that I have never seen a graph that was worth a thousand words of Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. Would such a reply now be quite without resonance? Am I a fossil? Has technology become the new religion?
John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.