The New Generation Gap | Higher Ed Gamma
Several weeks ago, Taylor Lorenz, a Washington Post technology columnist, blasted those academics, including Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, who attribute increasing rates of teenage depression to the time teenage girls spend on social media.
In a provocative and widely circulated tweet, Lorenz wrote that these analysts “never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world … u have to be delusional to look at life in our country rn and have any amt of hope or optimism.”
In subsequent tweets, Lorenz elaborated: “it’s just a fact that most employment in US is at will, also the rise of gig work, creator economy and other unstable forms of work.” She later added, “I’m not some huge phone defender, but it’s ridiculous to blame all problems in the world on a piece of communication technology and ignore every major structural problem we face.”
Needless to say, her tweets provoked a lot of pushback. Critics noted that government expenditures for social purposes have risen as a percentage of GNP from 6.7 percent in 1965 to 14.3 percent in 2000 to 22.7 percent in 2022. Also, it’s possible to exaggerate inequality. Although the middle class has indeed shrunk, this is largely due to an increase in higher-income adults.
And yet, something clearly is going on. Around 2012, rates of depression among 12- to 17-year-olds climbed from about 12 percent for girls and 5 percent for boys to 20 percent for girls and 7 percent for boys. According to the CDC:
- Almost 20 percent of female students experienced sexual violence during the past year.
- Fourteen percent had been physically forced to have sex.
- Sixty percent of female students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, and nearly 25 percent made a suicide plan.
In The Washington Post’s words: “Almost 3 in 5 teenage girls reported feeling so persistently sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row during the previous year that they stopped regular activities.”
“Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they seriously considered suicide.”
Boys and young men face their own distinctive challenges, as the Brookings Institution’s Richard V. Reeves has shown. If males “still dominate … the pinnacles of power,” they are three times as likely to die by suicide, twice as likely to die from opioids or be diagnosed with a learning or developmental disability, and only about a third as likely to graduate from college—as a result of poor reading and writing abilities, lower levels of executive functioning, and, in too many cases, an embrace of norms that don’t value academic achievement. The result: too many young men who lack purpose, meaning and direction in their lives.
If cellphones are not entirely to blame, what is? The Great Recession, which instilled a profound sense of pessimism about young people’s economic future, surely played a role, as has anxiety about climate change. Let’s not dismiss those concerns as hyperbolic. Young adults acquire wealth and the accoutrements of an adult identity far slower than their baby boomer or even their millennial predecessors.
I’d also point to noticeable shifts in upbringing. The number of teens who meet up with their friends “almost every day” is down from 50 percent in the 1990s to only about 25 percent today, a development that in part reflects the disappearance of public spaces where teens previously socialized or simply hung out: not just soda shops and juke spots, but shopping malls and even skateparks, even as the cost of movies escalated. It’s striking that the young are also less likely to acquire a driver’s license or to engage in sex.
I don’t think it’s an accident that it was around 2012 that a new vocabulary grew much more common. You might take a look at the graphs that chart the usage of words and phrases drawn from Lexis-Nexis: “social justice,” “diversity and inclusion,” “whiteness,” “sexism,” “misogyny,” “patriarchy,” “mansplaining,” “toxic masculinity,” “male privilege,” “institutional” or “systemic racism,” “transphobia,” “climate change,” and “cultural appropriation,” among others. At the same time, there was an upsurge in words denoting harm: “trauma,” “victimization,” “abuse,” “bullying” and “stigmatizing.”
This language reflects a growing sense of pessimism, cynicism, distrust, suspicion and negativity.
One consequence is a deepening generational divide between undergraduates and graduate students and many of their professors.
The importance of generations as a unit of analysis is contested by some social scientists who argue that the concept is ill defined and that differences within age cohorts exceed those across cohorts. Still, there can be little doubt that the stage of the life course and shared cohort experiences do shape attitudes and behaviors—and divide generations one from another in cultural tastes, religious beliefs, moral values, political views, racial attitudes and behavior.
As a historian, I wouldn’t claim that today’s generation gap is bigger than those in the 1960s or 1910s and ’20s. But generational differences, disparities and animosities are, nonetheless, defining features of our time.
To be sure, I don’t know a single colleague who would (openly) refer to students as “snowflakes” or “entitled.” But I do hear plenty of negative and condescending language. Perhaps you, too, have heard students described as psychologically fragile, disrespectful and poorly read and their use of inclusive, equity-focused and gender-neutral or fluid language dismissed as “newspeak” and mocked as performative rather than substantive, unduly complicated jargon and cant and as wordy and contorted and anything but sonorous.
What an irony: the very baby boomers who fueled the generation gap of the 1960s—perhaps you recall activist Jack Weinberg’s 1964 quip “Never trust anyone over 30”—now face another generation gap and this time find themselves on the other side of the barricades.
In dress, my students look pretty similar to my generation’s. They wear blue jeans, shorts, T-shirts and other casual attire. Their speech and hairstyles, too, are informal. Even their taste in music doesn’t differ radically from their elders’. But in many other respects, they do differ profoundly and not just demographically.
In addition to the obvious differences in their racial and ethnic composition, they differ in their formative precollege cultural, economic and social experiences, their communication styles, vocabulary, cultural references, political and ideological orientations, as well as in their likely future, especially how much more slowly they will reach certain milestones toward adulthood such as marriage, childbearing, entry into a stable job and homeownership.
Like the baby boomers, today’s traditional-aged students grew up in a time of social and cultural upheaval, but unlike their predecessors, also in a time of economic disruption, mounting inequality and intense political polarization. In stark contrast to the postwar era’s economic prosperity that lifted many boats, Gen Z encounters a less stable and increasingly stratified economy in which job security and access to relatively well-paying jobs is much less certain. At the same time, the sense of liberation that accompanied the sexual revolution and increased access to psychedelic drugs in the ’60s has faded.
Their college experience, too, differs markedly from my generation’s. Most college-students today are posttraditional. A majority are nontraditional in one respect or another. They’re either older or commuting or working or family caregivers or first generation or second-language speakers or international students. They also are distinctive in their vocational, career or pre-professional focus and their intense worries about the future.
So what should a responsible instructor do?
- Acknowledge and respect generational differences. Clarify your expectations, whether these have to do with workload, course requirements, interpersonal communication, civil and respectful behavior, or attendance and punctuality, and give your students the opportunity to present their own perspectives. Be careful to avoid generational stereotypes, gross generalizations and language that is disrespectful or demeaning. By acknowledging and respecting generational differences, you can create a more inclusive and understanding learning environment.
- Be attentive to student anxieties. I think it’s fair to say that today’s students face a wider range of anxieties than my counterparts did. Whether it comes from within or from parents or from majors or scholarships that require a minimum grade point average, academic pressure is greater. Social interactions are also more fraught, partly as a result of the pandemic, which increased social isolation but also from campus diversity and heightened consciousness about privilege and gendered, racial and ethnic power dynamics. Economic concerns are particularly intense, given the high cost of attendance, the need of most students to work part or even full-time, and uncertainty about the shifting job market.
- Create a positive, productive and inclusive classroom climate. Set clear expectations and rules for behavior and academic performance. Create a sense of community and make sure all students feel valued, respected and supported irrespective of their background or identities. Use active learning techniques, including project and team-based learning activities, to keep students motivated, engaged and focused. Be culturally responsive and include a wide range of examples, points of view and readings in your courses. Provide opportunities for student input.
- Speak directly about generational rifts. Empathy is a key to understanding. Help your students to understand where an older generation is coming from.
Each of us, I suspect, has arrived at a dinner party only to discover that the conversation is already underway. It can be challenging to figure out what the other attendees are talking about and what has already been said. The young experience something similar. They, too, enter into a series of cultural and political conversations and controversies that began long before they came of age. Provide your students with essential background information about those dialogues and debates and help them better understand why their parents or grandparents might think or behave the way they do.
A friend and former colleague recently shared a copy of his reminiscences that covered his college years. He, like me, attended a liberal arts college, and that was truly a magical time. There were plenty of horrors: assassinations, urban uprisings, the draft and the Vietnam War, among others. But there was also an optimism, a hopefulness and a sense of infinite possibilities that have no counterpart today. Above all, there were utopian dreams that seemed to be within grasp.
My friend’s college years encompassed many of the key elements we associate with the 1960s. He combined his studies with writing for the alternate press and lived in what was then considered a commune. My friend was two years older than me, and this made a big difference in his college experience. He not only went to Woodstock but to the march on the Pentagon and a host of other rallies and protests. He was on campus when the Ohio national guard shot and killed the four students at Kent State, leading to the first and only nationwide student strike in American history.
His photographs catapulted me back to a time long ago and far away. The students looked impossibly young. They didn’t try to look older or more mature the way many students do now. And, no surprise, the students in those pictures were almost all white and mainly middle-class, even if they represented different religions and ethnicities.
I could never write something as personal or revealing as my friend’s memoir. I’m too repressed, too much in denial, too concerned with my self-image (not to others, but to myself). I only wish I could.
It’s my friend’s story, but it is also mine and our generation’s. Later cohorts would experience their own odysseys of discovery, but our journey was special. No succeeding generation would have our freedom or the same utopian vision. None was as successful in altering the paradigm, in dress, language, demeanor, style or modes of thought. Whether we’re talking about sex or drugs or political or cultural radicalism, we had opportunities that no one else has had. We lived through a cultural revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
Then, it was over. The environment got colder, uglier and more pessimistic. The economy stagnated, the war dragged on and the freedoms that college youth enjoyed, including the freedom from many or most academic requirements, faded. The faculty devoted more time to research and interacted less with their undergraduates. An epoch had ended.
My friend’s story is filled with lessons about the fragility and perishability of those great awakenings that periodically arise and seek to transform American society. He witnessed up close and personal the factionalism and sectarianism that ultimately consumed the New Left and the drift by the most radical toward an embrace of violence and bombings that produced a backlash that lasted into the 21st century.
The ur musical of the Kennedy years, Camelot, ends on a poignant note that mirrors the arc of American society during the 1960s. The promise and hopefulness and idealism of Camelot ends in violence, the Round Table broken and more than half the knights dead. As his final defeat beckons, Arthur, the once and future king, encounters a young man, Thomas Mallory, who is willing to give his life for his monarch. But Arthur tells him instead to record Camelot’s story. “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot.”
So, too, the story of campus life during the 1960s needs to be told to students today not just as a cautionary tale, but as a spur and inspiration. If students’ utopian vision wasn’t realized, it nevertheless stands as a rebuke to those who would reduce college to career preparation and who regard education as simply the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The liberal arts colleges of the 1960s, in particular, fueled utopian dreams and, yes, drove critical thinking about society as a whole.
If American society is ever to live up to its founding ideals, then students need a reminder about what a college education was, could and ought to be.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.