Every generation has been ‘doomed’ — yet we’re still here
Each generation has remarkable differences and unique characterizations, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the tendency for those generations to critique each other
Lamenting the challenges and culture of the succeeding generation is a phenomenon that dates back to the days of Aristotle, who claimed:
“(Young people) are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances.”
Why older generations seem to have a bleak outlook for younger generations is a question some social scientists have sought to answer. In 2019, researchers John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler did a series of tests to find why this phenomenon exists, naming it the “Kids these days effect.”
Generation Z and millennials are known for coming of age while smartphones are ubiquitous, which has presented them with their own set of challenges and even stereotypes. The current generation of young people has been referred to as “lazy,” “sensitive” and “materialistic,” and has been credited with contributing to the downfall of several major industries that had been standing strong for decades.
But the baby boomers faced their own set of criticism, being called “dirty, unlawful, immoral ... lazy, and we ‘don’t wanna work,’” Kelly Ellis Florez, who is a boomer, told the Deseret News. “It was the same exact stuff.”
Each generation has remarkable differences and unique characterizations, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the tendency for those generations to critique each other.
So, has humanity been slowly deteriorating over time, or have younger people always faced criticism from older people? Why have we been saying “kids these days,” or some form of the phrase, for generations?
What defines a generation?
Deciding what generation a person belongs to can be complicated, given that the years defining a generation can vary depending on the source. Pew Research Center states that a generation can be classified by many factors, including “demographics, attitudes, historical events, popular culture” and so on that take place during the group’s formative years.
If you were coming of age during the era of leg warmers, permed hair and blasting Guns N’ Roses on the radio, you’re likely a member of Generation X. People who were teenagers and young adults during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, are probably millennials, and those who grew up under the shadow of the Kennedy assassination and during the civil rights movement are likely members of the baby boomer generation.
What’s your generation?
The Greatest Generation:
- Born around 1924 or earlier.
- Many members fought in World War II and lived through the Great Depression — feats that some believe makes them “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”
The Silent Generation:
- Born around 1925-1945.
- Born too late to serve in WWII, and too early to join the hippie movement, the Silent Generation is regarded as a civic-minded, conservative, hard-working and patriotic generation.
- Born around 1946-1964.
- Came of age during the hippie and civil rights movements.
- Baby boomers were the largest generation until they were outnumbered by millennials.
- Born around 1965-1980.
- Members of this generation are seen as independent and known as the latch-key generation, being among the first to be raised in double-income homes, often staying home alone after school.
- This generation was the first generation to come of age during the advent of the internet and the rise of the modern computer.
- Born around 1980-1996.
- Also known as Generation Y, millennials can define their younger years by the attacks of 9/11 and the market crash of 2008.
- Having come of age during the rise of the internet, millennials are known for being adaptable, flexible and more diverse than older generations.
- Born around 1996-2010.
- Generation Z isn’t old enough to remember a time without the internet. Most members of this generation were either young children or teenagers when social media as we know it today took over the world.
- Members of Generation Alpha, the children of millennials and older Gen Z, were born around 2010 or later. Usually, a generation spans around 15 years, meaning Gen Alpha will probably cut off in 2025.
- Most may be unaware that there is a generation following Gen Z, and that’s because the generation is still developing and their behaviors are still a mystery to researchers.
A more in-depth description of each generation can be found in previous Deseret News reporting.
Why older generations are wary about the young
In a 2019 study, Protzko and Schooler theorize that no, society has not been on a steady decline with the turn of every generation, and this denigration of the younger generation from their older counterparts is a result of faulty memory and bias projecting.
“There is a psychological or mental trick that happens that makes it appear to each generation that the subsequent generations are objectively in decline, even though they’re not,” said Protzko to the University of California, Santa Barbara Current. “And because it’s built into the way the mind works, each generation experiences it over and over again.”
To carry out the study, participants were asked to rank today's kids on three specific traits: respect for authority, intelligence and enjoyment of reading. The higher the participants ranked themselves on these traits, the more likely they were to deal out lower scores to today’s kids. This supported the researchers’ hypothesis that people have “the tendency to notice the limitations of others where one excels.”
The study concludes that “when observing current children, we compare our biased memory to the present and a decline appears. This may explain why the kids these days effect has been happening for millennia.”
Another theory states that the deprecation of younger generations has little to do with generational qualities, but with the changes that come with age and life changes. “Responsibilities tend to increase with age. As a result, it is possible that, in any era, older people would be more likely than younger people to view their generation as ‘responsible,’” Pew Research Center states.
Even though today’s young might not be any less capable or motivated than their elders, is the criticism of younger generations justified? The older generations, the Greatest and Silent generations, witnessed some of history’s most devastating events, such as the Great Depression and World War II. Technology was less developed and older generations seemed to need to put their literal boots to the ground more than younger generations might.
Millennials and younger generations are often labeled with indulgence and foolishness that led them to economic pain, such as not being able to afford a home. Young adults and teenagers have been called “snowflakes” and accused of having a lack of resilience to their hardships, resulting in high anxiety and depression levels.
Are today’s kids more behaved than their parents?
Some research has found that today’s youth may be more disciplined in some ways than older generations were at their age. Sometimes behaviors skip generations: for example, in their youth, many boomers had abused psychedelics and other drugs more than any generation, until Gen X came along. Several studies show that the parents of today’s teens were drinking and partying at a much higher rate than teens now, partly due to increased knowledge about the harmful effects of alcohol, and increased laws to prevent underage drinking.
A UCLA study shows that teens are partying less and focusing more on academics. They’re also connecting more through social media rather than at parties, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. According to another study, teen pregnancy has dropped 77% from the rate it was when Gen X was young. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that teen sex has been on a decline for years, with the numbers falling even lower during the pandemic. Thirty years ago, about half of teens said that they had been sexually active, but in 2021, 30% of teens said that they had ever had sex, which was the sharpest drop the survey had ever recorded, per USA Today.
“Personally the reason I’m waiting to have kids is because I know that there’s things I want to achieve for myself first that will help me be a better mom in the long run, like pursuing an education and saving money and getting a better foundation for my children,” said Morgan Mckinney, a millennial. “So yes, I would say that’s selfish in the sense that I’m focusing on myself ... but I’m setting my kids up for success. Why make raising children harder than it needs to be?”
Research has found that older generations, particularly boomers, came of age at a time of economic “prosperity,” where it was easier to purchase a home and earn a sufficient wage to support a family.
Millennials and Gen Z are facing “rocketing house prices, stagnating wages, and the rise of insecure work, all of which prevents people from getting mortgages,” wrote Katie Bishop for BBC. Bishop adds that older generations are “forgetting that this is a generation coming to adulthood during a global pandemic, in a period of unprecedented loneliness and widespread economic insecurity,” alongside all of the other pressures of adulthood and adolescence.
Were older generations right about the younger ones in the past?
Is there a chance that older generations were right about the kids? Among the barrage of intergenerational criticism, did any of the predictions come true?
Gary Steadman, a 94-year-old retired aerospace engineer who is a member of the Silent Generation, said that in his younger years, he was told that his generation was “going to heck.”
Before the age of 10, Steadman witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, felt the impact of WWII rations, and recovered from polio, eventually teaching himself to walk again. In his adult years, he attended Utah State University and held a career as an aerospace engineer for decades, which seems to be a far cry from the expectation of “going to heck” that older generations feared his generation would slip into years ago.
“I remember my folks thought the music was terrible,” Steadman said, recalling his younger days of listening to Nat King Cole, who is still a popular singer and whose songs are still regarded as classics by many, even 52 years after his death.
Despite concerns from their elders, members of the Silent Generation pioneered a historical period of music — birthing Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. The Silent Generation paved the way for following generations by valuing hard work and never expecting to be rewarded or applauded.
The baby boomers, despite the labels that were placed on them in their younger years, are known as the most “economically influential generation,” due to coming of age while the U.S. economy was flourishing. This generation sparked the civil rights movement and produced some of the country’s most successful public figures such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Steve Jobs.
Steadman acknowledges that he has garbled about “kids these days” a time or two in his life, as did the preceding generations. He states that youth don’t work as hard as his generation did, simply because they don’t have to.
“When I was a young boy I used to go down and stand on the corner, and I made myself a little shoeshine box and I’d shine shoes along the street for a dime, and if I made a dollar on a Saturday, that was big time. You know, kids today wouldn’t do something like that,” he said. “We have become a more affluent society generally, and then the young people don’t want to do something like that. They don’t want a menial job.”
A sense of understanding between generations
Contrary to the negative discourse between generations that is often presented in media, some members of older generations say that they are more concerned about the struggles young people are facing today rather than being concerned about their behaviors.
“I know a lot of young people that are hard workers,” Steadman said. He has a lot of respect and admiration for young people, specifically his grandchildren. “I think the young people are smarter than we were, and they have more intelligence. I don’t know why but I look at some of my grandchildren and I know they’re a lot smarter than I was.”
Steadman expressed that he does have some concerns for younger people, stemming from technology and the ways people can use it to take advantage of others. He expressed distaste for social media and the specific risk it poses on young minds.
Mary Ann Stock, who was born on the cusp of the Silent and Greatest Generations, shares the same sentiment.
“I feel older generations had it much harder physically, but mentally the younger generation may have it harder,” she said. “I have a lot of concern for my great-grandchildren, they will have so much more to deal with ... drugs, technology.”
Members of Generation X have spoken on the unique challenges that come from parenting millennials and Gen Z. Karen Murray, a member of Gen X, stated that one of the main struggles facing their generation is “navigating raising our children in a world so different — and more brutal — than what we know.”
“Everything is on record for these kids ... to relive mistakes is so hard,” Murray said, referring to the prevalence of smartphones, which can record and share private information in a way that wasn’t possible before. “Gen Z has it tough. There is so much hatred in the world — yet I think as individuals they may be the most accepting.”
Young people also have concerns for their own generation. Valerie Stevens, a member of Generation Z, states that she’s worried about the state of the climate and how that might impact future generations.
“I don’t think we’re going to stop making things in factories any time soon ... but hopefully people start to care more about each other,” she said.
McKinney, a millennial, shares some of the same worries. “I don’t think we were very smart in the past. Humans have set ourselves up for not a very good future. We’re running out of resources that aren’t renewable,” she said. “I don’t know if the economy will crash or if things will get cheaper, but I see things getting even more expensive and I worry about that. What’s it going to look like to own property someday?”
Although the relationship between millennials and Gen Z and older generations can sometimes be tense, younger people don’t discount the hardships that their elders went through.
“I think my parents' generation did have it harder because of how hard their parents were on them,” said Stevens.
McKinney recognizes mental health issues weren’t taken as seriously in the past as they are today.
“My grandparents growing up, they didn’t have a lot of resources for mental health. They just had the attitude like, ‘We’ll just suck it up, don’t talk about it,’” McKinney said. “And nowadays we have so many resources for mental health, and it’s really talked about. People aren’t making you feel basically shunned about it. ... The hardships (between generations) are different, but I would much rather grow up now than then.”
Some may say older adults seem more rigid than younger ones, but McKinney says that could be because priorities just shift with age.
“The older generations are more religious, they’re more conservative but they’re thinking less about more ‘worldly’ things like partying,” she said. “They’re thinking more about philosophical issues.”
Despite the media circuit highlighting the tension between older and younger people, not all older people think teens and young adults are doomed.
“I get upset with people my age that are like, ‘Oh, these kids,’ and I’m like, whatever. The kids will change things that we put up with,” Florez said, stating that she has hope for kids today.