“Kids These Days”: Why Older People Think Younger Generations Just Don’t Measure Up

The more an older person likes reading, the more likely they are to think today's children share their passion less than their own generation at the same age. Viacheslav Nikolaenko/Shutterstock.com

The idea that the youth of today are a poor shadow of generations past has been popular for thousands of years. The last Australopithecines probably thought so as their children and grandchildren became increasingly human. An exploration of what leads people to look down on the youth of the day has found the more strongly a middle-aged person has a trait or talent, the more they see it vanishing.

Dr John Protzko and Professor Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara polled Americans aged 33-51 on how they see today's children, as well as testing their own beliefs and abilities.

To no one's surprise, Protzo and Schooler's found people with authoritarian views consider children today to be less respectful of their elders than their own generation was, although support for the claim is fairly widespread even among those only respectful of those in power.

In Science Advances, the pair sums up this attitude by quoting Reverend Thomas Barnes: “Youth were never more sawcie… the ancient are scorned, the honorable are contemned, the magistrate is not dreaded.” As the language suggests, the complaint was from 1624. Admittedly, the fact the generation being disparaging subsequently staged England's first revolution and executed Charles I suggests Barnes may have been more accurate when he said this than most who have expressed such views.

However, Protzko and Schooler also found some more unexpected correlations. They also asked people to compare the intelligence of today's youth against their own generation. On average people considered today's children of similar intelligence to their own generation at the same age, but there the variation within the sample correlated with intelligence, not authoritarianism. Highly intelligent people, who might be expected to be aware of the Flynn effect, which reveals each generation to have a higher IQ than the last (though it's, of course, not as simple as that), were the most inclined to believe the opposite.

Finally, people who most enjoy reading are least likely to think today's children share the same pleasure.

Protzko and Schooler conducted two further studies in hopes of explaining the reading observations, and by implication those on the other two characteristics. They concluded their findings were not a product of people having, as children, associated with others like themselves and comparing this biased sample with today's young people.

Instead, the authors attribute these patterns to the fact “People who objectively excel in a dimension are more likely to notice others’ failings on that dimension.” Moreover, it appears people attribute their own tendencies, be their respect for authority, intelligence, or love of reading, to their peers, and conclude the younger generation does not measure up. “Apparently,” the paper concludes, “When observing current children, we compare our biased memory of the past to a more objective assessment of the present, and a natural decline seems to appear.”

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