Saving Gen Z, the Lonely Generation

Thoughts on my WSJ Weekend Interview with Jean Twenge

Perhaps no one knows more about Generation Z – born between 1995 and 2012 – than academic psychologist Jean Twenge.  In March, I spent three hours with her in her backyard in San Diego, discussing this uniquely fearful generation.  I’ve reproduced my Weekend Interview, which appeared in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, below.

As you’ll see below, Professor Twenge has found that this generation is more physically safe and far more pessimistic than previous generations—more leery of romantic entanglement, less likely to hang out with friends, date, and have sex than previous generations. A few things struck me, which I couldn’t include in the Weekend Interview because they were my opinions, not Professor Twenge’s.

First, it’s hard not to notice that this pessimistic generation, America’s least religious, believes in the highest numbers both that Climate Change is causing an impending crisis for humanity and that systemic racial injustice has poisoned the well waters of America.  Is it any surprise that a generation raised on the secular analogs to Apocalypse and Original Sin, but no offsetting promises of grace or salvation, would incline toward gloom?

Second, Professor Twenge believes that this generation is, as she wrote in her wonderful and important work, iGen, “growing up more slowly.” There is no doubt that this generation is attaining the markers of adulthood later—learning to drive, dating and having sex, obtaining a job, starting a family.

But I am agnostic about whether what we are witnessing is a generation simply hitting these milestones later, or something more permanent.  To put the problem in economic terms, are we seeing recession or secular decline? Is the drop in rates of sex merely a “sex recession,” as the Atlantic’s Kate Julian has called it, or is it closer to our use of Kodak film—on the way out, with no hope of rebound?  It’s at least possible the latter is closer to what we’re seeing.

The single most worrisome aspect of this generation to me is its atomism, its inclination to regard other people not as potential partners or romantic interests, but part of a general messiness they’d do best to avoid. (In my interview, Professor Twenge refers to this as young adults’ reluctancy to embark on romantic relationships for fear of “catching feelings.”)

It’s worth examining this for another moment, not in order to harp on the bad, but in the interest of understanding the scope of the problem, so that we might begin to confront it. From so many angles—their fear of being embarrassed by others’ online, their fear of missing out, their disinclination to join a religious community, to date, to have sex, to get married—we are seeing signs of teens and young adults so atomized, so lonely, that they are in danger of losing out on the best part of the human experience.

As the great American poet, Edgar Lee Masters once wrote, in “George Gray,” in 1916 — as another “Lost Generation” came of age:

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me--
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire--
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

We, the Gen X parents of Gen Z, can help our children avoid a life of “restlessness and vague desire,” by quitting our habit of buffering them from every pain. Anguish is unavoidable. Anyone with a conscience is doomed to spend some dark nights writhing in regret.

And yet, the people we love and hurt and are hurt by—they save us.

The thought that this generation would spend years alone, in a room with a phone, social media as their (false and manipulative) view of the outside, Universal Basic Income guaranteeing an endless supply of delivered “stuff,” leaching out what remains of their purpose—that’s really too sad to contemplate. We can’t let it happen. As a PR firm might put it:  Less streaming and more dreaming!

Enough with the doom—they’re engorged with it. What these kids badly need, what they deserve, are friendship, love, hope.

Thanks, as always, for your amazing support; I hope you enjoy my conversation with Professor Jean Twenge.


To Be Young and Pessimistic in America

Generation Z is lonelier than millennials and more reluctant to embrace the responsibilities and joys
of adulthood. Life online seems to be a reason.

By Abigail Shrier

May 14, 2021 3:11 pm ET

San Diego

Moral panic about the young is at least as old as the trial of Socrates, so let’s resist catastrophic thinking about Generation Z and begin with good news: The generation born between 1995 and 2012 is far more risk-averse and more physically safe than its elders. It is more tolerant of other races and sexual orientations. Most surprising, in the early months of the pandemic lockdowns that often took a toll in mental health, this generation managed to show an improvement.

In a survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders conducted in May through July 2020 by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution, only 17% reported feeling depressed while school was in session and 20% while it was out for the summer, compared with 27% in a similar survey during the school year in 2018. Loneliness declined to 22% with school in session and 27% in the summer from 29% in 2018. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life rose, but not as sharply.

Why? “Two reasons,” says the study’s lead author, Jean Twenge —an academic psychologist who specializes in “iGen,” a term she coined for the first generation to grow up amid ubiquitous iPhones. First, without commuting and with few extracurricular activities, they slept more: “Sleep is crucial for mental health.” Second, spending more time with their families was good for them. Forced to stay home, quarantined around the dining-room table with parents and siblings, their time online held steady, and the added in-person time conferred significant mental-health benefits.

Yet this improvement proceeds from a low base; Generation Z exhibits higher rates of suicide and depression since studies began in 1950 and far higher rates of general pessimism than any generation dating to 1960. According to Ms. Twenge’s research, between 2005 and 2017 rates of major depression increased 52% in adolescents (12 to 17), and 63% in young adults (18 to 25).

The sharpest increases in suicide rates and major depression were for teen girls: in 2015, three times as many 10- to 14-year-old girls were admitted to the emergency room for self-harm as in 2010. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate for girls 15 to 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, although it’s still far higher for boys. By 2017, 1 out of 5 teenage girls had experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year, according to Ms. Twenge’s analysis of the National Study of Drug Use and Health.

More likely than previous generations “to see the world as an unfair place,” Gen Z represents a significant departure from millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) whom Ms. Twenge describes as “very optimistic” and “self-confident.” Whereas millennials “have high expectations,” Generation Z is “just a much more pessimistic generation. And that was true before the pandemic.”

What are they pessimistic about? “Everything,” she says. “At their own prospects, prospects of the world. And you have to ask, what causes what? Is it because the world is so bad, that’s why they’re depressed? Or do they see the world as bad because they’re depressed?”

For nearly three hours one Thursday in March, Ms. Twenge, 49, and I perched on damp plastic chairs in her lush backyard near San Diego State University, where she is a psychology professor. Cautious about the coronavirus, she agreed to remove her mask for the sake of my recording on the condition that we sit 10 feet apart and I remain masked. Drawing on her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (2017), she describes a generation in pain and peril and says the troubling trends are consistent across racial and class lines.

One reason for the dramatic drop in hopefulness between millennials and Generation Z may be the different generations that reared them: “Boomer parents brought up millennials telling them, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, you’re special,’ and they believed it. And so, that had some benefits.”

Generation Z received “you’re special” messages from their Generation X parents, too. Indeed, more than any prior generation of American parents, Generation X set out deliberately to raise happy kids. But there was also “a shift in parenting from encouragement to fear.” As parents’ anxiety about the world rose, they seem to have passed the feeling down.

Ms. Twenge says what drove the parents’ anxiety is a bit of a mystery. For most of the past 25 years, violent crime rates fell and kids lived physically safer lives than ever. But fearfulness increased. She says the best explanation is economic: “I think there’s an interaction between income inequality and parents’ anxieties that get passed on to their children as well. So there’s the idea of you either make it or you don’t, so you better make it.” Other generations have struggled to make sense of a world turned upside-down: the world wars, the Great Depression and, in the case of millennials, a meltdown of the financial system. None manifested Gen Z’s levels of pessimism.

Ms. Twenge is also convinced, and several studies confirm, that time online, especially on social media, and the closely related decline of in-person socializing account for today’s teens’ high rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm. She has called Generation Z “the loneliest generation on record.”

Online social life may not bring the physical perils of drunk driving or date rape, but it seems to do real psychological harm to young people. “They’re in this world where you have to be on social media, yet being on social media can be really negative,” Ms. Twenge says. In an instant, they can be permanently banned or humiliated or exposed in front of thousands, even millions, of strangers. “I think this idea that everything can potentially be public has had an enormous effect,” she says. Young people “are very, very cautious. I think it’s also one of the reasons why they’re more mentally vulnerable—it’s because they feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time.”

She urges me to imagine life as a teenager today: “Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who can’t remember a time before the smartphone, can’t remember a time before social media. Can’t remember a time when it was perfectly normal for 16- or 17-year-old kids to go drive around by themselves and hang out and have fun. It makes sense that they might not be particularly happy.”

Members of Generation Z are far less likely to date, obtain a driver’s license, hold down a job or hang out with friends in person than millennials were at the same age. High-school seniors in 2015 “were going out less often than eighth graders did as recently as 2009,” Ms. Twenge has written; and 2016’s seniors spent an hour a day less on in-person social interaction than those of the 1980s.

Ms. Twenge interprets this, along with Generation Z’s lower rates of sexual experimentation and alcohol use, as a reluctance to embrace adult privileges and responsibilities. That includes love. Long warned by parents and teachers about the risks of sexual assault and disease, they are also leery of any distraction that might throw them off a professional course—and even of “catching feelings,” their term for becoming emotionally entangled. “Obviously, some of them are going to get married,” Ms. Twenge says. “But the emphasis placed on getting married and having children has definitely decreased.”

And while teens’ avoidance of sex and booze may comfort their parents, their prolonged immaturity reflects a disbelief in their own power to improve their circumstances. Today’s young people are more likely to attribute hardship to bad luck or other factors beyond their control.

People who feel powerless might be more inclined to support social and political upheaval, and today’s youths are more politically radical than past generations, including baby boomers. In 1970, according to the American Freshman study, 2.9% of entering college students identified as far left; in 2019, 5.5% did—an all-time high. Ms. Twenge adds that “the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum have increased. So you get more polarization.” The share of college freshmen identifying as far-right in 1970 was 0.8%. It peaked in 2004, when millennials were matriculating, at 2.2%, and has since fallen to 1.6%.

Ms. Twenge has examined this generation’s mental health from many angles. Not all screen time is equally bad: it varies based on a few factors, including whether communication is in real time (better) and permanently recorded (worse).

Video-chat apps like Zoom and even videogames don’t have the positive impact of in-person activities, but they aren’t terrible. Social media and general internet use are the worst forms of screen time, especially for teen girls. The former encourages a punishing social competition with peers. The latter leads young people down rabbit holes, including virtual places that celebrate anorexia and other modes of self-harm.

“Because of the way girls’ social relationships work,” Ms Twenge says, “they need that one-on-one time with each other, or at least in smaller groups, because that’s what builds trust. It’s what builds emotional connection. And when that gets transferred onto social media, it becomes a competition instead. . . . Popularity, which is always fraught among teen girls, is now a number. And that can be very stressful.”

Ms. Twenge advises parents to adopt two ironclad rules: No phones in the bedroom; their ruinous impact on sleep is marked and measurable. And keep kids off social media until at least 13. She’s even stricter with her daughters, the eldest of whom is 14. They aren’t on social media and have no smartphones.

Rule-following and risk-aversion have their rewards, and Ms. Twenge stresses that there are reasons to be optimistic about this generation: “I think there’s a lot of iGeners who are going to end up being very successful, because they have that practical focus and that strong work ethic.” But many may have a hard time adjusting to the workforce: “I think that transition is even more difficult if you haven’t had as much experience with independence—and if you are among what I do think is the minority of iGen, who are eager to see offense everywhere.”

The embrace of minorities has been accompanied by intolerance of diverse viewpoints. The percentage of college students who believe that controversial speakers shouldn’t be brought to campus has risen. “It’s not just a perception,” Ms. Twenge says. “That’s what they say themselves—that they are less comfortable with those situations.”

That’s in part because they have short attention spans. “Complex ideas require sustained attention,” she says. “The idea that you’re going to be patient and sit down to read a book for two hours and do nothing else is kind of mind-blowing to an iGener.” The percentage of high-school students who read books or other long-form content every day has dropped from 60% to 15% since the 1980s.

Are all of these trigger warnings and safe spaces doing this generation a disservice? “I think so,” Ms. Twenge says. “iGen is both perpetuating this fear and lack of open discussion and iGen is also a victim of this same atmosphere.”

But maybe real adversity will help turn things around. “If you make the case that every generation needs some hardship to grow, the pandemic has been that hardship,” Ms. Twenge says. “You could make the case that in the long run Gen Z might actually be better off having gone through the pandemic, because it’s been a huge learning experience for everybody. We’ve probably all learned to be a little bit more resilient. And it’s the same thing for kids, like maybe I can’t see my friend, or maybe my basketball game got cancelled; at least it’s not the whole season getting shut down. And it gives you some perspective—and some appreciation for when things are good.”

(Originally appeared in the May 15, 2021 issue of the Wall Street Journal.)