Hey, Vsauce. Michael here. Skeletons are scary and spooky, but you know what else is? Teenagers. Their attitude, the way they dress and the music they listen to. Can you even call it music? Pff, kids these days.
But what are kids these days? What's with all the concern and what's a generation? Why do we think that coevals, groups of people of roughly the same age, act so much alike?
The sheer number of articles and papers and internet posts published daily comparing then and now, both sincerely and ironically, is astonishing. We can't seem to get enough about kids these days and just how different and awesome it was to be a kid back in the good old days. Generational labels make human history look ordered and discreet, instead of scary and messy. They also have a delightfully suspicious tendency to flatter those using them. George Orwell put it well. "Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it." There's a name for this sentiment. Juvenoia.
Sociologist David Finkelhor coined the term. It means "an exaggerated fear about the things that influence kids these days." Juvenoia is a concerned disappointment that because of iPhones or the Internet or TV or rock music or those pesky horseless carriages the world just isn't fit for kids like it used to be. Generational conflict really has been going on for that long. After all, "honor thy [your] father and thy [your] mother" was an ancient commandant for a reason. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle remarked that youth’s mistakes are due to excess and vehemence, they think they know everything. Here's an engraving from 1627 admonishing the 'now,' compared to the ways of 'old.' In the early 1900's Romain Rolland complained that the new generation of young people were, quote, "passionately in love with pleasure and violent games, easily duped." New people and the direction society is headed in has always been seen with some disapproval. Xkcd famously collected a brief history of juicy examples.
In 1871, the Sunday Magazine published a line that may as well have been written today about texting. "Now we fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper." And the Journal of Education in 1907 lamented that at a modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual has his head buried in his favorite magazine. The point is there's nothing new under the Sun. Not even the Sun, in fact. The Sun is believed to be a third generation star. This constant cycle of generation clashing can sometimes sound like a broken record. Are these commentaries really providing insight into the minds of future leaders or prematurely judging a coeval based on how it acts as teens? Despite the incessant concerns otherwise, the proverbial 'kids these days' seem to be better off than ever before. Drug use is down, exercising is up, math and writing proficiency have increased, crimes committed by young people have decreased, hate comments reported by children have dropped, the number of 9th to 12th graders who have been in fights has dropped, and the number of teens who fear attacks at school has dropped. But still, juvenoia persists. But why?
Well, it kinda makes sense. I mean, children are the future of a species, so it's reasonable to assume that nature would select for features in a species that cause adult members to prefer the way they were raised and distrust anything different. After all, parents, by definition, were a reproductive success for the species. They made new members. So whatever choices and influences brought them to that point must have been good enough. Any deviation from that could be a problem. So worrying about the young may have been naturally selected, just like eyes and fingers and breathing air and pooping. But here's the thing. Our brains don't accurately remember the past or apply memories fairly or rationally. That kind of thinking has a plethora of interesting causes.
First, at a social level, concerns for and about the youth are often exaggerated, because exaggerating is effective. You'll generate greater mobilization around the cause if you can convince people that we're on the cusp of a crisis here, folks. Also, our increasingly connected world means more potential contacts with people outside the family, the tribe, the neighborhood. Even though juvenile problems often involve people the juvenile already knows, stranger danger is a more powerful fear. "My kids have good friends, who are good influences, so why should I worry?" can be replaced today with "even so, people you don't know are threats, so worry."
Other reasons for juvenoia are personal and often it's not so much the world that's changed, it's you. Are drivers today really worse than they were when you were young or do you simply have new responsibilities and experience that makes you more aware of dangers that were always there? We remember the past abstractly. There just isn't enough room in our brains or a vital need for complete voracity when recalling things. Thus, we are more likely to remember the general way we felt in the past, without the petty annoyances, more salient still, for the present.
Secondly, loss aversion and the endowment effect. People perceive a loss as greater than an equal gain. In one famous study, when asked how much they would pay for a coffee mug, people gave prices that were significantly lower than what people given the mug first said they'd be willing to sell it for. This may play a role in how we value what we already have - our memories and favorites - over what's new. There's even neuroscience backing up why new stuff seems so bad to you. It's called the reminiscence bump. Storage of autobiographical memories, memories about yourself, increases during times of change. Incidentally, this is why you remember exciting things as lasting longer than they really did, but rarely remember times of boredom in detail. I've discussed before the ways in which this causes us to feel like time slowed down during particularly quick but significant events.
Anyway, adolescence and early adulthood, particularly ages 10 to 30, are major times of change. Many important things happened during those years that define your identity. So, it's no surprise that along with things that have happened recently, memories from this bump period are greater in number and more emotional. The books and songs and movies and slang words and behaviour you loved and used during this time correlates quite well with what you will, when you're older, remember the most fondly.
As we can see, juvenoia is natural. In fact, a healthy dose of it is important. There are plenty of things we should be fired up about improving. What's sometimes lost though, when explaining that juvenoia occurs in every generation is the fact that the nature of juvenoia hasn't always been the same. The generation gap of antiquity, or of the 1300's, wasn't the same as it is today. The more rapid speed of change may be one reason, but another is the appearance of a new type of creature around the turn of the last century - the teenager. The word teenager wasn't even used as a stage of life until 1922. John Savage's 'Teenage' is a fantastic read on how human society sort of accidentally invented the teenager.
You see, as factories generated new unskilled jobs, young people could acquire something neat - their own money. Suddenly, marketers realized that products could be made for the youth. They were no longer stuck with what their parents decided on. Also, the surge in immigration at the time highlighted for a new generation the view that identity wasn't something you're stuck with. It's fluid, personal, decided.
Furthermore, calls for compulsory education around that time, that is, making it the law that children go to school, further solidified the segmented identity of children by forcing them out of the world at large and into common places surrounded mainly by their coevals. In that environment they could develop behaviors and opinions and culture shared just with themselves. Compulsory schooling also increased literacy in adolescence, which gave them all the more power to hear stories written for them and about them in books they could buy with their own money. Kids these days suddenly weren't just young humans waiting for life experience, they were separate beings with their own culture and voice. A fact that caused juvenoia to change from the edible skirmishes of the past into the full- fledged panics we know and love today. This brings us to a bigger question, though.
Sure, you may say, that makes sense, but even someone who didn't grow up in this society could plainly see that in the old days culture wasn't as dumbed down as it is today. Things used to be made by the elites, for the elites. Now they're made for the masses who demand sensational atavistic pablum instead of rational critical thought, like scholars, and, well, you know, me. Those examples sure are convincing but the plural of anecdote isn't data. You can pick different examples and argue the opposite point. Mozart wrote poems about farts. There is amazing work and there is simple work made at all times in history. In fact, as
Steven Johnson points out in "Everything Bad is Good for You," if anything, when given the chance to buy or participate as they choose, the tendency we find in humans is a preference for more cognitive demands, for smarter entertainment. What it takes to keep up with the increasing density and intricacies of narratives in media these days is impressive. To be fair, of course, beneath the stimulating organization there is no substance anymore, right? I mean, here's what one noted critic said of today's easy brainless mass culture. "We do not turn over the pages in search of thought, delicate psychological observation, grace of style, charm of composition, but we enjoy them like children at play laughing and crying at the images before us." Wait, sorry, that's something literary critic G. H. Lewes wrote about Dickens in 1872.
The point is, taste is subjective. Art to 1 percent is garbage to another. You may dislike the language or violence or morals depicted on TV today, but there's no denying the fact that entertainment, including popular entertainment, is requiring more and more thinking on the viewers' part than ever before. Johnson created this visual comparing narrative threads in episodes of different TV shows over time, and this shouldn't be surprising. Our brains crave stimulation. A lump that sits and stares into space isn't naturally selected form in the same way as a brain that learns and synthesizes and organizes. Now that entertainment can be made for niche audiences and watched and re-watched on demand and discussed ad nauseam online that natural desire can be sated by media. Johnson goes so far as to say that reruns have made us smarter. They've enabled entertainment to be made that rewards being watched and thought about over and over again. The names and stories and relationships and dramas people today have to keep straight in their heads to be functioning consumers of modern media are impressive by historical standards and affect more of us than ever before. Johnson points out that in his time Dickens was only read by 0.25% of his country's population, while today innovative shows like 'The West Wing' or 'The Simpsons' easily reach twenty times that proportion. Okay, but how about this?
Where are the Mozart's and Dostoyevsky's of today? Well, they're probably here, but the reputation of Dostoyevsky is built by time, something the judgments of contemporary artists haven't had enough of yet. Finally, when it comes to judging works that merely tease the base emotions let's not forget the quote from Unamuno I've discussed before. "More often have I seen a cat reason than laugh or weep." Cats and humans are curious and can problem solve, but only humans can laugh at fart videos. So, what really ought we be treasuring? There's a problem here, though.
Although writers like Johnson have been able to put forth convincing arguments that movies and TV have been serving more and more cognitive complexity, they've failed to find the same evidence for pop music. Nearly all studies on the subject have found that, unlike other forms of popular media, pop music has, in fact, become, since the 1950's, less complex in its structure and more homogeneous. Mathematically speaking, more pop songs today sound alike than they used to. What's up with that, music? Well, here's the thing. Pop music is just one type of music being made today and it's role, what its its listeners want from it and who they are are much more specific than the wider spectrum of genres a movie theater or Netflix caters. A pop song needs to provoke quick mood, stick into your head and fit anticipation and pay off into a fairly regular amount of time. There are only so many ways to do that.
So, perhaps, pop music producers have simply gotten better at scratching the specific itch they're challenged to scratch. I mean, imagine criticizing doctors for using penicillin nowadays. Uh, back in the good old days treatment was innovative. There were leeches and onion plasters, amputation and good luck charms. Now it's all just penicillin, penicillin, penicillin. It's all the same. Criticizing popular music for all sounding the same ignores the sameness of every pop song's goal. But what about generations? What are they exactly?
I mean, humans don't have babies all at once every twenty years or so. New people just keep showing up, about four more every second. But that said, there are biological changes humans go through as they grow and age, roughly creating a few life stages. Alright? Now, this list of generations goes all the way back to the mid 1400's. It applies mainly to the western world, especially the US, and is the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose landmark 1991 book "Generations," contains one of the most influential and ambitious generation theories of our time. These are the guys who coined term 'millennial,' by the way. They set forth and have continued to expand a theory that society follows a predictable cycle of moves, each lasting about 20 years - about how long it takes for everyone in a life stage to move on to the next. The social mood and the common life stage a coeval experiences it during are what distinguishes one generation from the next. Strauss and Howe call each social mood a turning. A turning describes the way society will act, by either establishing, accepting, challenging or fracturing in lieu of established customs. To illustrate the cycle, let's start just after the American Civil War, in the so-called Gilded Age.
Here we find American society in the first turning, what they call a "high." This is a twenty-year period when society is largely in agreement about the direction it wants to go in, because it recently coalesced in the face of a crisis. Institutions are strong and thus young adults are cautious and conformist. But then people tire of social discipline and call for reform, a period of awakening occurs. The majority consensus is attacked in the name of greater and broader individual autonomy. The distrust in institutions left in the wake of an awakening leads to the next turning, an unraveling, where in place of broad cultural identity, moral crusades polarize society over what should come next.
Finally, a renewed interest in consensus that responds to crisis by banding together occurs. Society's mood shifts to a belief that coalescing and building together are the answer. The cycle then starts again with a high - the majority agrees on society's directions and institutions strengthened during the crisis until people tire of this majority structure and an awakening leaves those institutions week and armed with less public consensus. This is followed by an unraveling, where individuals polarize over moral issues and the youth, raised in the previous two atomizing moods, feel alienated. Which brings us to, well, today. Strauss- Haus theory, if true, tells us that this will be an era where society will band together and build institutions from the ground up in the face of crisis. It's not clear what that crisis will be, but if their theory has predictive power, the climax of that crisis will occur in 2025.
The whole theory is a great way to learn about you as history. Al Gore once even gave a copy of Generations to every member of Congress. But it is unscientific and unfalsifiable. You can find a pattern in anything if you pick and choose the right examples. As for the usefulness of its generalizations, well, Philip Bump points out that the US Census Bureau only recognizes one official distinguishable generation. Baby boomers. Do you think you are a Generation X, a millennial, Generation Z? Well, that's fine, he says, you call yourself whatever you want. It's all made up. The baby boomers are a cohort, significant in that no matter where they were born or who they are, their size alone determines a lot about their path. But other population segments, based solely on birth year, just don't mean much.
A more useful way to divide them into cohorts might focus on some other less age-related trade that correlates better with behavior. Wealth, region, sexuality, etc. Regardless of its accuracy there's one thing generational theory and its critics do at least agree on. People change as they age and the larger society surrounding people influences the degree to which generations feel conflict. So, generational thinking is a kind of guidance. It's one that helps take us on a journey, manned by an ever changing and changing crew. Some crews are different than others, for sure, and you need worry and concern to stay safe. But at the end of the day, it's still the same boat and the same waters. Generations and juvenoia are like what Picasso said about art - they are lies that tell the truth. And as always, thanks for watching.
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