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Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation, or Are Consultants?

The end is nigh. Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The kids are not all right. In a recent Atlantic piece — an excerpt from her forthcoming book — social psychologist Jean M. Twenge explains, in dystopian terms, what’s wrong with the generation currently in high school and college: Smartphones not only define the latest American birth cohort, according to the headline, they have also “destroyed a generation.” Twenge blames our pocket glass for wrecking sleep, socialization, courtship, sex, and young people’s mental health — pretty much everything good about being a teen. While millennials are caricatured in the press as the Shiva Generation — laying waste to everything from mediocre casual-dining restaurants to bars of soap — the post-millennials are themselves pre-wrecked, brittle and shallow like the screens to which they are mere adjuncts.

In a full market, Twenge is poised to become the leading American commentator on contemporary generational differences. Since the late ’90s, she has authored and co-authored many dozens of scholarly papers comparing the attitudes and beliefs of young people from different birth cohorts. Her research hit the mainstream with the 2006 book Generation Me, which gave social-scientific support to millennial-bashing. (The book’s original cover featured the title faux tattooed on a young white woman’s abdomen, between her pierced belly button and low-rise jeans.) In 2010, she followed up with the co-authored The Narcissism Epidemic.
Now, millennials are passé. Her new book is about Americans born in or after 1995, or as the author insists on calling them, “iGen.” The book’s full title is iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

I read The Atlantic excerpt before iGen, and I expected the book to be more nuanced than the magazine piece, which, as a promotional tool, benefits from having an uncomplicated yet controversial central idea, like “iPhones ruined children.” It isn’t. She really does blame iPhones. Screen time, Twenge writes, “is the worm at the core of the apple” of iGen unhappiness, but she doesn’t make a very strong case.

Looking for a central cause, Twenge posits a two-part test: it has to be negatively correlated with mental health, and it has to have changed in the same time and direction as happiness. But that still only describes a correlation between two variables; screen time and iGen unhappiness could both be caused by the movement of a third, unacknowledged variable. Because Twenge is looking for answers in a set of longitudinal surveys about teen behavior and attitudes, at best she can only find a proximate cause. Would it be more or less enlightening to say that the rise in the combined market cap of the four so-called GAFA firms (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) makes iGen unhappy? It would be no less true than saying “screen time.”

Twenge is not very interested in possible financial reasons for general change. In her scholarly work, she has suggested that market cycles fluctuate rather than follow a consistent trend, and that makes economics a poor explanatory variable. In iGen, she writes off the importance of the 2007–09 recession because “[u]nemployment, one of the best indicators of how the economy is affecting real people, peaked in 2010 and then declined.” Aside from the unemployment rate being a notoriously unreliable indicator of how the economy is affecting real people, that is a profoundly incurious sentence. There have been major changes to the nature of work and employment over the past few decades, and for Twenge to more or less ignore all of it because unemployment is back under 5 percent seems like more than an error. It hints at something deeper about why the book exists.

The 313-page book is broken into (by my count) 99 bite-size sections, and features 123 half-page charts, the “vast majority” (author’s words) of which come from four national surveys on youth attitudes and behaviors. That structure makes for a breezy read, but there’s only so much substance anyone can fit in so few pages. Evidence and ideas are presented without interrogation or critique. Twenge conducted 23 interviews (of up to two hours) with young people, and their quotes — along with some internet-sourced anecdotes — provide minor qualitative support. Mixed together and squirted into three-page section molds, it all feels pat and formulaic, more like a detailed corporate research dossier than an earnest work of inquiry.

Sometimes, though, the research is just sloppy. “The Internet — and society in general — promotes a relentless positivity these days,” Twenge writes in one section. “Social media posts highlight the happy moments but rarely the sad ones.” Only five pages later, Twenge introduces the reader to a teen named Laura and her Tumblr page, “a depressed person life [sic].” “Her pain is starkly evident in her posts,” Twenge writes, “which include ‘That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning afraid that you’re going to live.’” Twenge likes the post so much, she uses it as a section title, and it is a good line — which is probably why Laura reblogged it from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s iconic Gen-X memoir Prozac Nation.

If the deleterious impact of smartphones is the premise of iGen, then Twenge has two main conclusions: “Overall, iGen is good news for managers” and “iGen’ers are scared, maybe even terrified.” Instead of investigating the possible links between these two findings, Twenge offers the managers suggestions for luring iGeners, like referring to the office’s “safe environment.” But at the end of the day, corporations have no interest in making their workers feel safer when fear makes them “less likely to expect more pay for less work.” (Twenge could have phrased it in the opposite direction, as “more likely to expect less pay for more work,” which would have clarified the stakes for employers.) This connection between an increase in the rate of exploitation and an increase in fear within the cohort would be by far the strongest argument in iGen, if Twenge had bothered to make it. Why didn’t she?

The term “millennial” was invented by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who’d been stars of the generational-consultant industry since their 1991 book Generations. Coining “millennials” made Strauss and Howe name brands — even though critics found their book Millennials Rising decidedly lightweight — and in a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Eric Hoover put Howe’s speaking rate between $5,000 and $14,000 a pop plus expenses, with too many offers to take them all. The two authors also formed a consultancy called LifeCourse Associates, which lists clients “from Disney to the U.S. Marine Corps.” Compared to all that, book money is chump change.

Twenge is featured in the 2009 Chronicle article, too, as a second-tier speaker ($1,000 to $5,000), but with a more skeptical and data-based view than the optimistic Strauss and Howe. With iGen — her own coinage — Twenge looks to be the next marquee name as the millennial boys fade from prominence. That helps explain why there’s more in the book about how textbook manufacturers can engage students (“interactive activities” and “lower their reading level”) than why most iGeners oppose the capitalist system that has gone largely uncontested by Americans for 50 years. It helps explain why she poses questions like “How can managers get the most out of the newest generation in the workforce?” or says things like “Car manufacturers should take heart” and “this is good news for advertisers and marketers.”

When David Brooks (of all people) reviewed Millennials Rising, he wrote that, “This is not a good book, if by good you mean the kind of book in which the authors have rigorously sifted the evidence and carefully supported their assertions with data. But it is a very good bad book. It’s stuffed with interesting nuggets.” Twenge seems to have followed that description like a map; iGen is a nugget cluster with the rigor of a sales brochure. I have little doubt it will take her all the way to the bank.

Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation, or Are Consultants?