Millennials and zoomers, myths and truths 

Are millennials really narcissists and do Gen Z really have it in for free speech? We look at some of the findings from Dr Jean Twenge’s new book, Generations

There are good arguments for why marketers should rarely if ever target customers by generation, but they’re not getting through. The idea of distinct generations with unique traits just holds too much fascination for an industry with an inveterate lust for youth and change.

So, if marketers and agencies are unwilling to kick their habit, the next best thing is for them to indulge it responsibly, with reliable and correctly interpreted data.

Which is where Dr Jean Twenge’s new book, Generations, comes in. Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University and in her book uses large and nationally representative datasets (mostly from the US) that go back to the 1940s to draw conclusions about how different generations think and behave.

Twenge differs from other researchers in the field in her belief that technology, rather than major societal events, is most often at the root of generational differences. Sometimes it’s as simple as a new technology – and Twenge uses the term broadly – arrives and changes how people behave. But more often, says Twenge, new technologies create generational differences indirectly, by encouraging individualism and slower life trajectories among populations.

With the exception of a couple of minor quibbles – that Gen Z are called zoomers because they used Zoom to communicate during the pandemic, and that ‘OK, boomer’ was a primarily a millennial phrase – Twenge’s findings are careful, rational and compelling, even to someone inclined to be sceptical of her assertion that, ‘when you were born has a larger effect on your personality and attitudes than the family who raised you does’.

If you’re looking for information about how generations differ – and are careful about extrapolating the data to populations outside the US – Twenge’s book is as good a source as you are likely to find. Her findings are probably not as gratifying as the easy answers peddled in the junk surveys and reports that marketers often consult for their fix of generational insight, but they are far more rigorous.

Below are a few hand-picked findings from Generations about millennials and generation Z. They don’t really do justice to the weight of evidence that Twenge collects to support them, and there’s probably nothing that you can put straight into a deck, like, ‘Gen Z will pay more for socially conscious brands’, but that might be a good thing. Consider them segmenting Subutex.

Millennials (born 1980–1994) 

Generation Me: Generation X was the first cohort showered with praise and participation trophies but millennials were deluged with them, and it showed. Surveys in the mid 2000s reported that millennials had higher self esteem than Gen X in the late 1980s, and tended to believe that their ability and determination to succeed was above average, even if test results did not validate their perceptions. But after the financial crash, things changed (showing that sometimes big societal events are important). The Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores of US college students plummeted post-2008, for instance, indicating a gulf between the self confidence of early and late millennials. A lack of data prevents Twenge from speculating whether early millennials have carried their narcissistic tendencies into adulthood, however.

Screwed by the economy?: According to Twenge, by 2019 households headed by millennials made more money than the silent generation, boomers or Gen X did at the same age. In 2020 the median individual income of 25- to-34-year-olds was higher, too, and fewer millennials were in poverty than were generation X-ers and boomers at the same age. Millennials weren’t lagging far behind in terms of overall wealth or home ownership, either. But if millennials don’t feel rich it might be because the rise in incomes was entirely down to gains among women – men’s income has fallen since the 1970s – which means couples take a bigger hit if one of them drops out of work to raise children.

Growing up slowly: Millennials took and are taking longer before they cohabit with or marry a partner. They’re also taking longer to have children, and when they do they tend to have fewer of them. But this is unlikely to be about financial insecurity because richer families are having the fewest kids of all; millennials just have different priorities, writes Twenge.

Happy or depressed?: In the early 2010s, millennials were happier than Generation X teens were in the early 1990s, but the good times did not last. In the mid 2010s, depression rates among millennials soared even as rates for older generations were static. Compared with Generation X-ers at the same age in 1999, 25- to 34-year-olds in 2019 were far more likely to die deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdoses and liver disease). According to Twenge, the only explanation for this trend that doesn’t fall apart under scrutiny is the rise of social media. (It’s worth pointing out that Twenge does not depict social media as an unalloyed evil, rather as something that can be used without issue by a majority of people but still cause problems for a minority.)

Gen Z (born 1995–2012) 

Gender fluid: Gen Z adults are much more likely to identify as either transgender or nonbinary than older cohorts. Approximately one out of 18 young adults identified as something other than cisgender in 2021 and 2022, and the figures may be higher for Gen Z teens. Again, Twenge makes the case for why this is a generational shift taking place nationwide across the US, and not a result of increased societal acceptance, or a reluctance from older people to come out as gender nonconforming.

Similarly, LGB figures are increasing among Gen Z, too, with 16.1% of young adults identifying as something other than straight in 2021. Twenge notes that this is driven ‘almost exclusively’ by increases in bisexuality, particularly among women.

Twenge does not ascribe a definitive cause to the uptick in bisexuality, but she does reference a theory called ‘erotic plasticity’, which is that, ‘women’s sexual behaviour differs more depending on the culture and the situation than men’s does.’

Growing up even slower: As 17 and 18 year-olds, Gen Z are less likely to drink, date, work and have sex than previous generations of teens. ‘In many ways 18 year-olds now look like 14 year-olds in previous generations,’ writes Twenge.

Cancel culture enthusiasts? In the 1980s, approximately 25% of generation X students entering college thought that extreme speakers should be banned, but when the same question was asked of Gen Z students in 2019 the figure was around 51%

There’s a lot of nuance to this trend around different types of speech, but the broad picture that Twenge paints is that defence of free speech has over time switched from a liberal cause to a conservative one, and that the decline in support for free speech is greater among college-educated Gen Z-ers and millennials, when the reverse was true for boomers and generation X when they were the same age.

Twenge concludes that, based on survey results, generation Z and young millennials are both ‘more likely to think that other people should be fired for their political beliefs, and more concerned that they themselves will be fired for their political beliefs.’

Safety first: From around 2010, 13- to 16-year-olds became less likely to say they liked doing dangerous things or taking risks, and these attitudes bear out in their behaviours, with fewer numbers of Gen Z getting drunk or into fights and car accidents than the teens of previous generations.

Mental health: ‘Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012,’ writes Twenge, who identifies 2012 as the inflection point, when smartphone penetration breached 50% and three out of four teens began using social media everyday.

In early 2020 (before the pandemic hit), Twenge notes, 13- to 16-year-olds were going out with friends approximately one day per week less often than generation X-ers did at the same age.

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