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Kids These Days: Why the Youth of Today Seem Lacking
Kids these days, am I right? They are “disrespectful, overly opinionated, incurious, and think they know everything. These selfish young adults insist they are entitled to a good job, all the money they want and the gratification of their every wish.”
Professors “likened student rebels to Nazis… called them the ‘New Fascisti… compared them not only to Hitler but to Lenin and Stalin… described the students as a uniquely indulged generation… perhaps the most worrisome thing about them was not what they were doing, which was bad enough, but what they seemed incapable of doing: that is, submitting to the long, arduous course of preparation required for membership in the middle-class professions.”
Neither of these complaints, however, are referring to kids these days. The first description was written in 1990 about Generation X. The latter describes how Baby Boomers were viewed in the 1960s and 70s.
Going back throughout history, similar complaints have been lodged against the youth of the day since at least the 4th century BCE: they are lazy, they are disrespectful, they cannot possibly compare to those who came before them. But are we actually good judges at making such comparisons? Are they accurate?
It can certainly seem so. The reason these declines are apparent to many, however, is partly a memory bias.
In short, people who are high on a trait falsely “remember” children “in their day” being high on that trait. When we look at the youth of the present, they appear specifically deficient on that trait, because we are comparing them to an artificially elevated past.
In a series of pre-registered studies, we asked American adults to what extent they believe children of today are deficient compared to the way children were when they were kids. This was done for respect for authority, intelligence, and enjoying reading.
We also administered measures of those attributes, respect for authority, intelligence, and how well-read people are, to the participants, who were 3,500 American adults drawn to match the American adult population on a number of key demographic variables.
The first thing we found was the higher someone is on a given trait, the more they think children are becoming deficient on that specific trait but not on other traits. Meaning, the more authoritarian someone is, the more they believe children today do not respect their elders the way they used to. The more intelligent someone is the more they think children are becoming less intelligent (despite evidence to the contrary). The more well-read someone is the more they think children today no longer enjoy reading.
Figure 1: People who are higher in a trait tend to “see” youth of today as more deficient on precisely that trait, but not on other traits. Taken from Protzko & Schooler, 2019. People who respect authority “see” the youth as not respecting their elders anymore. People who are well-read “see” the youth as no longer enjoying reading. People who are more intelligent “see” the youth as becoming less intelligent.
Numerous reasons for this can occur, but the explanation under investigation was based on the memory bias known as presentism. In short, memory is not a video but is more of a reconstruction, a reconstruction colored by what you are currently like. So hungry people remember eating fewer meals, people induced to think brushing teeth too often is bad remember brushing their teeth less, and so on.
Indeed, in a fourth study, we pre-registered a mediation model where the higher someone is now on a given trait, the more they believe children were high in that trait in the past. This partially explains why we think children today are deficient, when we are high in a given trait, we falsely ‘remember’ children in the past were also high on those traits we just so happen to be high on.
Finally, to test causality, we pre-registered a false feedback study, where people took a literacy test and were told they either scored towards the top upper percent of the American population for how well-read they were or towards the bottom. Consistent with presentism, people made to feel they were not as well-read as they thought ended up softening their views against children, mediated by their ‘memories’ for what children in the past were like.
So why do we constantly see the youth as in decline? One of the reasons is that we cannot accurately remember what children were like when we were kids, we impose our current selves on our memories for children of the past. Then, when comparing present children, they appear deficient because we are comparing them to an elevated past.
Why does this matter?
There are numerous ways children today are actually superior to children of previous generations, from intelligence to their ability to delay gratification to their ability to use technology. So if a lot of our beliefs about them being in decline are partially artifactual, this amounts to a form of bias and discrimination based on age.
Professors, more than most segments of the population, may also be at increased risk to be affected with this form of discrimination.
Professors, almost uniformly, have attained the highest academic degree possible (Ph. D.). Of the entire U.S. population, they are not a high school dropout, or a college dropout. They did not fail out of school and never return. And as anyone who has a Ph. D. knows, they are not unintelligent, exceptionally lazy, nor lacking any sort of motivation. That makes Ph. D. holders not a ‘normal’ part of the population.
Compared to all children who attend high school, a Ph.D. holder is in the top 1%. If you think of all the children who attend middle school onwards, the flow of their education output would look something like the Figure below.
Figure 2: Flow of students born in 1965 (used as an example) as they moved into High School (first blue vertical line), graduating, attending college, graduating college, moving to an advanced degree, of which one is a Ph. D. (< 1% of the population). First column is a breakdown of each group of students by their eventual educational attainment, as they go into High School. Height of bars are percent of the U.S. population attaining that level of education based on data from the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics (here, here).
So Ph.D. holders entered High School, graduated, entered College, graduated, entered Grad school of some sort, and completed a Ph.D. They often hail from academic or professional families. As faculty members, they are surrounded by other college professors, other hard-working, intelligent, and relatively driven people. They are part of the upper echelon of individuals in terms of education and academic achievement.
Yet most students who enter college and university are not particularly interested in being scholars. Undergrads overwhelmingly describe getting more money and securing a good job as their primary motivations for attending college. Most students who obtain a Bachelors degree do not continue beyond that point. Only about a third of grads go on to get an advanced degree. Even most who complete graduate or professional degrees (especially MA, JD, MDs) leave the academy thereafter, rather than pursuing a career as a scholar.
This is why professors are more likely to ‘see’ the youth of their day in decline. They are comparing the whole bunch of students to a biased memory of what they were like, not what all college students ‘in their day’ were like.
This has implications for how Professors treat students of different ability levels, and interests. A professor was not the average student in class, but instead one of the more able, capable, and driven. If a whole class was filled up with students who would eventually get their Ph. D., how likely would we think them in decline?
This doesn’t mean there are no ways the youth of today may be objectively worse than other generations. But there are numerous ways they are better than previous generations. All this is to say that members of the intellectual and educational elite should not judge contemporary youth according to beliefs about youth in ‘their day’—as they and their peers were likely not representative members of the childhood population, their memories of how kids were ‘back then’ are likely distorted. This is how narratives of decline seem to emerge: from misplaced nostalgia as much as any objective realities.
Indeed, the fact that the same narratives are perennially recycled for virtually every generation should lead us to be skeptical of pronouncements about how ‘kids these days’ have lost their way.
Read the full paper: Protzko, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2019). Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking. Science Advances, 5(10), eaav5916.
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