Mind & Body

Complaining About Kids These Days? A New Study Says Memory May Be to Blame

Every generation seems to think that today's youth are a sorry bunch. Once, young boomers were put down for being dirty hippies; now some of those same boomers are blaming millennials for killing everything good in the world. But it can't be true that every generation is worse than the one before; after all, life expectancy and literacy rates keep climbing. So why do people grow up to think this way? A new study argues that these beliefs have less to do with the kids and more to do with the memory and self-image of the people who hold these opinions.

You Are What You Stereotype

A paper published in Science Advances looked at whether there was a link between people's opinions about whether children are respectful, intelligent, and well-read, and their opinions of themselves on those same traits. The researchers predicted that when participants rated themselves high on one of those traits now, they would also rate young people as lower in that trait than the participant was at their age.

The team gave three questionnaires to more than 3,500 American adults, with a mix of people chosen to be representative of the population as a whole. Each questionnaire focused on one trait — respecting elders, intelligence, or being well-read — by asking questions like, "Do you think children these days respect their elders more than they used to, less than they used to, or the same amount as they used to when you were a child?" Respondents also filled out surveys designed to measure their own levels of the trait being studied, either via an authoritarianism scale to test respect, a vocabulary test to test intelligence, or an author-recognition test to test how well-read they were.

Across the board, those who rated themselves as higher in respect, intelligence, or literacy also rated kids these days as lower in those same traits as compared to when they were children.

The Kids Are All Right

Beliefs like these look ridiculous if you examine history. For example, every generation has believed that the kids of their day were ruining the English language.

Take this quote: "The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small." It sounds like a modern complaint, but it's a quote from 1889. You can find these complaints going back centuries, probably for as long as English has existed. Yet somehow, we got great works of literature like "Don Quixote" and "The Color Purple." (Though it should also be noted that your vocabulary tends to increase with age).

In fact, linguists analyzing how language is used in texting and on the internet find that English is doing anything but degenerating. Instead, young people are finding systematic, ingenious new ways to communicate subtle nuances that were never possible before.When it comes to reading, surveys by the Pew Research Center have consistently found that youths read more than older people. 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds report reading at least one book in the past year, compared with 67 percent of the over-65s. And as far as intelligence? Well, the rise in IQ over the generations is so reliable that it has a name: the Flynn Effect.

Memories of the Good Old Days

The researchers propose a couple of factors that drive these false beliefs. One is the fact that people who are objectively superior in a given trait tend to notice the shortcomings of others on that trait. The other is the tendency for people to see the past through rose-colored glasses, which are tinted by their current greatness. If you think you're greater on some quality than everyone else around you now, you project that greatness back onto the past. That perspective naturally makes it appear that everything's gotten worse.

To see if these hypotheses held up, the researchers performed two additional studies. The first one was identical to the previous literacy questionnaire, but it also asked how much the participant enjoyed reading now and how much they and their peers had enjoyed reading when they were children. It turned out that people who reported a love of reading today remembered a childhood surrounded by book lovers. The conclusion: the subjective belief that you're a big book person makes you believe that you and your peers loved books more back then than kids do today.

The final study then manipulated people's self-perceptions of how well-read they were to see if it affected their perception of kids these days. After taking the author recognition test, participants were randomly told either that they scored very well or very poorly. This changed their belief in how well-read they were, and remarkably, also changed their belief about how much they enjoyed reading as a child. So in comparison, kids these days didn't seem so much worse after all.

The results should make us all stop and think twice next time we find ourselves believing a stereotype about other generations. The belief probably says more about us than the people we're stereotyping.

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Get a more balanced view of today's generations in a book the New Yorker called "The first major accounting of the millennial generation written by someone who belongs to it." That's "Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials" by Malcolm Harris. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Linda Lombardi November 15, 2019

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