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Study Says Generation Gap Is The Widest Since The 1960s

San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean Twenge is pictured in this undated photo.
San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean Twenge is pictured in this undated photo.

Originally aired on August 18, 2009.

Study Says Generation Gap Is the Widest Since the 1960s
A new Pew poll takes a look at what it calls the widest generation gap among Americans since the 1960s. We speak with a local psychology professor about the findings of the study and how generations are changing over time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. If you think back on it, the news that we're now experiencing a big generation gap should not be surprising. We've been hearing about a separation between the generations for awhile now. Think back to the big split between older and young Americans on the issue of same sex marriage. Or the fact that voters under 30 voted for Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio. Then there are the polls that measure wide variations in how younger and older Americans use technology or attend religious services. Gradually, a picture emerges of a growing generational difference in matters ranging from morality to technology to how we see the world. Now a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center has indeed identified a generation gap slightly larger than the well known gap that separated hippies and their parents in the 1960s. But instead of key issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights what separates the generations now tends to be more general, a wide ranging disparity in views and values. With me to explore the new generation gap is my guest, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at SDSU and author of the books, "Generation Me," and "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." Jean, welcome back to These Days.

JEAN TWENGE (Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University): Thanks, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you experienced a generation gap in your own personal circle of family and friends? What would you say were the differences in views between the under 30 crowd and the rest of America? Give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. So let's start with this Pew Research Center poll. What was it all about? What did it find out?

TWENGE: Well it did find this big generation gap where people said there's just such a difference between older people and younger people now, older and younger generations. And it seems centered around two big issues. So one is morality and values, so the way to live your life. Say, is it okay to have a baby when you're not married or how religious are you, things like that. And then the other big difference was the sense of entitlement that a lot of older people see among a lot of younger people. And those two differences are actually pretty consistent with what I find in my own research going back, these more psychological differences. It's not like it was in the late sixties where, well, there were always some – there are still some political things but it's these psychological things about, you know, what do you really care about and what do you expect out of life. And a lot of older people are now saying, man, some of these young people coming through, they expect something for nothing, they don't want to work for it. Fortunately, there's lots of exceptions to that but that's the thing that a lot of older folks are complaining about is that entitlement.

CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. I think in the 1960s it sort of hit everybody as a revolution. This one seems to have crept up on us a little bit more, would you agree?

TWENGE: Yeah, actually that's exactly what the data shows. I'm sure there's some people out there going, you know, baby boomers, they were the 'me' generation, they were the ones who were supposed to be so self-centered and self-indulgent but what the data really showed, and I think this poll reflects too, is that the baby boomers, they started that trend and they did have some self-focus but they did it in groups and they often did it in the idea that we're going to join together in a group and change things. And then slowly, over the last 30, 40 years or so, it's become much more crystallized into believe in yourself and you can be anything you want to be, and you deserve the best, and it being much more about the individual self. And so this new generation, who, of course, I call Generation Me has really taken it to the next level.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, can you tell us in this research, what are those things where the generations really do find themselves split? Are there certain issues or certain views that are more divisive than others?


TWENGE: Sure. So, you know, one is just as – just as one example in terms of values, 40% of babies are now born to moms who are not married, and to previous generations that's a shocking number. It used to be more like 5%. So there's a big, big divide in that issue. There's a big divide, as you said, in viewpoints on gay marriage and some things in politics. There is this very big divide about how hard you have to work to get by, so the – some of the surveys are really, really showing a lot of younger people saying, you know, I don't really want to work that hard but I really want a vacation house and I really want a new car every two or three years.


TWENGE: I mean, this is what shows up. It sounds incredible but true.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is this – You know, I guess somebody could say that there's always sort of a gap between younger people and older people. What differentiates what we're seeing now?

TWENGE: Yeah. Well, you know, one thing I like to say is that, you know, if older generations have always complained about younger generations being, you know, entitled and self indulgent, if it's a linear trend and it's just kind of continued to creep up over time, that might actually be true. It might actually be true that older generations actually always have had something to complain about if that's been a steady change. So I think that now it's just – it is this bigger gap just in terms of world views. And I think the focus on the self has crossed over from not just self-esteem and confidence into narcissism and over-confidence and that's what shows up in the data. And once you cross that line then you end up with a lot of managers, a lot of teachers, a lot of professors like myself, complaining about these – this sense of entitlement among a segment of a generation, certainly not all of them, fortunately. But once you cross that line, that's where you end up with trouble and I think maybe that's one of the biggest reasons for the gap.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with SDSU psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of the books "Generation Me," and "The Narcissism Epidemic." And we're talking about the results of a Pew Research Center poll that has identified a rather large gap between the generations on a rather wide variety of issues. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, when you think about a gap between the generations now, I think technology really rears its head, you know, because the whole idea is that younger people, Millennials, are the internet generation and older people are still sort of struggling with this technology. Does – First of all, I suppose those stereotypes do hold up but I'm wondering, does that really separate the way the generations view the world, I wonder.

TWENGE: In some ways it does. I think perhaps it's one of the reasons why the younger generation has a reputation for being more impatient is because you can find information so quickly on the internet which, you know, is a benefit but it also means that you expect things really, really quickly. It's – The other interesting thing is the fastest growing age group on Facebook is over 50.


TWENGE: My mom has a Facebook page and I don't. So there's sort – But I think there's a difference in the way people are using the technology. Most people, young and old, are using things like the Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with friends. But if you've been on those sites, you also know that there's a segment, particularly the younger segment, who's using those sites to show off and get attention and try to seek fame and a lot of these things that the older generation kind of scratches their head about.

CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. And let's break it down a little bit, too. We touched on the idea that there's this wide difference in approval or toleration of or whatever you want to say, same sex marriage between young Americans and older Americans. And I wonder where that is on the difference in views on sexuality in general?

TWENGE: Yeah. So a couple of years ago a master's student of mine, Brooke Wells, did, you know, this great analysis of over 500 studies tracing the attitudes on sexuality, both attitudes and behavior and found just an enormous change, particularly for girls and women, on both sexual attitudes and behavior. There's just been such an enormous shift. I mean, we think about baby boomers as being free love but back then the average age of marriage for a baby boomer woman in 1970 was 21. There wasn't a whole lot of time to hook up and, you know, have that kind of fun. And now there is and that's one of the biggest generation gaps right there, is not only in attitudes toward premarital sex but whether that sex takes place in a relationship. Now a lot of teens and twenty-somethings, you don't even have to be in a relationship. The idea is you hook up so there's no commitment involved and it's just having fun.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Jean Twenge and we are talking about the Pew Research Center poll which found a rather large gap between the generations on their views on a wide variety of issues. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let's speak to Barbara in Vista. Good morning, Barbara. Welcome to These Days.

BARBARA (Caller, Vista): Good morning. Thank you so much for being there and you have a wonderful guest and I'm looking forward to reading her book.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific.

BARBARA: But I do have this to add, and I'm a generation that's a septarian so I've seen tremendous changes. I had taught for 37 years and I will tell you that the difference – and I – between the before the screen world and the after screen world, I call it. I'd say in the early '80s, and yet I taught computer technologies and languages whereas the computer in the very beginning of its popular use was an educational tool; today, it's entertainment. I find that is another thing, we have instant gratification today, everything for nothing philosophy. You can download music, books, you don't have to worry about copyright or how you're hurting the originators of the work, and there's no sense of, gee, you know, I should be paying for this. Everything for nothing, instant gratification. It's to the point where – And I also think there's a lot of dumbing down of our young people, unfortunately, by the culture or lack of it, and the society and the world is a screen. They can't seem to socially interact with one another vis-a-vis. Everything is texting. A lot of the technology, in my opinion and my opinion only, is that it's frivolous, it's distracting, and it doesn't allow them to live in the real world.

CAVANAUGH: Barbara, you've given us so…

BARBARA: And I'm sorry for that because I must say this, I'm glad I was born when I was, during the Depression, grew up in the '40s when society protected its children. There has been a loss of childhood in this society also. I wish you'd address that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Barbara, you've given us so much to talk about. Thank you so much for your call. I don't even know where to begin. But it seems, in essence, Barbara's experience in teaching has given her the same impression, some of the same impressions, that you have in your research, Jean.

TWENGE: Yeah, well, and the other thing I think is really fascinating here when you look at some of the polling data, there's a Harris Poll that came out a year ago and you might think that a lot of the younger generation would say, you know, where's this coming from? We're not entitled, we're not self-indulgent. They actually agree more that their generation is. In this Harris Poll the two things were self-indulgent and greedy. And if you look at the overall results, they did – Generation Ys, they called them there or Generation Me, as I call them, did come out as the – being perceived as the most self-indulgent and greedy, but it was the young people themselves that actually had the highest agreement, was saying their own generation was that way. So they're very honest and smart about recognizing the downsides of the generation – but they recognize the upsides, too, like tolerance and like treating people as individuals. But they're clear-eyed about the downsides.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested in what – what does it find – are there any area of commonality among the generations or things on which we are not so totally split?

TWENGE: Umm… It's – it's – There's a few things. I mean, certainly this – the one thing that the Harris Poll did find, that there's – there is a fair amount of agreement in the perceptions of which generation, say, one of the questions was, has the most positive effect on society. There's a fair amount of agreement that that was the baby boomers. In terms of which one was the most – they admire the most, it was the silent generation, those just older than the boomers. So, you know, how the generations are perceived, there's some agreement on. And, you know, the popularity of technology like Facebook, as just one example, there's some agreement on that, that people are really enjoying those resources and that does seem to go fairly across age groups.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there's some – It only reinforced the fact of – the findings of this Pew Research Center poll, a new report came out just the other day that a CNN Poll shows a generational split over President Obama's healthcare plan. Strangely enough, people who are older don't seem to like the plan very much, people who are younger like it a great deal. And so this is – is this something we're seeing all down the line, just a really different view of what – where we're going and what the world looks like?

TWENGE: It might be. And we saw this in the presidential election, that young people voted for Barack Obama at a much higher rate. And so I think it still remains to be seen exactly what the political viewpoint is going to be, moving forward. But it does seem like this generation has a little bit more faith in the idea of government doing something for the people. And exactly how that's going to play out, I'm not sure, but in terms of healthcare, I think they just – they see that the system is broken or maybe it's just that they're further away from getting Medicare.

CAVANAUGH: That could be. I'm speaking with SDSU's psychology professor Jean Twenge and we are taking your calls about a new generation gap being defined by the research in a new Pew Research Center poll. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And let's talk to Chris in Spring Valley. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning. Stop whining, you guys. The kids are all right. I mean, I'm over 55 and I'm incredibly impressed by those under 30. They're smart, they're athletic, they work hard. I don't know what the model was for the Pew poll but I'm – We have – My wife and have three kids in their twenties and I'm impressed by them and I'm impressed by their friends. I was impressed through high school and I can't wait to meet the next generation coming up because they're going to knock all our socks off. So I'm – The future's in good hands.

CAVANAUGH: Hey, Chris, let me ask you a question, though. One of the things in this poll was that people aged 13 to 31 years old really don't like being called Generation Y. Do you think your kids like that?

CHRIS: No, they don't. It's just – they're people.


CHRIS: You know, call them by their names, call them by their identity. You know, however they identify, we should respect and call them that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thanks so much for the call. So there's one for the kids.

TWENGE: Yeah, and, of course, you know, that's true as well, they are smart. A lot of them are very hard-working. There's, among any generation, you're going to have that segment that's doing really well and they're upstanding young people and so on. I certainly see that in my classroom. You know, what you have to keep in mind with what the data shows, that there are changes in averages. So some of the research that I've done showing that this generation, for example, scores higher in entitlement and self-centeredness and narcissism but when you really look at that data, the average college student is only a little bit more narcissistic but what happens is you get more at the extremes. You get two or three times as many who are scoring, you know, above certain cutoffs on narcissism and even the clinical form of the disorder called narcissistic personality disorder. You – And there are, there are three times as many people in their twenties who fit that category compared to people in their sixties. And when you look at that, you realize that, yeah, most of the kids are great but there are more of them out there who have these extreme attitudes that cause the trouble. That's, I think, why there's this split view. There's lots of the young people who are assertive and smart and extroverted and all those things have changed, all those good things but then there's two or three times as many who are just running into these problems and people notice that. Managers notice that. Teachers notice that. And those negative experiences stick in our minds unfortunately.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bethany is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Bethany. Welcome to These Days.

BETHANY (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I – Something stuck in my mind when you guys were talking about young people liking the healthcare debate and wanting to have more of a government run healthcare system. I saw a line between what your guest was saying about my generation and we want all of these things, we want vacation homes and we want – don't really want to have to work for them. And I see a serious line between that and this healthcare debate. I – It's almost like this generation wants – also then wants their healthcare and doesn't want to have to work for it either. But they also don't want you to raise taxes.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Is that…

BETHANY: So that's the line between those two things.


TWENGE: Yeah, so there's – that's certainly one way to look at it. I mean, that's one viewpoint, is to say perhaps the generation, this generation, wants more government help because they don't want to do it themselves but then, of course, there is the other viewpoint that we are the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't have government sponsored healthcare. So it's – there's a number of ways to look at it.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the most interesting thing (sic) about that CNN poll, which showed older Americans being against the Obama healthcare plan more so than younger people, is that more older people are on a government healthcare plan.

TWENGE: I know. Exactly. Precisely.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk to Jim in Clairemont. Good morning, Jim. Welcome to These Days.

JIM (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. You know, when I look at America today it's really – we're reaping what we sowed in the eighties and all of these seeds were sown by the baby boomers. And I don't think we should come down too hard on the kids unless we look at, you know, how we pushed most industry out of the United States and when we could've cleaned it up. You know, we awarded ourselves all sorts of pensions and contributed to global warming and then we ended the whole thing, the baby boomers, by putting granite and marble in every kitchen and bathroom that was around. And, you know, the young people didn't do all this.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, you mean…

JIM: And it was the hippies, the hippies, the peace, love and now generation, you know, they got greedy. That's what happened.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, sure, Jim, blame the baby boomers for everything. Thank you very much for your call. Is it the fault of the parents?

TWENGE: I hesitate to put fault on any one generation because this is an overall cultural change. However, Jim is right, that a lot of this stuff started in the seventies and the eighties. And I, personally—this is not about blaming, it's not about blaming the baby boomers, it's not about blaming the young people now because just to take young people, they didn't make this stuff up. They got this from somewhere. They got it from their parents, they got it from teachers. They got it from TV. There's this overall shift. I mean, this is what most of my book, "The Narcissism Epidemic," is about is how this goes beyond just one generation. That's right, it wasn't the people in their twenties who drove the economy into the ground by taking out the mortgages they couldn't afford and the bankers who gave out those mortgages, that was done by, primarily, people in their forties and fifties. So this entitlement has pervaded the whole culture and a lot of generations and it's really a wholesale cultural shift, which is why you can't point a finger at any one particular group.

CAVANAUGH: Is there anything that we can do about generational differences? I mean, isn't that the standard? You know, the older generation has its values and its views and then the newer people come along and they, for whether their views are good or bad, that becomes the norm. I mean, isn't – aren't we seeing just a cyclical thing here?

TWENGE: Yeah. You know, this is actually one of the reasons I got into doing research on generations in the first place because I think if we can understand each other and know where some of these differences come from, that if older people can understand that young people were taught to put themselves, often, were taught to put themselves first, that they were taught believe in yourself and anything is possible, you can be whatever you want to be, all of these things, that they didn't make this up and this is the way they were raised and it's the language that they speak. If we can have that understanding, then you can see things from their perspective. And I think the younger generation has to do that about the older generation, too. Too often it only goes one direction, that they have to understand try to put yourself in the place of someone who they didn't use the internet until they were 40 or that they didn't grow up with reality TV, that this is a different world for them. And you've really – you have to start there with that understanding and that knowledge and move from there.

CAVANAUGH: And very quickly, to round things up, there was a part of this poll that sort of did just that, it explored attitudes about growing older and what people expected when they grew older. And it found out that people aren't perhaps as sick and aren't perhaps as poor as they thought they might be when they were older. So that's a sort of a collective learning experience there.

TWENGE: Yeah, and the Harris Poll found something very similar to that, that younger generations admire the older generations so there's not as much ageism and worry about getting older as maybe there used to be, that now there's much more acceptance, that, yeah, it's not going to be so bad, that it can be a very fun experience and it's not something to be scared of.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much. Again, so many people wanted to join the conversation, Jean, and we just couldn't get everybody on. But I want them to remember that they can post their comments online at My guest has been Jean Twenge. She's a professor of psychology at SDSU and author of the books "Generation Me," and "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." Jean, thank you so much for talking…

TWENGE: Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: …with us this morning.

TWENGE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for joining us and stay with us for hour two of These Days here on KPBS.