Science And Culture Essay Generations
September 3, 2015
The Whys and Hows of Generations Research
At the center of the Pew Research Center’s mission is a commitment to measuring public attitudes on key issues and documenting differences in attitudes between demographic and political groups.
An individual’s age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors. On issues ranging from foreign affairs to social policy, age differences in attitudes can be some of the widest and most illuminating. Age denotes two important characteristics about an individual: their place in the life cycle – whether a young adult, middle-aged parent or retiree – and their membership in a cohort of individuals who were born at a similar time. The nature of age as a variable allows researchers to employ an approach known as cohort analysis to track a group of people over the course of their lives.
Age cohorts give researchers a tool to analyze changes in views over time; they can provide a way to understand how different formative experiences interact with the life-cycle and aging process to shape people’s view of the world. While younger and older adults may differ in their views at a given moment, age cohorts allow researchers to go further and examine how today’s older adults felt about a given issue when they themselves were young, as well as to describe how the trajectory of views might differ across age cohorts.
Generations are one way to group age cohorts. A generation typically refers to groups of people born over a 15-20 year span, such as the Millennial generation, currently the youngest adult generation. Generational analysis is an important tool used by Pew Research Center and other researchers. This report aims to describe the basic approach of generational analysis at the Pew Research Center and some of the key insights it provides into understanding public attitudes and behaviors.
The Pew Research Center’s approach to generational analysis involves tracking the same groups of people on a range of issues, behaviors and characteristics. Setting the bounds of generations is a necessary step for this analysis. It is a process that may be informed by a range of factors including demographics, attitudes, historical events, popular culture, and prevailing consensus among researchers. As a result, the lines that define the generations are useful tools for analysis, but they should be thought of as guidelines, rather than hard-and-fast distinctions.
Each of the commonly-used current generations has been defined by a unique mix of factors.
The Baby Boom generation is an example of a generation that is largely delineated by demography. Its oldest members were part of the spike in fertility that began in 1946, right after the end of World War II. Its youngest members were born in 1964, shortly before a significant decline in fertility that occurred after the birth control pill first went on the market.
Other generations are less strictly defined by demography, though it plays an important role in designations including Generation X and Millennials – the two generations that followed the Baby Boomers.
Generation X describes people born from 1965 through 1980. The label overtook the first name affixed to this generation: the Baby Bust. In part, this generation is defined by the relatively low birth rates in these years compared with the Baby Boom generation that preceded them and the Millennial generation that followed them. The label for this generation was popularized by a 1991 book by Douglas Coupland titled, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
The bounds of the Millennial generation, sometimes characterized as the “echo boom,” are also informed by demographics. This generation is largely made up of the children of the Baby Boom generation. The name for this cohort refers to those born after 1980 – the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. As this generation was first entering adulthood, some used the term Gen Y to refer to them, and its boundaries were slightly different. This is another example of how the names and spans of generations can change over time.
The Silent generation describes adults born from 1928 through 1945. Children of the Great Depression and World War II, their “Silent” label refers to their image as conformist and civic-minded. Time Magazine coined the term in a 1951 article describing the emerging generation of the time. The Silent label is not widely recognized by the public: fewer say they have heard of it than the labels for any other of the living generations. (See here for our report on generations and identity.)
The Greatest generation (those born before 1928) “saved the world” when it was young, in the memorable phrase of Ronald Reagan. This is the generation that fought and won World War II, and became the subject of a best-selling book by Tom Brokaw. Pew Research Center no longer reports current data on the Greatest generation because they now represent such a small share of the adult population (roughly 2%) that standard public opinion surveys do not yield large enough sample sizes for reporting.
An age cohort spanning 15-20 years will necessarily include a diverse assortment of people — and often there are meaningful smaller cohorts within these generations. Changes in political circumstances, societal mores and economic conditions over a period of 15-20 years can lead to people within a cohort having different formative experiences. Understanding these differences within a cohort is an essential component of generational analysis.
Life Cycle, Cohort, and Period Effects
The factors associated with generational differences can be complex and overlapping. Researchers often think about three separate effects that can produce differences in attitudes between age groups: life cycle effects (sometimes called age effects), period effects and cohort effects.
The first is the life cycle, or age, effect. When a life cycle effect is at play, differences between younger and older people are largely due to their respective positions in the life cycle. For example, young people are far less likely than older adults to vote and engage in politics. This may be because they are less informed about politics or feel they have less at stake in political or policy debates. As people age, they vote at higher rates and their level of political engagement rises. Millennials are less engaged in politics today than are older generations, but the same was true of Baby Boomers in their youth. Today, Boomers are among the most likely to vote and participate in politics.
The second process is a period effect. Period effects are seen when events and circumstances (for instance, wars, social movements, economic booms or busts, scientific or technological breakthroughs) as well as broader social forces (such as the growing visibility of gays and lesbians in society) simultaneously impact everyone, regardless of age. Period effects are typically thought to have lasting effects on an entire population.
An example of a period effect may be the impact of the events of the early to mid-1970s – the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair – on views of government. This was a time in U.S. history that coincided with a sharp drop in public trust in government across generations. Overall trust in government has ebbed and flowed since the 1970s, but has never returned to levels seen before that period.
Another example of a lasting period effect is the shift in public views on the issue of terrorism and the priority given to homeland defense and combatting terrorism globally following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, other shifts in opinion following 9/11 proved to be less enduring: expressions of patriotism and unity were short-lived as the country soon entered a fractious debate over the Iraq war and deep partisan divisions on political issues soon reemerged.
Finally, there is a cohort effect. Differences between generations can be the byproduct of the unique historical circumstances that members of an age cohort experience, particularly during a time when they are in the process of forming opinions. In some cases, this may be the result of a period effect an older generation experienced that subsequent generations did not (e.g., the younger generations of today did not experience the Vietnam War or other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, because they were not yet born).
In other cases, a historical moment can have an outsize effect on members of one generation. This may be because it occurs during a key point in the life cycle, such as adolescence and young adulthood, when awareness of the wider world deepens and personal identities and value systems are being strongly shaped. The Great Depression and its aftermath had the effect of helping shape a cohort of Americans who were strong supporters of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
Understanding what drives generational differences strengthens our understanding of how public attitudes are being shaped. Is a shift in views broad-based, reflecting a fundamental change in how all generations view an issue? Or is the change concentrated among a particular generation, reflecting the composition and formative experiences of one group, but not the public more broadly? These are some of the questions that cohort analysis – through the use of generations – help researchers answer.
Examples of Generational Analysis: Same-Sex Marriage and Marijuana Legalization
Views on the issue of same-sex marriage are a good example of how researchers can use generations to understand shifting public attitudes.
The accompanying chart shows the percent that support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally across generations from 2005 to 2015. Over this time period, support for same-sex marriage has grown from 36% to 55% among the public overall. (See this interactive for opinions of same-sex marriage over time.)
When it comes to same-sex marriage there have long been significant differences between older and younger people at individual points in time. Cohort analysis of these attitudes illustrates that these differences persist across the generations.
Millennials and Gen Xers came into the population more supportive of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally than older generations, and those greater levels of support have persisted over time. As a result, some of the explanation for an overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage is attributable to a “generational replacement” as members of older, less supportive, generations pass away, they are “replaced” in the adult population by members of younger, more supportive, generations entering adulthood.
But at the same time, all generations – younger and older alike – have become more likely to support same-sex marriage over the past decade, suggesting a period effect separate from age or cohort.
Another example of how generational analysis can aid in understanding public opinion is the case of attitudes about marijuana.
In recent years, there has been a fundamental shift in attitudes toward legalization of marijuana. When Gallup first asked about this issue in 1969, just 12% of the public favored legalizing the use of marijuana, while 84% were opposed. In March of this year, 53% said the use of marijuana should be made legal, while 44% disagreed. However, the shift in attitudes over time has not been linear — support for marijuana legalization rose throughout the 1970s, fell in the 1980s, before steadily growing over the last quarter century.
The trend in opinion on legalizing marijuana highlights how overall societal mood or forces (period) can shift attitudes, as well as how people may be differentially influenced by those forces at different ages (cohort). In 1973, the Baby Boom generation was coming of age, with its adult members then between the ages of 18 and 27. At that time, 43% of Boomers favored legalizing the use of marijuana; by comparison, just 16% of those in the Silent Generation (who were then ages 28 to 45) favored legalization.
During the 1980s, the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took a hard-line approach to illicit drug use as concern over the dangers of marijuana rose. Between 1978 and 1990, support for the legal use of marijuana fell by 30 percentage points among Boomers (from 47% to 17%) and by 11 points among Silents (from 25% to 14%). Though one potential hypothesis is that these shifts were attributable to life-stage (that people might become less supportive of marijuana as they move into middle age) opinion among the youngest generation at that time, Gen X, suggests the importance of the period. Among Xers, whose oldest members were in their early to mid-20s in 1990, just 21% favored legalization at the time; they were far less supportive of legalization than Boomers had been at a comparable stage in their lives.
Since then, overall support for marijuana legalization has increased across all three of these generations. But the patterns are somewhat different for each. Among Boomers, support for marijuana legalization now surpasses levels from when they were young (50% today vs. 43% in 1973). But among Silents, support remains far lower compared to other generations: Their support for legal marijuana has been low since the question was first asked in 1969 (when they were then 24-41), and today just 29% say it should be legal. Among Gen Xers, who came of age in a period of little support for legalization, support has more than doubled since their youth (52% say its use should be legal today, compared to 21% in 1990).
Millennials (who were born in the 1980s and 1990s, and have come of age in a period when support for legalization was rising among their elders) are the most supportive of legalization: Since 2006, the share of Millennials favoring the legal use of marijuana has doubled, from 34% to 68%, reflecting a sharper rise in support than seen among Xers and Boomers.
While the generation lens is especially powerful for an issue such as marijuana legalization, meaningful generational patterns are not seen across all issues. Views on gun control, for example, are an area where there are only modest differences by generation, with larger opinion gaps seen across other variables, including gender, education and population density.
Key Differences Between the Generations
There are fundamental differences across generations, from their racial and ethnic composition, to how quickly they reach certain milestones such as marriage, to their political and ideological orientations.
Some are enduring differences that will shape the generations over the course of their lifetimes. Others are largely a function of age or life-stage.
One example of an enduring difference across the current generations is their racial and ethnic composition. Millennials are the most diverse adult generation: 57% are non-Hispanic whites, while 21% are Hispanic, 13% are black and 6% are Asian. Each older generation is less diverse. Non-Hispanic whites make up 61% of Generation X, 72% of Baby Boomers and 78% of the Silent generation.
The current demographic composition of the country guarantees that the next generation will be even more diverse than Millennials. The unique demographic profiles of the generations are unlikely to change a great deal over time and often underlie opinion dynamics on issues.
In addition to their racial and ethnic composition, the generations also differ in life-shaping behaviors, such as marriage – behaviors that are not cast by the composition of a cohort but are informed by values and economic circumstances.
In 2014, just 28% of Millennials were married. This makes them remarkably different than members of the Silent Generation at the same stage in their lives: fully 64% of Silents were married when members of their generation were between the ages of 18 and 33. About half (49%) of Baby Boomers and 38% of Gen Xers were married when their generation was ages 18 to 33. Generational analysis allows for these comparative snapshots, but it also lets researchers track what happens as these cohorts age.
For example, just 38% of Generation X were married when they were ages 18 to 33, but many of those who weren’t married at that age did not reject the institution of marriage altogether. Instead, a large share of Gen Xers have married later in life than previous generations. As of 2014, fully 81% of Generation X (then ages 34-49) had ever been married, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between Xers and the two older generations – Baby Boomers (90%) and Silents (96%) – in the percent who at that point had ever been married.
Marriage rates among Millennials are at an even lower starting point than for Gen X. However, marriage rates will continue to rise among Millennials as they age. The exact trajectory of marriage rates among Millennials is unclear, however. A recent Pew Research Center analysis projects that by the time they reach middle age, as many as 25% of Millennials will have never married – an all-time high.
The pattern of religious identity is another fundamental difference between the generations. Older generations identify overwhelmingly as Christian. For example, 85% of the Silent generation identify as a member of a Christian denomination, while just 11% say they are religiously unaffiliated (defined as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”). By contrast, smaller majorities of Millennials (56%) and Gen Xers (70%) identify as Christian, while as many as 35% of Millennials and 23% of Gen Xers do not identify with any organized religion.
Over the past seven years, the share of the U.S. population that does not identify with an organized religion has grown since 2007. Much of this change has occurred due to generational replacement; the youngest adults who are aging into the population are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than the oldest adults they are replacing.
While marriage rates are expected to rise among younger generations as they move through the life cycle, there is no indication that younger cohorts will become more religiously affiliated as they age. In fact, Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape report found that the share of those who do not identify with a religion had grown across generations. Between 2007 and 2014, for example, the share of older Millennials (born 1981-1989) who do not identify with a religion rose nine percentage points, from 25% to 34%. Among Gen Xers, there was a four-point rise in the share who do not identify with a religion (19% in 2007 to 23% in 2014).
Partisan Affiliation and Ideology
Overall, the share of political independents in the public has been rising in recent years, and in 2014 reached 39%, the highest percentage in more than 75 years of polling.
An analysis of long term trends in party identification, released in April, found that Millennials are more likely than older cohorts to identify as independents. Nearly half of Millennials (48%) identify as independents, compared with 40% of Gen Xers and smaller shares of Boomers (35%) and Silents (29%).
When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, Millennials are the most Democratic generation, while Silents are the most Republican.
The political climate of early adulthood may continue to influence the political tilt of a generation throughout its life span, as noted in a 2011 Pew Research Center report on generations. For example, members of the Greatest Generation, who came of age during the Great Depression and the Franklin Roosevelt administration, carried strong Democratic tendencies throughout their adulthood.
Yet the differences in partisan affiliation across generations tell only part of the story; there also is considerable variance within generations. And, with sufficient data, cohort analysis can be used to investigate within-generation differences by examining smaller age spans.
The accompanying graph showing partisan leanings in 2014 for adults based on the year they were born is an example of this. The line shows the percentage identifying or leaning Democratic minus the percentage identifying or leaning Republican. The further left the line on the graph, the larger the Democratic advantage for that year; the further right, the larger the Republican advantage.
Older Baby Boomers have consistently had a more Democratic imprint than younger Boomers. Older Boomers were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s and came of voting age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Younger Boomers were born later (in the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s) and largely came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s, during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Older Gen Xers are more Republican (and less Democratic) than younger Gen Xers, whose strong Democratic leanings more closely resemble those of older Millennials.
As with partisan affiliation, there are substantial differences in the ideological leanings of generations. Based on data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Political Polarization survey, Millennials are currently the least conservative generation.
Across a set of 10 political values questions on issues such as the role of government, the environment and business, just 15% of Millennials express either consistently or mostly conservative views compared with 44% who have a mix of liberal and conservative views and fully 41% who express consistently or mostly liberal views. By comparison, more Gen Xers (25%), Baby Boomers (33%) and Silents (39%) express consistently or mostly conservative views across this set of 10 questions.
The Post-Millennial Generation
Given all that we know about generations how do we identify where to draw the line between the Millennial generation and the next generation? Today’s youngest adults are Millennials, but the 16-year span of Millennial birth years (1981-1997) is already about as wide a range as those of the other living generations. And Millennials are projected to surpass Baby Boomers in 2015 as the nation’s largest living generation, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. So it seems likely that in the near future the youngest adults will be members of a post-Millennial generation.
Historical and demographic markers will factor into determining the dividing line between Millennials and post-Millennials. But it is unlikely that any single indicator or an ‘aha’ moment will mark the end of the Millennial generation, absent some unexpected event. More likely is that an end-point definition will emerge over time as debate among researchers and usage in popular culture forms a working definition. As with Generation X and its original “Baby Bust” label, there may be different names attached to the post-Millennial generation before one eventually sticks.
Regardless of where and when the line is drawn to end the Millennial generation, it will take several years before enough post-Millennials have reached adulthood to allow for meaningful statements about the next adult generation. One thing is clear: the next generation, today’s children and teens, will likely be shaped by very different influences and forces than the generations that preceded it.
D-Day, June 6,1944. President Kennedy’s assassination. The first moon landing. The fall of the Berlin Wall.
Landmark events like these become etched into our collective consciousness, particularly if we witnessed them during our adolescence or young adulthood.
But to what extent do these world-changing events shape our individual character? According to many theories, the fashion, music, cultural values, and global events of our formative years leave on us some psychological marks — traits we share with our peers.
We tend to view our preferences and idiosyncrasies as inherently singular — a unique cocktail of traits that emerges from mixing genetic predispositions with our familial and social experiences. But ever since Karl Mannheim proposed his theory of generations in a seminal 1923 essay, researchers have tried to elucidate the influence of the sociocultural environment — including those influences unique to each generation — on aspects of our personalities and attitudes.
This work is not without its skeptics. Many social scientists regard the evidence of birth cohort effects on the individual to be inconclusive at best. But others believe they have uncovered some clear, collective traits that distinguish one age group from another.
Across the Ages
Social scientists generally define birth cohorts by the hugely impactful cultural events or changes that serve as bookends of an era. This leads to widely accepted traits ascribed to each generation. Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are viewed in relation to the postwar climate of prosperity and the resulting rise of consumerism; Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are seen as the last generation to grow up without the full ubiquity of the Internet and the first to come of age under the somber specter of 9/11. In between are those in Generation X, or Gen X-ers, people born between 1965 and 1979 who witnessed the birth of MTV and became poster children for disaffected cynicism.
But isolating the real effects of birth cohort on individuals can be challenging. Typical methods like cross-sectional analyses or longitudinal studies are designed to capture data at a single moment in time or in a single group across time; to get at the influence of generation, researchers must be able to compare different people who were the same age at different times. One approach designed to achieve this is cross-temporal meta-analysis, a method devised by San Diego State University psychology professor and APS Fellow Jean Twenge. Cross-temporal meta-analysis involves comparing data from widely used psychological questionnaires taken by people of a particular age at different points in time (e.g., a survey given to college freshmen in 1980, 2000, and 2013).
This innovative method carries some limitations, though: It compiles and compares mean scores rather than results from individual participants. And although many different samples are often incorporated into the analysis, some of those individual samples may be small or prone to selection bias, according to critics such as Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Kali Trzesniewski of the University of California, Davis.
All About “Me”
Twenge has used cross-temporal meta-analysis to examine the degree to which Millennials live up to the moniker “Generation Me,” even writing a book by that name in which she analyzes several dimensions of personality such as self-esteem, locus of control, and narcissism. She has found that self-esteem, after declining during the 1960s to the late 1970s, has steadily risen since 1980. But Twenge’s most controversial findings have centered on the topic of narcissism. Her 2008 study examining college students’ scores on the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) from 1979 to 2006 concluded that in 2006, 30% more students scored above the original (1979) NPI average than had scored above the same average in the original study. These results conform to the popular conception of Millennials as possessing uniquely inflated egos born out of the self-esteem movement begun in the late 1970s that prioritized blanket praise over actual performance.
Some researchers object to Twenge’s sampling methods and, consequently, her results. A study led by Trzesniewski examined NPI data from two California university campuses; some subscales of the NPI showed decreases and others showed increases, but the authors found no increase in overall scores. They also did not find any change in self-enhancement — essentially, the belief that you are smarter than you actually are — which is often considered a corollary of narcissism.
Researchers have hypothesized that birth cohort may also influence the ways individuals perceive their control over their lives. The Internal–External Locus of Control Scale was devised in 1966 to measure the degree to which people believe that they are able to control their own circumstances. In our increasingly individualistic culture, it seems logical that members of “Generation Me” would endorse the idea they are in control of their own destiny more than their Baby Boomer and Gen-X counterparts.
However, Twenge found that college students in 2002 had a more external locus of control than they did in 1960 — meaning they held a stronger belief that the events in their lives were the result of outside forces beyond their control. But when Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan of Texas A&M University examined samples drawn from the Monitoring the Future project, a large-scale study that has surveyed high school seniors since 1976, they found no correlation between generation and locus of control. There did appear to be evidence, though, that Millennials are more cynical about the utility of school and the trustworthiness of government than previous generations. Both an increasingly external locus of control and increased cynicism could be symptomatic of the increased social alienation that has accompanied expanding personal independence: As our society has become more self-focused and less communal, we’ve become more wary of the social institutions on which past generations relied heavily.
The Erosion of Empathy
Changes in the sociocultural environment have implications not only for how we view ourselves, but also for how we view one another. A group of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychological scientist Sara H. Konrath, has used the cross-temporal meta-analysis method to examine changes in different dimensions of empathy over generations. They have found significant decreases since the late 1970s in both the emotional component of empathy, Empathic Concern, which indicates the level of a person’s sympathy for others’ misfortunes, and the more cognitive component of Perspective Taking — the tendency to see a situation from another person’s point of view. Since both of these measures are correlated with all kinds of prosocial behaviors, from helping strangers carry their heavy items to increased charity donations and volunteer hours, the decline in empathy could have real-world consequences. Many also see this effect as the counterpart of an increasing egocentrism among Millennials compared with previous generations.
This “more me, less you” view finds support in research on cohort differences in attachment styles. In a meta-analysis of more than 90 samples, younger generations showed increases in insecure attachment styles (e.g., dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful) and decreases in secure attachment styles, according to the same research group. One of the most striking findings from this study was the increased proportion of subjects who agreed with the statement “I am comfortable without close emotional relationships.” The authors posit that this change may be related to various socio-environmental factors, such as changing parenting practices and the rise of social media. However, since a number of societal changes co-occur, it is difficult to disentangle cause and effect in such studies.
Possible echoes of these alienating effects can be seen in patterns of psychopathology across cohorts. Not only have depression and anxiety levels increased from generation to generation, so have various other metrics on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the most widely used personality assessment tool. These increases occurred in the scales for paranoia, schizophrenia, hypomania, and hysteria, among others.
Intriguingly, similar generational increases in anxiety and depression symptomology have been reported in populations in New Zealand and China, suggesting that there may be some aspects of cohort influence that cross boundaries of country and culture. Indeed, with the advent of the Internet, the sociocultural environment of Millennials has inflated to a size not experienced by any previous generation — one that is truly global. But does the new expanse of today’s sociocultural landscape have implications for how people engage with their communities closer to home?
It’s the Economy, Too
While generations are typically delineated through social determinants like political events and social movements, the economy is a powerful moderator of generational effects on individuals, some recent studies show. Economic declines have been linked to health problems brought on by stress and hunger, even higher mortality rates, but they can have powerful — and lasting — psychological impacts on an entire generation, as well.
Although well-being generally increases over the lifetime of individuals from all generations, research published in 2013 showed that the extent of that increase varies from cohort to cohort.
Psychological scientist Angelina R. Sutin of the Florida State University College of Medicine conducted the study while at the National Institute on Aging (NIA). She and her colleagues at NIA predicted that people born around the same time may have had unique experiences that shape the way they evaluate happiness and optimism. They hypothesized that the level of well-being a person reports would, therefore, vary according to his or her birth year.
And that’s indeed what they found. Using two large-scale longitudinal studies, the National Institutes of Health’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging and the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Sutin and colleagues examined data from several thousand people over 30 years, including more than 10,000 reports on well-being, health, and other factors.
When the researchers analyzed the data across the whole pool of participants, older adults had lower levels of well-being than younger and middle-aged adults. But when they analyzed the same data while taking birth cohort into account, a different trend appeared: Life satisfaction increased over all participants’ lifetimes. This trend remained even after factors like health, medication, sex, ethnicity, and education were taken into account.
So what explains the different results?
While life satisfaction increased with age for each cohort, older birth cohorts — especially people born between 1885 and 1925 — started off with lower levels of well-being in comparison with people born more recently. (They lived through the Great Depression, after all.) Looking at life satisfaction across all of the participants, regardless of when they were born, obscured the fact that each cohort actually showed the same underlying trend of life satisfaction increasing with age.
The opposite was true as well: Generations that experienced the postwar economic boom of the mid-20th century had consistently higher levels of well-being throughout life compared with other cohorts. Although we all tend to get happier as we age, economic conditions during young adulthood seem to play a vital role in calibrating our well-being baselines.
Poor economies also affect our attitudes toward civic matters. Economists Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo found that people who spent their formative years (defined as ages 18–25) in a recession tend to believe in luck as a larger driver of success than hard work, favor increased government redistribution practices, and show decreased trust in government institutions like Congress. (Interestingly, despite these patterns, overall political attitudes were not shown to be affected by economic slowdowns.) It seems that when things aren’t going our — or the global economy’s — way, we look to external forces as the cause, whereas we tend to attribute periods of prosperity to our own ingenuity and industriousness.
There appears to be at least one silver lining to economic downturns, however: Emory University psychologist Emily Bianchi found that young people who entered adulthood during a recession have lower rates of narcissism later in life, a finding attributed to a decrease in individualism and concomitant increase in collectivism that has been commonly observed in economic downturns. This could explain why the overall data on generational changes in narcissism appear unsettled: Pre-2008-recession Millennials’ glasses may be a bit more rose-colored than those of their younger comrades, affecting their beliefs and behavior.
Ultimately, the extent to which one’s temperament, principles, and conduct are bound up in birth year, and in political and social events that define a generation, can’t be precisely measured. Undoubtedly, some personal experiences weigh more heavily than collective ones, and vice versa. But the idea that birth cohort has a significant effect at all — that, even with the same genetic makeup and parents and peers, you would still be a different person if you had been born 20 years earlier or later — has compelling implications for psychological inquiry. Researchers continue to develop and refine methodologies for separating out the effect of generation in the hopes of inching ever closer to understanding not only our role in constructing the cultural fabric of our respective times, but also its role in constructing us.
References and Further Reading
Bianchi, E. C. (2014). Entering adulthood in a recession tempers later narcissism. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1429–1437. doi: 10.1177/0956797614532818
Gentile, B., Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Birth cohort differences in self-esteem, 1988–2008: A cross-temporal meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 14(3), 261–268. doi: 10.1037/a0019919
Glenn, N. (1980). Values, attitudes, and beliefs. In O. G. Brim, Jr., & J. Kang (Eds.), Constancy and change in human development (pp. 596–636). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Giuliano, P., & Spilimbergo, A. (2009). Growing up in a recession: Beliefs and the macroeconomy (Working paper 15321). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2010). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180–198.
Konrath, S. H., Chopik, W. J., Hsing, C. K., & O’Brien, E. (2014). Changes in adult attachment styles in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18(4), 326–348. doi: 1088868314530516
Joyce, P. R., Oakley-Browne, M. A., Wells, J. E., Bushnell, J. A., & Hornblow, A. R. (1990). Birth cohort trends in major depression: Increasing rates and earlier onset in New Zealand. Journal of Affective Disorders, 18(2), 83–89.
Sutin, A. R., Terracciano, A., Milaneschi, Y., An, Y., Ferrucci, L., & Zonderman, A. B. (2013). The effect of birth cohort on well-being: The legacy of economic hard times. Psychological Science, 24(3),379–385. doi: 10.1177/0956797612459658
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