Teens do far less 'adult' stuff than generations before them. What gives?

Teens do far less 'adult' stuff than generations before them. What gives?

CultureNovember 09, 2017 By Rachel Chesbrough

Let’s just say it: times are bleak. Apocalyptic dread is nagging at the best of us, and hope seems in short supply. Adults have made a rip-roaring mess of things and now — inevitably — we turn to the kids. 

Although according to science, the world might have to wait for the little saviors to catch up. The next generation drives, drinks, does drugs, goes out, has sex and works less than any other before them. Kids just aren’t growing up like they used to. 

While the oft-maligned millennials have been examined, discussed, mocked and defended to the point of hipster cliché, many are just now starting an obsession cycle with the next generation. Born between 1995 and 2012, these birth cohorts are referred to as Gen Z (the name doing nothing to assuage the apocalyptic imagery). They’re the first generation to grow up entirely with social media and smartphones — causing some to rebrand them as iGen, courtesy of Dr. Jean Twenge. 

She’s a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, as well as a noted psychologist, researcher, author and public speaker. She has been near the forefront of the Gen Z buzz for some time, with a recently published study illuminating the generation’s trends. Her findings are in alignment with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more. 

Consequently, we may have a grasp on what’s happening with the next generation, which is shocking enough on its own. Engagement in “adult behaviors” is dropping dramatically — yet arguably even more compelling, and harder to define, is why. 

Saying “adult behaviors” is an umbrella term, including quick-to-mind activities like sex and drinking. It also takes into account behaviors such as driving and employment. Dr. Twenge, the lead author on seven large studies spanning 11 million kids ages 13–19, addresses their engagement with these types of adult behaviors. 

Quartz notes that Twenge’s studies employ a time-lag design, which measures the behaviors of each age group from different years (so 8th graders in ’05, ‘06, ’07, etc.), rather than tracking the same group over time. When analyzed, the data reflected a “broad cultural shift.” 

The trends are prevalent across gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, region of the country and whether the teens lived in urban or rural locations. 

In a piece for the Atlantic, Twenge writes, “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it.” 

Ultimately, the indication is that the country’s teens are engaging dramatically less in adult behaviors. Twenge isn’t alone in her findings, either — they’re mirrored all over the place. 

Driving, for example, seems to be almost passé for teens now. According to University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey, the number of national high school seniors with a driver’s license fell from 85.3 percent in 1996 to 71.5 percent in 2015 — and is as low as 64.8 percent in the northeast. PBS explains that economics play a role here, as the Great Recession triggered a drop in driving (scarcity of jobs and consequently car money), which never recovered. Ride-hailing apps are ubiquitous now as well, making it more convenient, safer and cheaper in the eyes of many teens. New teen drivers also face stricter driving laws, which act as an additional deterrent. 

Underage drinking, too, has seen a steep decline. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals in their most recently published reports that in 1991, about half of high schoolers surveyed said they had drunk alcohol. In 2015, that dropped to around one out of three. 

Similarly, high school students who reported binge drinking in 1999 was 32 percent, compared to 18 percent in 2015. The numbers are impressive, but context reveals the most here. Whereas previous generations have seen some gradual declines, Quartz distills Twenge’s findings, which shows how steep the recent drop really is. 

In 1992, about 59 percent of 8th graders reported drinking. That number fell to 49 percent by 2002, and then shot down to around 28 percent by 2012. It’s a radical drop; a popular trend cut by more than half, particularly when you compare it to the fact that during that same time period, drinking fell by only 9 percent in college students and 7 percent in young adults. Some point to stricter punishments and new legislature that deter teens from drinking and parents from supplying, respectively. 

Gen Z’s reported sexual activities follow a similar regression. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 42 percent of females and 44 percent of males aged 15 to 19 indicate having had sex. In contrast, that same age group in 1988 reported 51 percent of females and 60 percent of males had done the same. 

The Internet has certainly ushered in an era of information, allowing kids to satisfy curiosity online as opposed to real life. Similarly, easier access to pornography makes masturbation more likely and potentially more favorable. And despite the growth of abstinence-only education programs, some experts point to state and municipal public health messaging being more effective, hitting the right tone of pragmatism and acceptance. 

Lastly, iGen’s employment has taken a hit — though in fairness the numbers haven’t yet recovered from the Great Recession. Still, we see a Gen Z decline. Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman sums it up succinctly, “In July of last year, 43 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were either working or looking for a job. That’s 10 points lower than in July 2006. In 1988 and 1989, the July labor force participation rate for teenagers nearly hit 70 percent.” 

As with the previously mentioned categories, Steverman notes that experts put forth varying theories on why we’re seeing this trend; teens being crowded out by Americans working past 65, immigrants competing for similar jobs, teens replacing jobs with extracurriculars and volunteering in a bid to impress colleges, or simply the value of a dollar meaning less and less. 

Clearly, when considered in a vacuum, each categorical decline can be accounted for with a horde of generally unrelated causes. And this tends to be the case — research entities that study teen sexual activity don’t often look into their employment. It’s easy to see a decline in Gen Z drinking, drugs and sex and simply dub them a more responsible generation. 

But the decline in jobs and driving could paint a different picture. Twenge’s studies are buzzworthy because they identify the decline in all adult behaviors, and combine them in a new narrative. Certainly everything holds true for the most part; ride-hailing apps are as valid a reason for decreased driving as easy porn access is for decreased sexual activity. But Twenge argues a common thread, and shifts the conversation from, “Is Gen Z more or less responsible,” to “Why is their childhood being extended?”

Twenge insists it’s not the economic effects of the Great Recession (trends continued even when the economy recovered), nor is it more rigorous schooling (time spent on homework has dropped since the ‘90s and extracurriculars have stayed the same). Rather she uses “life history theory” to explain. 

“A ‘slow life strategy’ is more common in times and places where families have fewer children and spend more time cultivating each child’s growth and development,” she says. “This is a good description of our current culture in the U.S., when the average family has two children, kids can start playing organized sports as preschoolers and preparing for college can begin as early as elementary school. This isn’t a class phenomenon; I found in my analysis that the trend of growing up more slowly doesn’t discriminate between teens from less advantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier families.” 

Compare this to the “fast life strategy” of previous generations who had to grow up quicker; when the average woman had four children, and your grandpa had to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways.

Of course, technology has to be taken into account — again, this is the first generation to grow up with no concept of a time before smartphones. The authors of Twenge’s “Child Development” study are quick to point out that technology can’t be entirely to blame, however. The decline in adult behaviors began before the Internet and smartphones took over. 

Though Twenge does link screen time — smartphones in particular — to social isolation and declining mental health. And the broader social implications of technology’s impact does fit within the results of the study. 

You don’t have to drive to the party, pay for party supplies, or engage in party behavior, if the party is online. 

Similarly, one’s online footprint is acting as somewhat of a deterrent for Gen Z. Emma, a 16-year-old with experience in both large high schools (graduating class size of 1,200 in St. Louis) and small (graduating class size of 150 in upstate New York) speaks to how her teachers are handling the changing world. 

“Growing up, in school or in health class, that’s all they ever tell you,” she says. “‘Be careful what you do online,’ or, ‘be careful what you do in general because it could end up online.’ Colleges will see things, job opportunities will be taken from you. 

“I’d say starting from 5th grade, that became a huge new topic in health class,” she continues. “We learned about social media and your online presence and what it can do to your life and your reputation.” 

Gen Z has seen normal people become viral memes, they’ve seen secret recordings ruin reputations. That sentiment of being wary, of growing up seeing so much private information made public, could have another effect aside from limiting certain behaviors. It can limit the reporting of certain behaviors, as well. 

Sue Scheff, a nationally recognized parent and family Internet safety advocate, and author of recently published book “Shame Nation,” speaks often about Gen Z’s reluctance to report — especially in cases of online bullying. 

“Of adults (over 30), 41 percent have reported being victims of online harassment,” she says. “Of millennials, 70 percent have reported being victims of online harassment, digital hate, revenge porn, all kinds of online abuse. But when it comes to teenagers, 34 percent have reported. Now, that’s significantly less. The reason why I believe the numbers are so much lower, and what I have found in speaking with kids and teens when I go out, is that they don’t report it. They’re afraid of having their communications cut off, they’re afraid of retaliation, and they’re afraid of judgment and blame.” 

It’s an interesting angle to consider, though anecdotally, one never really knows. When asked about results of the studies showing declining adult behaviors, Emma deadpans: “Kids are lying.” 

The downward trends in Gen Z adult behaviors look undeniable, though. But when there’s such an incredibly drastic change in any data, it’s worth taking all potential factors into account. 

Ultimately, the implications of Twenge’s findings are twofold; Gen Z is physically safer, but emotionally and socially very much at risk. There’s a fair amount of unrelated studies that align with her numbers and trends, and she makes a compelling case for tying them all together and providing some reasoning where there was none. 

But as ever, theories are made to be tested. NPR in particular has poked fairly damning holes in Twenge’s methods, among them, that she draws conclusions and then collects evidence to support them while ignoring evidence that doesn’t. It claims she also uses “deceptive spins,” like disguising grammatical shifts as cultural ones.

And look, we all saw the millennial hype explode into a mushroom cloud of Internet lulz, the generalizations just mocked into absolute oblivion. We’d be wise to keep it in mind as we consider Gen Z now. These studies are inevitable — arguably critical, even. There’s value in tracking these activities, in knowing that this generation is engaging less in adult behaviors. But to hang a hat on any one explanation (even one as compelling as Twenge’s), is dangerous, if only because iGen will drag us online for being laughably out of touch. 

And they’re at home, skipping the party, ready to do just that.