The Generation Gaffe

For a long time I have been fascinated by this common idea that each generation thinks following generations are worse. The idea is epitomized in the phrase “kids these days” and whatever complaint follows. So, of course, this has been going on forever. The internet is full of quotes from centuries ago, even from ancient times, where adults are complaining about young people.

Observing these observations is nothing new either (the cartoon below is from 1950). Perhaps for as long as adults have been complaining about younger generations, people have been adding as a footnote to the observation:  “You know, our parents said the same thing about us.”

What fascinates me most is the compulsiveness of it and the level of entrenchment in the thinking. Knowing (as surely everyone reading this does) that every generation complains about the next and that every generation thinks that “this time is different,” and that the statements are almost always factually and historically inaccurate, why do we still do it? Why are people so insistent and willing to argue about the accuracy of their observations? Are not we, those who think we did a better job of being young, the narcissists here?

I have been observing and commenting on this phenomenon all my adult life but I still catch myself thinking this way sometimes. About the time my older kids hit adulthood I began making an effort not to say these sort of things, but I still do on occasion. When I catch myself thinking like this I usually counter these seemingly unintentional thoughts with more rational thinking  (“Well, actually Ferguson, violence among teenagers is now 12% of what it was 20 years ago”). Whenever I start to worry about my kids spending too much time with technology I will tag on some sarcastic self-talk: “Because in the future it will be 1955 again.”

There is even a name for these sort of ideas/behavior: “Juvenioa.” It’s a fairly new word so definitions range from the specific–thinking that technology/internet is destroying young minds–to just the general idea of thinking youth are worse today than they were at some other time in history. The person most often credited with coining the word is David Finkelhor, who writes:

“Now it is important to see that the claim about the Internet as youth deviance amplifier is simply a hypothesis, not an established fact, and one that should foster some scrutiny. This is especially true because if one looks for evidence that the Internet is increasing risk and deviance among youth, the remarkable and jarring thing is that in the last 10-15 years while this anxious narrative about the Internet has been coming to dominate parent and media discussions of childhood, we have been observing a dramatically contradictory positive pattern in the social indicators. In the US there has been a remarkable improvement in social problem and risk indicators young people, including many of them that you might expect would be ‘the canaries in the coal mine’ if it were the case that the mass migration of the young people into this technological world was really having such a corrupting and deviance-amplifying influence on them.”

That’s from his paper: The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia.”

He then goes on to refute with data a long list of common claims (fears) about damage the internet is causing to young people. Nearly every common indicator of well-being for children and teenagers, from pregnancy to academics and just your basic delinquency, has seen improvement during the internet age. If you are interested in this particular form of cognitive bias (akin to stereotyping) his paper is ridiculously fascinating.

Where I am currently is that this type of behavior, Juvenoia or generational bias or whatever we call it, is in fact stereotyping and I should continue working to excise it from my thinking, mostly for my own sake because when I engage in stereotyping it’s like seeing the tree but not the leaves. Where is the poetry in that? And if I can’t see the leaves how do I know it’s actually a tree?

In my professional thinking, it might be more difficult. Here is a list of common ideas marketing people have about millennials. It’s not a definitive list (there are so many lists out there) but it is representative.  The only thing I have done is add a few words to each item, and then make some comments.

Kids today (millennials) like things to happen fast, don’t make ’em wait.

Come on. Speed is relative. Weren’t they saying the same thing about young people when they got pocket calculators and digital watches, or during the rocket age or when TV invaded the home? Planes. Cars. Railroads. The telegraph. Youth have always wanted things to happen faster and been first in line when they do.

Kids today (millennials) like authenticity, so be upfront with them and be yourself.

Because young people have never called bullshit on previous generations or said “don’t trust anyone over 30” or occupied an administration building. In the past, I guess young people liked it when you tried to slick-willy a manipulation past them. And they used to love it whenever an older person attempted to act like a younger person.

Kids today (millennials) like instant access, they want it now.


Kids today (millennials) love free stuff, so offer them free stuff.

Because until 1980, advertisers had never used the word FREE everywhere and all the time over and over everywhere all the time.

Kids today (millennials) love technology.

Finally, we have a generation of young people who are willing to be early adopters of the very latest technological innovations

All of the lists of how to market to kids today (millennials), just seem a little precious to me. All of this is not to say that kids today (millennials) do not engage in stereotyping or have cognitive bias relative to older people (maturanoia?). Of course they do… bunch of impatient, entitled, whiners.