As the father of 5 children born between the years of 1997 and 2011 I eagerly devoured Jean Twenge’s earlier book called iGen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Religious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared For Adulthood – And What That Means For The Rest Of Us.
I couldn’t put it down and I read large sections of it to my wife and kids during Family Devotions. It helped us understand why our son was not as eager to get his driver’s licence as we had been. It helped us understand why most if not all of our oldest daughter’s friends were indifferent or even hostile toward the church. It helped us understand why all of our kids – and all of their friends – seemed several years behind where we had been, in terms of maturity and independence, at the same stage.
Which is why I was so eager to download the audible version of Twenge’s new book, Generations, the moment it became available on Audible; my hardcopy having arrived two days previous. My son is getting married in July (in defiance of generational norms!) and so my dad and I decided to take him on one last hike for some “man time” in advance of the big day. With a 15-hour drive ahead of us to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and 15 hours on the way back, I anticipated that Twenge’s book would provide plenty of fodder for our conversations.
I was not disappointed.
Having three different generations listening to a book about generations is guaranteed to stimulate dialogue. As we listened, I would frequently pause and ask a question like: “Dad, why do you think your generation (Silents) did not experience depression the way the generation before you (Greatest) and after you (Boomers) apparently did?”
He would sometimes interrupt the playback on his own by saying things like: “I remember that distinctly. Our generation took that for granted. That explains a lot!”
My son (Gen Z) listened and engaged a lot like you would expect: he often had his earbuds in, set to ambient aware, and would appear not to be listening, only to pipe up with a very insightful comment. When we stopped for coffee or lunch, he would offer comments and share concerns about things like the constant use of TikTok or the effect of transgender ideology on the kids a few years behind him who are still in High School. In his words, “I got out just before that became a thing.”
It was a wonderful trip, an engaging discussion, and a remarkably profitable listen. When I returned from the trip I devoured my hard copy of the book, which I would heartily recommend to every parent and pastor in North America.
A Brief Review:
Twenge begins by making an argument for the essential premise of the book: that generations actually matter! Some people will say that “Older people have always thought that the generations after them are soft. If that has always been happening, then how can generational differences truly exist?”
Twenge answers: “It might be because they were always right. With technology making life progressively less taxing for each generation, each generation is softer than the one before it. Just because something has been said before doesn’t make it wrong, especially if the change keeps going in the same direction.”
Twenge’s thesis is that each generation is different because of the technologies that were dominant during their childhood and because of the unique experiences they endured. Twenge sees technology as the foundational cause of most generational differences, supported and amplified by unique experiences. In Twenge’s model, technological changes facilitated a shift away from collectivism toward individualism and introduced a “slower life strategy” that explain most of the differences we observe between the 5 generations currently in existence in our culture.
The Silents (born 1925-1945):
Important technologies – Home appliances, radio, television as teenagers
Major events – Great Depression and WW2 as children and teenagers.
This generation was given its name by Time magazine in an article in 1951. The author behind the article was noticing that the so-called “Silent” generation of teenagers and young adults currently coming into their own was considerably less politically and socially active than those who had come before. That observation proved to be somewhat exaggerated – but the name stuck anyway.
Silents were very committed to domestic life. They married young, had lots of kids, and built stable and successful lives. They turned out to be more engaged in civic life than their teenage years would have predicted. This generation produced figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan, Antonin Scalia, and Bernie Sanders. They were however, typically overshadowed by the Greatest Generation (who fought and won WW2) and the Boomers who were associated with the Sexual Revolution and who dominated North American culture for most of the last 60 years.
This is the generation that first experienced television as teenagers. My mother (born 1942) remembers when their family purchased a television so that her father could watch hockey games. As a teenager she remembers seeing Elvis and other early rock stars on programs like the Ed Sullivan Show. TV allowed young people to see how other people in other places were living. It accelerated a trend toward individualism and consumerism. It also made people more aware of what was happening – good or bad – in the wider world.
The Silents were remarkably stable. They experienced depression at lower rates than the previous generations (fewer suicides and deaths of despair) and were the most marrying generation of the 20th century. Even when they got divorced, they quickly got remarried – see Larry King. They were generally religious, hard-working, and committed to family. They were more educated than their parents with nearly 1/3 earning a college or university degree. However, tuition was much cheaper for them, and most could pay their own way by working in the summer, a situation which no longer exists today. They were concerned for racial equality, and in the USA, were the leaders behind the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. That movement is often associated with the Boomers, who were young people at the time, but the architects of that movement were almost exclusively Silents.
The Boomers (born 1946-1964):
Important technologies – Television from childhood, air conditioning, birth control.
Major events – The Cold War, Watergate, Sexual Revolution
The Baby Boom began when the soldiers came home from WW2. It lasted, however, much longer than originally predicted. Fertility rates remained very high until 1957 producing the largest generation in North American history. The Boomers would dominate our culture for the next 70 years.
Whereas the Silent generation can tell you a story about when they first got TV, the Boomers can never remember a time before television. They also grew up in the time when household appliances were cheaper and more commonly available. Silents will tell you about how their moms used to wash clothes in a tub with an old-fashioned wringer – Boomers have no such recollections. Their mothers put clothes in the washing machine and ran them through the dryer. Theirs was the generation to embrace “free sex” in their teenage years, partly due to the development of the birth control pill in 1960. The Boomers were the first generation to largely embrace sex before marriage. They had far more open views toward homosexuality than the Silents and they used drugs at a much higher rate.
The Boomers tried to change the world – and they did – but they also went through many changes themselves. They were the Hippies of the late 60’s and 70’s but then also became the Yuppies of the 1980’s. They went from sticking it to the man in 1968 to climbing the corporate ladder in 1983. The Boomers were more materialistic, more divorce prone, had fewer kids and experienced more depression than any generation in living memory. They were very liberal as young adults and have trended conservative in their retirement years.
The Boomers were very passionate about gender equality. It was Boomer women, largely, who shattered gender norms and began working in large numbers outside the home. Boomer women are also very well educated with nearly 60% of them earning 4-year college degrees.
Boomers are richer, more politically powerful and more individualistic than the Silents, but their personal and home life has been far less stable. The rate of “deaths of despair” among the Boomers continue to rise. The largest tranche of Boomers turned 65 in 2022 and thus a wave of retirements is expected in the next 5 years. Many Boomers took early retirement during COVID19 creating a labour shortage that will get much worse in the coming decade. Caring for the Boomers as they age will prove to be a considerable challenge.
Gen X (born 1965-1979):
Important technologies – Television from infancy, internet as teens, social media as adults.
Major events – Rise of divorce in childhood, end of the Cold War as young adults.
Gen X is a small generation wedged between two behemoths: the Boomers and the Millennials. They are the classic middle child in the generational family. Gen X came along after the post-war Baby Boom and was the first generation to experience the internet. Gen X is thus the last generation to have experienced an analogue childhood. They remember rotary phones, card catalogues and making mix tapes. They experienced a great deal of freedom as children, riding their bikes, making forts and roaming the neighbourhood at will. They remember being told to come home when the streetlights come on. They were the generation that watched Star Wars in the theatre and then rented a VCR so as to watch it on Beta or VHS at home with their friends on their birthday. They got into “old fashioned trouble” as teenagers – they drank beer, made out and drove their cars way too fast on dirt roads.
Gen X grew up in a time of tremendous change. As Twenge notes, “Gen X’ers landed right in the middle of the influences of technology, individualism, and the slow-life strategy. They were born after TV, came of age with computers and then the internet, and got smartphones and social media as adults.”
Gen X’ers were also the children of divorce. They grew up when Silents were getting divorced (and remarried) and older Boomers were getting divorced (and perhaps not remarried). They loved watching the show The Brady Bunch, which was constantly on TV during their childhood, which explored the dynamics of blended family. Many Gen X’ers resolved not to be as materialistic as their parents and to seek a more sustainable “work life balance”.
Their relatively independent, analogue childhood and their experience of divorce, either directly or indirectly through peers, combined to make them both resilient and cynical. They trust authority less than their predecessors and are much less politically active. They tend not to trust the system and they tend not to aspire to change the system. They just want to make enough money to support themselves. Generation X had sex early and often – both before and during marriage. They had a very high teenage pregnancy rate. They used drugs less than the Boomers but were far more violent. Gen X teens and young adults produced a crime wave and a spike in the murder rate during the 1990’s.
Gen X’ers continued the trend toward earning a college degree with 30% earning a 4-year degree by the age of 30.
Gen X’ers surprised many people by having a large number of children, though they were the first generation to do that in unconventional ways. Single parenting became much more accepted among Gen X’ers as did cohabitation.
This generation began the trend toward environmentalism. For them, every day is earth day. They also continued the trend, started by the Boomers, toward approval of same sex marriage. While they were initially disapproving of homosexuality during the 1980’s, in their young and middle adult years their attitudes changed, largely because of the influence of television and then the internet. Characters like Ellen DeGeneres and shows like Will & Grace normalized what had previously been derided. By 2021 a majority of Gen X’ers supported same sex marriage – the first generation to do so.
With the Boomers retiring, Gen X’ers will begin to occupy the top leadership positions within the culture in the next decade.
Millennials (born 1980-1994):
Important technologies – Internet as children, social media and smart phones as teens.
Major events – 9/11 as older children/teens, Great Recession as teens/young adults.
As Twenge notes, “Millennials’ upbringing was relentlessly positive, with the strong economy, the computer revolution, and the end of the Cold War.” This was the generation of Barney, trophies for all participants and songs in kindergarten about self-esteem. Millennials believe they can do anything – and are often viewed as entitled by older generations. This is the generation that expected and demanded an A on every assignment. They grew up in the “no child left behind” era. Millennials were raised by Boomers who wanted their children to be shielded from danger and failure.
The events of 9/11 brought a dark cloud into the otherwise unflinchingly cheerful world of Millennials. That day forced them to reckon with the reality of evil and the reality that things might not always work out the way we imagine or hope that they will.
Millennials grew up with the internet. They remember AOL, Yahoo and 14.4 speed modems. They were the generation that texted on flip phones in Jr. High – typing each key three times for each letter!! Their young adulthood saw the introduction of Smart Phones, apps and social media.
Millennials continued the trend toward the “slow life strategy”. They are the most educated generation in human history and have thus entered the work force later than their parents or grandparents. This has contributed to the perception that Millennials are poorer than those who came before – after all, Grandma and Grandpa bought their first house when they were 25. Yes, but Grandma and Grandpa got married when they were 19 and 21 respectively and Grandpa had been working full time for 5 years while the average 25 year old Millennial was entering the first year of his or her Masters’ program. The world is different now, and while Millennials have entered the economy later than previous generations, due to their increased education, they are making up ground quickly. Twenge notes, “By 2019, households headed by Millennials actually made more money than Silents, Boomers, and Gen X’ers at the same age – and yes, that’s after the numbers are adjusted for inflation.”
Millennials perceive themselves as poor, largely because they are the first generation to view the world through the lens of social media. Social media privileges angry content so headlines like “Why Millennials are getting screwed by their Boomer parents” get liked, shared and retweeted. Social media also makes everyone else’s life look better than yours.
It should be noted that in Canada, housing prices relative to income have put Millennials at a disadvantage – though this trend was not discussed in Twenge’s book, which focuses almost exclusively on the American context. According to the data she was using, Millennials are simply delayed, economically, due to their higher participation in higher education, but the results already indicate that they will finish further ahead of their older generational siblings. Whether the same can be said for Canadian Millennials is beyond the scope of her inquiry.
In contrast to their parents and grandparents, Millennials have not embraced marriage or child bearing at anything near historical levels. They are delaying marriage by almost a decade and are having far fewer children than any generation in North American history. Millennials were raised to think about themselves, and marriage and children get in the way of self-fulfillment. As Twenge notes, “When younger adults who don’t want children are asked why, the majority in national polls name not financial issues or climate change but reasons centered on individualism, such as the desire for more leisure time, wanting more personal independence, and the choice-based, matter-of-fact “I just don’t want them.””
Millennials also were the first generation to experience “intensive parenting” and have carried this expectation forward into their own approach to or anticipation of the child rearing process. They tend to believe that children require constant supervision, multiple extra-curricular activities and massive amounts of investment and care – and therefore, they perceive the entire process as too demanding. Millennials who do have kids spend more time with their children than any previous generation.
Millennials are having less sex than their Generation X older siblings. Dating has been complicated by the introduction of apps and the dynamic between the genders is fraught with hazards and the potential for miscommunication and offense with the result that both without and within marriage, Millennials are enduring a virtual sex famine.
Of interest to Christians is the fact that Millennials have abandoned religion – personal and institutional – at a never-before-seen level. They are the least religious generation in North American history. Why is religion not attractive to Millennials? Twenge answers: “In short, because it is not compatible with individualism – and individualism in Millennials’ core value above all else.”
Millennials are just coming into their own in the workplace and society and will soon compete with Gen X’ers for places of leadership and control of the culture.
Generation Z (born 1995-2012):
Important technologies – Internet, smart phones and social media from childhood forward.
Major events – COVID19, election of Donald Trump, killing of George Floyd.
In her earlier book, Twenge suggested the name iGen for this generation, given that their entire childhood was dominated by the internet generally, and by the introduction of the iPhone in particular. The name Generation Z is actually a reference to the fact that the Millennials were originally referred to as Generation Y because they followed Gen X. Whether the term Gen Z sticks or not, remains to be seen.
Gen Z grew up in a post 9/11 world. The older Gen Z’ers watched Baby Einstein on DVD and the younger ones watched YouTube Kids on an iPad or iPhone. They are social media natives. They speak in a language their Gen X parents cannot understand, using lol, lmao, ttyl, brb and imo as if they were actual words. Whereas their Silent grandparents want to talk in person and their Gen X bosses want to email, Gen Z does almost all of their communicating by text or through social media apps. They spend less time outside, less time exercising and less time socializing physically with friends than their parents and grandparents. As a result, they are more obese and more depressed than young people in the past.
Gen Z has continued the trend toward the slow life strategy. They got their licenses later (if at all), had sex later (if at all) and took longer to settle upon an educational or occupational trajectory. In addition, they lost 2 years of their childhood to COVID19 and therefore they tend to present as 2-3 years less mature than their Millennial older siblings and perhaps as much as 8-10 years less mature than their parents and grandparents at the same age.
Gen Z has followed the trend toward individualism into previously unexplored territory. Their commitment to self-expression has caused them to question everything and to embrace a theory of gender fluidity with an almost religious like zeal and commitment. Interestingly, this trend was not in evidence in 2010. In her earlier book, iGen, Twenge found that Generation Z was sceptical and slightly negative towards the new transgender phenomenon. They felt that transgender people were not being true to themselves. That has changed. In a recent poll 2/3 of Gen Z young people now support transgender rights and a staggering 8% identify as either transgender or gender fluid. The increase in identification has been almost exclusively among biological females identifying as male or gender fluid – a change from the early days of the transgender movement which saw mostly males identifying as female. Gen Z has also embraced the LGB of the LGBT movement with more than 16% identifying as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual. Twenge notes, “By 2021, 1 in 7 high school freshmen identified as something other than straight.”
Not surprisingly, Gen Z is the least marrying generation in North American history, at least so far. With the oldest Gen Z’ers just a few years away from their 30th birthday, they will also likely have the fewest children of any generation in North American history. Connected to that is the fact that they appear to be having the least amount of sex in North American history. Twenge quotes a 24-year-old man as saying, “The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there’s far less incentive to go out in the ‘meatworld’ and chase those things.” Pornography and masturbation have replaced actual sex for a huge swath of this generation.
That phrase “the meatworld” is telling. Gen Z lives online. They went to school online during the pandemic and they have entered the economy during the era of remote work. Gen Z does not like dressing up, and while they don’t mind working hard, according to survey results, they would rather do that from home, if at all possible.
Gen Z is very concerned about safety – to a degree never before seen in North American history. Perhaps this is a consequence of having lived through a pandemic, but the trend was already visible in the Millennial generation, which grew up before COVID19. This concern for safety extends beyond the physical to embrace the social and the psychological. When Gen Z went to college and university, they reversed a trend that went back to the time of the Boomers. In the 1960’s it was the students clamouring for free speech and their Greatest Generation and Lost Generation teachers and administrators pumping the brakes. Now it is the students demanding censorship and safe spaces. Gen Z sees speech as harm and it believes that anything that makes a person feel sad or challenged, should be restricted. As Gen Z enters the workforce they will take this attitude with them forcing managers and companies to limit speech and to censure older employees to toe the line.
Gen Z is more politically aware and engaged than their Gen X parents typically were. They vote more and protest more aggressively. They expect change at a pace and to a magnitude never before experienced. Because they view the world through the lens of social media they believe that it is considerably worse than it actually is. They don’t see the progress that has been made in the area of race and gender equality. They don’t see the progress that has been made economically. Their newsfeed is filled with chaos and despair, and therefore, Gen Z wants to burn the house down. They are generally opposed to capitalism and favour a complete overhaul of our current democratic institutions.
They are also significantly more depressed. “Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012.” Gen Z young people spend less time in person with friends and have fewer connections to multigenerational community (think church) than any generation in recent history. Despite that the world is actually better by almost every conceivable metric – Gen Z’ers are filled with despair. Suicide rates, particularly among Gen Z girls, are rising at astronomical rates. “The teen suicide rate nearly doubled between 2007 and 2019”. Twenge attributes this to the rapid embrace of the internet and social media, noting that these realities, “arose from the fastest adoption of any technology in human history.” We simply did not have enough time, as parents and as a society, to study the potential impacts of smart phones and social media in the hands of children and young people. By the time the damage was done, it was too late. Twenge suggests the imposition of age limits and time limits as part of an attempt to mitigate the impact of these technologies.
Polars (born 2013-2029):
Important technologies – Internet, AI, smart phones and social media from childhood forward, likely with more restrictions.
Major events – Post COVID19.
The chapter on Polars is shorter than any of the others, and rightly so given that many of these people have not even been born yet! The fact that this chapter exists at all, is due to the fact that the experience of COVID19 as the dominate experience of the Gen Z children dictates that it mark the end of that generation. If a child was too young to remember a world before COVID, then they functionally belong to a different generation.
All that can be said about this generation, also referred to as Alphas, given that they follow Gen Z, is that they will be raised by parents that have learned to fear the impact of social media and ubiquitous technology. They will still be digital natives but may not be given a Smart Phone until they are 16 and may find their devices shutting off every night at 10 pm automatically and not coming back on again until 9 am. They will likely grow up slowly, be incredibly well educated and spend far more time exercising and socializing in person than their Gen Z older siblings.
Beyond that, it is far too early to say how this generation will develop and what trends they will continue and what trends they will reverse.
Twenge ends her book by offering a few predictions about the near and medium term future. She predicts that remote work will become the default as socially inhibited, digital native Gen Zers begin to dominate the workplace. She sees increasing generational conflict in society and the workplace due to the chasm that exists between those raised on the internet (Millennials and Gen Z) and those raised before it (Gen X and Boomers). She sees an increasing emphasis on mental health as both Millennials and Gen Z young people suffer from depression and anxiety at unprecedented levels and Boomers wrestle with alcoholism and late in life despondency. She predicts a nonbinary future as clothes become unisex and gender becomes functionally irrelevant and she predicts a further cratering of the birth rate and a corresponding collapse, or redefinition of the family.
According to Twenge, the future of religion is challenging, to say the least. “All signs point toward religion continuing to retreat among Americans.”
Managing or mitigating the impact of technology on child development and social cohesion will be the most important challenge we face in the coming decade, according to Twenge. We need to, “find a way for technology to bring us together instead of driving us apart.”
I originally bought this book believing that it would help me better pastor my multigenerational church, but the more I read it, the more I realized that I should have bought it to help me parent my kids. As a parent of 5 Gen Z children, I was aware of how different their world was to the one my wife and I inhabited. We often laugh when we get together with our friends about how our kids are in no hurry to get their drivers licence, how they speak in short forms and how they have never even heard of rotary phones – and we enjoy the fact that they have rediscovered our music and fashion through hit shows like Stranger Things. What we don’t understand is the social awkwardness and the depression.
Why are kids depressed when they are so much safer, so much more prosperous and so much more privileged than we were?
The answer, according to Twenge, is technology. Gen Z children view the world through the lens of social media which foregrounds stories and themes that induce anger, division and despondency. It also severs young people from traditional sources of happiness and contentment, particularly in terms of personal relationships, marriage and religion. My wife and I are very happy because we have each other, we have great friends, and our lives are centred around worshipping and serving our Creator. Technology has made all of those things less real and less relevant to Gen Z children.
I have no quarrel with Twenge’s analysis but I do find her prescriptions underwhelming. I think she is right that we need to have an urgent discussion around managing technology and mitigating its harmful effects. I agree that there should be an age limit on smart phones and social media apps. I think 16 is the right number. I further agree that automatic nighttime shut offs (adjusted to time zone) would be helpful.
But we need to do more and we need to think more broadly.
As a Christian, and a pastor, I think we need to speak with more confidence about what the church has to offer to our society. Where else can you go to find multigenerational community? The church needs to lean into this as an asset instead of segregating by generations as we attempted to do in the 1990’s. The church should be multigenerational by design and intentionally analogue in its approach to worship.
Church should be a low-tech space.
Not a “Luddite space” but decidedly low tech. We need to encourage people to see worship as an opportunity to unplug. Leave cell phones in the car. Crack open a paper Bible. Don’t hide in your smart phone after the service, shake hands with a senior citizen. Go down to the kitchen to make a meal for a shut in. Take a turn in the nursery bouncing a baby on your knee.
Given the struggle that Gen Z’ers (and Boomers apparently) have with depression we need to speak Good News and SING Good News! The lives of our children and loved ones may well depend upon it.
I don’t believe the church should withdraw from or vilify technology, but we need to take the lead in offering counsel, retreat and recuperation. The church should be a place for consultation and collaboration. Parents and Grandparents need help understanding younger people. The church can bring people together and build bridges around common commitments.
The Bible can serve as an outside voice in these conversations, providing balance, boundaries and eternal perspective. We are seeing something of that in our church community. I mentioned at the outset of this article that I downloaded the audio version of Twenge’s book to listen to while three generations of Carter men drove to Great Smoky Mountain National Park to do some hiking in advance of my son’s upcoming wedding.
He will be 21 on his wedding day.
By the grace of God, he loves the Lord, values the Scriptures and has a cluster of excellent “meatworld” friendships, mostly gained in youth group and through other church activities. He is still Gen Z, but with a twist and with a multipolar set of guiding and forming influences.
I believe that is how the church can function over the coming decade – and beyond. We can offer a compelling alternative, a transforming message, a shaping community and a listening ear.
Pastor Paul Carter
If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.
 Jean Twenge, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents – and What They Mean for America’s Future, (New York: Atria Books, 2023), 29.
 Twenge, Generations, 151.
 Ibid., 260.
 Ibid., 286.
 Ibid., 301.
 Ibid., 365.
 Ibid., 371.
 Ibid., 392.
 Ibid., 398.
 Ibid., 401.
 Ibid., 502.
 Ibid., 515.