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Science proves 'kids these days' are fine—it's the adults who tend to be oblivious a-holes
Patrick Buck/Unsplash

"Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more
worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more
corrupt."
- Horace in Book III of Odes, 20 BC

"Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man's estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions set by its gilded youth--all these lack some of the regulatives they still have in older lands with more conservative conditions." - Psychologist Granville Stanley Hall in The Psychology of Adolescence, 1904

The "kids these days" trope has been around forever. We have documentation for centuries of aging generations complaining that the young people are simply the worst. They have no respect. They've lost all sense of discipline. They're impetuous and impulsive, self-absorbed and self-indulgent. Millennials, millennials, blah blah blah.


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But a new series of studies confirms what many of us have always suspected: The kids are alright. At least, they're not objectively any worse than previous generations of young people. Rather, the ones responsible for the supposed downfall of "kids these days" are adults who lack self-awareness about how they apply their biased standards to young people.

In a paper published in Science Advances in October 2019, John Protzko and Jonathan W. Schooler from University of California, Santa Barbara examined five studies to determine what causes the "kids these days" phenomenon. They found that American adults tend to believe that today's youth are in decline in three traits—respect, intelligence, and an affinity for reading. But rather than objective truths, those perceptions are mostly due to adults applying their own mature standards on young people, in addition to bias for the traits in which they themselves currently excel.

The researchers wrote about their findings:

"Authoritarian people especially think youth are less respectful of their elders, intelligent people especially think youth are less intelligent, and well-read people especially think youth enjoy reading less. These beliefs are not predicted by irrelevant traits. Two mechanisms contribute to humanity's perennial tendency to denigrate kids: a person-specific tendency to notice the limitations of others where one excels and a memory bias projecting one's current qualities onto the youth of the past. When observing current children, we compare our biased memory to the present and a decline appears. This may explain why the kids these days effect has been happening for millennia."

So basically, older folks tend to be oblivious about how unfair and inaccurate their assessments of young people can be. Shocker, right?

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Each generation has unique qualities and characteristics honed by the time and environment in which they live. But young people behaving like young people and old folks behaving like old folks is the same in every age. Young people have always tended to push boundaries and old people have always looked back at their youth through a lens of rose-tinted nostalgia. Young people have always been immature as a group (hello, that what being young means) and older people have always forgotten what it was like to be young.

Objectively, though, kids these days have some impressive qualities—they tend to care about social and environmental causes and many are actively engaged in civil and political discourse. According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, teens smoke less, drink less, get pregnant less, get into fights less, and generally make less trouble than my own generation did. Some studies show that young people are taking longer to grow up and start doing "adult" things, but at the same time, they have closer bonds with their parents than previous generations. They struggle with increasing rates of mental health struggles and suicide, but are also working hard to break the stigma on such things.

Lighten up, gramps. The kids are alright.

Perhaps if we give young people the benefit of the doubt and some grace to figure out their place in the world, we can put an end to the "kids these days" cycle—or at least offer a better example of self-awareness than previous generations of curmudgeony old folks have.

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