People have been whining about the youth since ancient times. Reflecting on the new generation, Aristotle remarked in the 4th century BC that “they think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”
In the 1790 book Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family, Reverend Enos Hitchcock wrote:
“The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?”
If you’re a millennial, you’ve probably heard it all by now — how your snowflake generation is ruining the food industry, the movie industry, the work week — basically everything. But you just have to take it in and breathe because, after all, people have been complaining about the youth since the dawn of mankind — and presumably, there will come a day when you too complain that the generations that came after you are lacking and inferior.
Psychologists affectionately call this the “kids these days” effect. In a new study, John Protzko and Jonathan W. Schooler, both psychologists at the University of California Santa Barbara, explored the mechanisms that might explain why people tend to disparage the youth.
The researchers performed three studies. In the first, they surveyed 1824 American adults, questioning them about how much they believed that children today respect their elders compared to when they were children. On average, the participants believed that today’s children respect their elders less than they used to. Among the participants who scored high for authoritarianism, this sentiment was even more pronounced. The more a person respects authority, the more they are to believe that children today no longer respect their elders
“It’s the exact same complaints time after time—they’re disrespectful, they don’t listen to their elders and they don’t like to work,” Protzko said.
In a second study, the researchers examined the relationship between the “kids these days” effects and perceptions about intelligence. The psychologists gauged authoritarianism in 134 participants, who also had to complete the CAVD intelligence test.
The results of this study were particularly interesting because they showed that, on average, the participants believed there was “no change in intelligence.” However, more intelligent people held the belief that children today were becoming less intelligent. The authoritarianism score was unrelated to these beliefs, which suggests that the results from the first study did not predict complaints about the youth in general. Instead, it may be that the “kids these days” effect is trait-specific, being higher among people who score high for a particular domain.
“Individuals who excel in a particular trait are likely to notice disparities between themselves and the youth of the present,” the researchers wrote in Science Advances.
The third study added weight to this trait-specific hypothesis. The researchers recruited 1,500 American adults that matched the national demographics of the first study. Each participant was asked to what extent they thought that the youth today enjoys reading compared to when they were a child. The participants had to complete the Author Recognition Test, which measured how well-read they were.
Like in the first study which found children today respect their elders less, people also believed that kids these days enjoy reading less than they used to. The more well-read people were, the strong this effect.
“This finding supports the conjecture that people who are objectively elevated in a trait are particularly predisposed to notice others (both youth and adults) as lacking in that trait. Even when views about adults were accounted for, we still observed the predicted effect with youth, indicating that the kids these days effect is not just a general belief in societal decline. While people may believe in a general decline, they also believe that children are especially deficient on the traits in which they happen to excel,” the researchers wrote.
What’s more, the researchers found that the “relationship between how well-read someone objectively is and their belief that children today no longer like to read was also mediated by how much they “remember” enjoying reading as a child.” The researchers call this the “biased memory account.”
“The more you respect authority as an adult, the more you think kids no longer respect their elders; the smarter you are, the more you think kids these days are getting dumber,” Protzko said. “And people who are well-read tend to think that kids these days no longer like to read.”
The biased memory bit is important. Because our recollection of the past is so subjective — whether they’re memories of us reading a good book on the bus ride home from school or that summer vacation you spent with your grandparents — it can be very tempting to criticize the youth because we often lack objective evidence.
“All we have is our memory to rely on, and the biases that come with it,” Protzko said.