If children are the future, the future is (mostly) bright

“Every generation has its doubts about the younger generation” is the caption beneath my favorite Herblock cartoon. The caption is certainly true, and Herblock’s cartoon shows three generations, each elder looking uncertainly at his offspring.Herblock generation doubts

Of course, the eldest gentleman in Herblock’s cartoon would likely be a World War I veteran and a survivor of the Great Depression. And his son would have served in World War II, a member of the “The Greatest Generation.” Yet in Herblock’s time, the men of The Greatest Generation were looked upon dubiously…just like every young generation is.

This gripe is at least as old as writing and probably older. In Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote that the young “Think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.” Sound familiar?

If each successive generation is worse than its parents, then why do we have progress? People in each successive generation are smarter and better educated (and more people are educated, period). These inferior youngsters keep creating things that make life better and better, be it the steam engine, democracy, or the iPhone. One could counter that they stand on the shoulders of giants, and I would agree. But I suspect that Herblock was onto something: We are prejudiced against the kids today.

Why would this be? One theory is that we compare today’s youth not to our child selves, but to our current selves. The kids don’t seem to have self-control…because we adults (probably unconsciously) compare them to our adult selves, and people (especially men) tend to have more self-control as they age. Instead, we should compare today’s youth to our young selves, something that’s very hard to do without psychological distortion. Another explanation could be the phenomenon known as rosy retrospection. As we age, we tend to remember the good bits and forget the bad bits. (This is not always true, just a general tendency.) So we remember ourselves as happier youngsters who worked hard and succeeded. Why aren’t these kids as good as we were?

Well, they are better than we were. In fact, evidence seems to paint a picture of a new greatest generation: the kids today.

Here’s what the Sacramento Bee recently reported about the current crop of California kids:

Social trends among California youth have been spectacular. Over the last generation, rates of arrests of Californians under age 20 have fallen by 80 percent, murder arrest by 85 percent, gun killings by 75 percent, imprisonments by 88 percent, births by teen mothers by 75 percent, and school dropout by more than half while college enrollments have risen 45 percent.

And here’s what Vox reported about the kids born since 2000:

Today’s teens are among the best-behaved generation of teens we know of.

Ten-point-eight percent of teens today smoke cigarettes. Twenty years ago, 34.8 percent of high school students did. Teenagers today are 46 percent less likely to binge drink than teenagers 20 years ago. In fact, they’re 21 percent less likely to have ever tried alcohol at all. In 1996, 5.6 percent of teen girls had babies. Now, that number is 2.3.

Now there is a dark side. Obesity, anxiety and depression are higher, but that’s true for the adult population, too. School shootings terrify teenagers though children are still much more likely to be hurt or killed in an accident or automobile than by a gun.

Regardless, there is much to be hopeful about. The kids are alright.

I will end by talking about the Flynn Effect, the slow but steady increase in IQ over the past 100 years. This effect is probably due to the increase in education as well as the richer information environments that each generation is exposed to. The Flynn Effect means the kids today are smarter than us, just as we were smarter than our parents.

So the next time you’re tempted to diss the newest generation, remember you’re doing to them what your parents’ generation did to you, and what even the great Aristotle did to the youth of ancient Greece. And remember that you’re wrong.

The Kids Are Alright

The kids today! They’re spoiled, ill-mannered, immature dunderheads!

If you relate to this (exaggerated) sentiment about today’s youth, you’re not alone. Ever since the first adult witnessed pubescent immaturity, great thinkers have dismissed the younger generation: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Or so wrote Aristophanes in one of his plays.

Well, it turns out that the greatest generation didn’t defeat Hitler or invent the transistor. Today’s youth are the greatest generation. In a recent Washington Post article, David Finkelhor uses data to lay bare how great our children are. They’re less likely to commit crimes, bully others, commit suicide, engage in premarital sex, drink, and engage in risky behavior. And because of the Flynn Effect, which shows no signs of going away, each generation is smarter than the previous (at least as measured on IQ tests).

And if the world keeps doing what it’s doing, this generation’s children will be the next greatest generation.


So Much to Be Grateful For!

Significant decreases in extreme poverty, hunger, child labor, child mortality, death in childbirth, teen births (US), smoking, war, homicide, violent crime, nuclear weapons, and share of income spent on food.

Significant increases in life expectancy, leisure time, literacy, IQ scores, democracy and internet access.

People are getting taller and staying in school longer. Guinea worm is almost eradicated–and Guinea Worm is a really bad parasite–Homelessness in the US is down.

Check out 26 Charts and Maps to Be Grateful for on Vox.com

Happy Thanksgiving!


Teen Drinking & Smoking at or Near “Historic Lows”; Drug Use Declining

The kids today! When I was a lad…

Every generation of old people gripes about the youngin’s, how they are lazier today and don’t know how good they got it.

Of course that’s rubbish, and it’s been rubbish for most of the history of elder complaints of the younger generation. Does Socrates sound familiar when he says this?–

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” 

Well, when I was a wee whippersnapper, children were not as smart, had worse health, lived shorter lives, were less literate and numerate, lived in a country that had just legalized racial equality but was still hostile to gays. Oh, how I pine for the golden days of yore!

In yet another demonstration of progress, researchers find that kids today smoke and drink less. The also don’t do drugs as much (though marijuana use is increasing; more on that below).

“Every year, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey measures drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and related attitudes among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.” The MTF is done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Many of the results of the 2013 MTF were quite heartening.

Drug trends

However, the 2013 MTF did note that marijuana use is increasing. This isn’t surprising as marijuana is now legal in some states and will likely be more and more accepted, both by the law and society. Therefore I am not optimistic about future trends in teen marijuana use. Also, the abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines is quite troubling. Ironically, it’s the adults that fuel these trends, not our miscreant children. As prescription drug use increases by parents, abuse increases with children stealing these medications for “recreational use.” And the grown-ups in state houses relaxing marijuana laws are a primary cause of teens thinking marijuana is neither harmful–the governor signed the bill into law, right?–or illegal.

Nonetheless, historically low levels of tobacco and alcohol use among teens is quite heartening.