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.