iGen. Gen Z. The internet generation. Whatever you want to call us, we are a generation raised in a world different from any generation before. Most of us barely remember a time before iPhones and other smartphones, and none of us remembers a time before the internet.
Born between the years 1995-2012, iGen has been dominated by constant communication, social media, and instant access to more information than ever before. All this was in our pockets from the moment we entered adolescence, if not earlier. But what effect has this had on us? What will it mean for our futures as we navigate adult life?
Jean M. Twenge answers this in her lengthily-titled book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of more than 150 scientific publications and 6 books, (including one titled Generation Me on the Millennial generation). Her research focuses on generations, personality, social psychology, and gender roles.
In iGen, she uses 10 conveniently alliterated “i”-phrases to explain our generation: in no hurry, internet-addicted, in person no more, insecure, irreligious, insulated but not intrinsic, income insecure, indefinite, inclusive, and independent. Over the course of ten chapters, Twenge captures the essence of iGen through surveys, dozens of personal stories, and her own experiences as a college professor and mom of three iGen daughters.
Twenge’s surveys are large and longitudinal, involving 11 million people over decades of data gathering. Her surveys include people from multiple genders, races, locations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. She also compares different generations at the same age point in order to dispel the claim that “that’s just how young people are no matter what time they live in.”
In my view, Twenge does an exceptional job of highlighting trends, their impacts, and their potential causes. Oftentimes large studies can feel dry and abstract, but Twenge’s personal anecdotes are brilliant and help bring the data to life.
Twenge discusses in depth the role of social media in the life of iGen. She claims that constant internet access and new-media provided by our smartphones have a major effect on in-person interaction and, at the very least ,an indirect impact on mental health. She discusses how seeing everyone else’s carefully curated versions of themselves on social media create false expectations for how people’s lives ought to look and increased anxiety and depression.
She also discusses how iGen is more concerned with personal safety than generations past. Her claim is that iGen is one of the most individualism-influenced generations and that this individualistic mindset drives a near obsession with safety in order to prevent one’s self or any other person from getting offended or hurt. This can go in the direction of something as practical as not getting a driver’s license until two or more years after the legal age to something more emotional like attempting to carefully monitor whether people are being hurt by what’s being said at a university lecture.
Twenge claims that, because of the iGen mindset, university life has become somewhat of an extension of childhood, not the plunge into adulthood it once was. She shows the impact this has on how the students think about their education and about their expectations for how the university should hold students and staff accountable, and how it could be hindering the ability of universities to promote healthy and open-minded learning environments.
Twenge suggests ways to combat the trends that are most negative. She outlines practical ways for parents of iGen kids to introduce smartphones and social media in a careful and intentional way, allowing for the fun while preventing addiction or unmonitored access. She offers suggestions for how young adults can think about their phones and their own access to social media. She advocates spending time with other people in person, and highlights activities that increase happiness and decrease risk factors for depression.
Gen Z is at the front and center of the incoming workforce and dominates the college population. We are the first to be raised almost entirely with smartphones in our hands and the first to show the effects of constant internet and screen access from childhood. We are the generation that will shape the decades to come, and as a result of this book, I am both in awe and fear for what it will look like as we fully enter adulthood.
It is important to note that Twenge’s book was published in 2017, written in 2016, and based on data from 2015-2016, so it is roughly seven years in the making. Her findings are important, and I don’t disagree with their implications, but it is important to remember that they are based on a (slightly) out-of-date understanding of who iGen is. In a society recently affected by a global pandemic, another presidential election, and iGen entering the workforce, it will be interesting to see if the trends identified by Twenge are still visible. I am curious to see if her hypotheses are borne out and if the trends continue on their anticipated trajectory.
I would say that every person who is iGen, works with iGen, or is interested in iGen should read this book. Apart from being full of surprising data, it offers practical advice to potentially help combat the problems that will arise with our modern technologies.