How can we best understand and engage younger generations today? Our guest today, Dr. Jean Twenge, is a professor of psychology at SDSU and the author of Generations. She has been one of our go-to scholars on generational trends and has just released a 500-page book that traces generational changes from Silents (b. 1925-1945), Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z, and up to the newest generation emerging today (polars). Join Scott and Dr. Twenge as they discusses the research on Gen Z and what it means for pastors, parents, and others who care about understanding and mentoring the next generation.
Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 180 scientific publications and 7 books, including iGen, GenerationMe, and The Narcissism Epidemic.
Scott: How can we best understand and engage younger generations today? Our guest, Dr. Jean Twenge, is professor of psychology at San Diego State University, author of a brand new book called “Generations,” subtitled “The Real Difference Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silence and What They Mean for America's Future.” She has been our go-to person on generational trends, and today we're going to look at particularly the research on Gen Z, what that means for pastors, parents, and others who care about understanding and mentoring the next generation. I'm your host, Scott Rae, and this is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Dr. Twenge, thank you so much for joining us. Really looking forward to our conversation.
Jean: Thank you.
Scott: So tell me, how did you get so interested in this particular academic specialty? Why are you so passionate about understanding these generational trends?
Jean: You know, it all started when I was an undergraduate and I was working on my honors thesis and found that my peers were scoring very differently on a psychological questionnaire than college students had 20 years before that and realized it made sense, maybe there were some generational differences. And found other people had used the scale and found sure enough there was a progressive change over time in these traits. And that was in the early 90s. It was right around the time that the media had discovered Generation X and there were a lot of books and articles written about that generation, which is my own. But so many of them weren't actually based on data. They were based on stereotypes and myths and maybe anecdotal observations here and there. So, I was in grad school by then and realizing, well, you know, this is a really interesting area and there's very little actual research on it.
Scott: Well, as you look throughout the generations, how, in your best understanding, how approaches to religion and faith shifted through the generations that you're writing about?
Jean: Well, what we know for sure is that young people in particular are less likely now to affiliate with a religion. They're less likely to attend religious services, to say they believe in God, to say that they pray. Most Americans, including young Americans, still do those things, still believe in those things. But there's been a big growth in the number of young people who are basically purely secular.
Scott: Okay. What do you think accounts for that shift? Particularly the still having a private faith, but not interested in any identification with a church or religious body or anything like that?
Jean: Well, the indications of a private faith have also gone down. So, praying or belief in God have also gone down among young people. That came later, that came after the decline in public religion. But yeah, all of those have gone down. And I think that one major culprit is the growth of individualism. So, that's a cultural system that places more emphasis on the self and less on social rules and less on others. So, individualism is a key part of the theory that's at the core of this book, which is that technology creates cultural change. And it does that directly sometimes, but then it also sometimes does that through the mechanism of increasing individualism. And, almost by definition, religion and individualism are like oil and water. Religion says there's something bigger than yourself, there's certain rules you need to follow, and we're going to explore this in fellowship with others. Individualism says do your own thing. Focus on yourself first. And sure, it's great to have friends and maybe family, but you have to love yourself first. You don't need anyone else to make you happy.
Scott: All right. So spell out a little bit more how technology has contributed to that shift from more of a collectivist view of the individual within community as opposed to individualism.
Jean: Well, you know the traditional theories of generations focused on big events, things like wars, economic cycles. They would try to say, well you know generations are the way they are because they experience certain events at different ages. And especially things that happen when people were, say, adolescents and young adults, that's going to be what makes them who they are. But events don't have as much long term impact on how we live as technology does. I mean the changes in technology, not just smartphones and social media, but things like labor saving devices, faster transportation, better medical care. That's what makes it really different to live now than 200 years ago or 100 years ago or even 20 years ago. So, given that technology is really at the root of cultural change and that's what makes generations different is that they grow up in different cultures. As time goes on cultures change.
Scott: So, I could see where this would be—I mean you've raised the point already that in an individualistic culture there's less of a sense of there being things bigger than myself, not just the community but transcendent things. But what kinds of challenges do you think that this more individualistic culture will raise for religious institutions like churches, like Biola University, where I teach? Especially if you anticipate this kind of individualism only increasing in the future?
Jean: Well, I think there's both challenges and then I think some opportunities. So, I think the opportunity is that even though teens spend a lot less time with each other face to face and a lot more time online—needing to be with other people and having those relationships with others is a human universal. And because of the way these things have shifted, there's a real desire and yearning for connecting with others. So, I think that's the opportunity. The challenge is to counter, or, grapple with the individualism and how it doesn't tend to fit very well with religion, to figure out if there might be a way to reconcile the two. And I think there are some religious organizations that have managed to do that.
Scott: It sounds like you think that that's going to be an uphill climb for religious groups in the future.
Jean: I think it is, but I don't think the situation is at all hopeless, primarily because we need each other and we need to find meaning in life. And neither one of those things is going to change and religious organizations can address both those things.
Scott: So how in general would you describe the faith of Gen Zers?
Jean: Well, there are definitely fewer who are religious than in previous generations. And among those who are religious, they vary, of course. There are some where their beliefs and their religious home probably doesn't look that different from maybe the way Boomer's experienced it, but many of their religious homes are going to be different. When I say home, I'm meaning church or synagogue or wherever they're going. It's probably going to be more casual than it used to be. So, that's one response of religious organizations to adapt to rising individualism. Individualism tends to promote things being less formal, more casual. We certainly see that change in many religious institutions. There's more of an emphasis on it being enjoyable. So, often there's more music and some of the music may be more modern than in past decades. So, there's these adaptations that have happened over time that most generations are responding to but Gen Z finds them particularly appealing.
Scott: How secular is Gen Z in the way they think about life and their behavior?
Jean: Well, they are pretty secular, but not all of them. I mean, this is where we have to acknowledge that when we look at the trends over time, we have to acknowledge that there's plenty of variation within the generation. And that is absolutely true when you look at the shifts in religion. So, one example is if you look at teens. So eighth graders, 10th graders and 12th graders is where we have some of the best data in the big national surveys, and we have that back to 1976. So let's take the high school seniors, 12th graders. So they're 17, 18 years old and you know, back late seventies, early eighties, about 90% said they ever attended religious services, say in the last year. And in 2021, it was about 70%. So, you notice it's still the majority who go to religious services sometimes. It's just there's that much bigger proportion. There's three times as many who never go.
Scott: Yeah, that's a significant shift. Now, some people suggested, in a variety of ways, that both millennials and Gen Z would return to religious faith as they got older, had families, got settled, things like that. What does the data show us on that?
Jean: [cuts out] —when they settle down, when they have kids and that did not turn out to be true. So one of the graphs in the book in “Generations” in the millennials chapter is 26 to 40 year olds and how many affiliate with a religion, how many attend religious services. And this is from the general social survey, national representative survey that has data going back to 1972 and in that age group, so let's call them prime age adults, those numbers were pretty constant between 1972 and the late 1990s. So, there are about 85% who attended religious services, at least occasionally, and about 90 who affiliated with a religion. And then those start to slide beginning in the mid nineties. And then after about 2002, then they start to really go down. And that's notable because that's around the time that you see the generational transition from Gen X to millennials. And by the time that group is solidly millennial after 2012, those numbers are much lower. So, for ever attending services, you know, that had been an 85% and then by 2021 was about 63.
Scott: Yeah, that's helpful because I think the conventional wisdom was that as people got older and started raising families and get settled, they would return to that. But the data says not so much. What attitudes have you been able to discover that Gen Zers have regarding gender and sexuality?
Jean: Yeah, so I dove into that. And there's a couple of things that are noteworthy. I mean, first, across all generations, of course, support has grown for same sex marriage. There's still a generation gap—Gen Z and millennials are still more likely to be in support of same sex marriage than older generations. But, there's been a shift in opinion, you know, across all generations. There's both a generational and a time period effect. And then we can also look at the number who identify, say as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and that has increased considerably, particularly among young adults. It hasn't increased quite as much among older people, but for 18 to 26 year olds, that's Gen Z these days, there's been a pretty big increase over time because, and this is another large survey, this one, it asked about sexual orientation only going back to 2014, but that's okay, we can still see a pretty big change. There's a doubling in the percentage of 18 to 26 year olds who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual between 2014 and 2021. So in just a seven year period it doubled.
Scott: Well, how do you account for that doubling so quickly in such a relatively short time period?
Jean: It's a great question and we're not exactly sure. There's a number of possible factors. So, you know, greater acceptance being one of them. I mentioned, you know, attitudes around same sex marriage and how much those changed and those, you know, changed a lot over this time period. So, that's certainly part of it. But, if it was just acceptance you would think there'd be more of a shift among older people and there's not. So there might be a critical period for acceptance, say, in adolescence or young adulthood. And that'd be typical of a lot of things where there's, that's where the critical period is for identity and viewpoints and all kinds of things that happen at that age.
Scott: Yeah, let me take this into the transgender discussion just for a moment. Seems like there's been, you know, everything that I read has been this explosion of, particularly females among Gen Z, identifying as transgender than in previous generations. Does the data that you have reveal anything about why that's taken place, in particular with females?
Jean: Yeah, so let's cover the data first. So, we're on the same page here because when I was writing this book, I was reading a lot about what you mentioned, that there's been this explosion, there's been this huge increase, but I didn't see anybody who had actual data over time on it. So, that was one of the analyses that I wanted to do if I could find the data, just because that's been such a big topic of discussion and I had just not seen any actual hard numbers. But I was able to find some, that same big survey that has been done that has these questions also started to ask about transgender identification in 2014. So again, you know, we only have seven years of data, but, still, you can see a really big change. Among 18 to 26 year olds, the percentage who identified as transgender used to be about half of a percent. And then in 2021, it was almost two and a half percent. So it more than quadrupled. And what's particularly striking about this graph in the book, it's figure 6.5, for anybody who managed to get a hold of it, is that there's very little change among the people ages 27 and older. So, this change is really concentrated among young adults. And it is true, we can see in this same survey, yes, that most of that change is among those identified female at birth. So that's where you're seeing more of the change. You can also see that in another survey among those who identify as non-binary, that's also, majority of those, are those who began as female. So, there is some data to back up some of this discussion. What is more mysterious, just like with sexual orientation changing as well, is the why question. And greater acceptance certainly has to be considered. But, you know, the same question comes up: If it was just greater acceptance, then why would we see such a huge change for young adults and very little for those who are older? So, it could be an interaction that with greater acceptance, then more people may feel that they can identify as trans and if they're younger, it's, perhaps, easier. Probably never easy, per se, but to maybe rejigger your life than it would be if you're older.
Scott: That makes sense. I appreciate you engaging in a little speculation on that because I think that actually seems to me a very plausible explanation. I also wanted to look at how Gen Z looks at marriage and children. You say in the book there's some early signs that Gen Z might not just postpone marriage but not enter these relationships at all. Can you explain sort of what that means for the future of the family?
Jean: Yeah, so that is what shows up in these big surveys. So like the one of high school seniors is probably the most relevant here that when they're asked about marriage or even just committed relationships, in the last five to 10 years, we see a lot more high school seniors saying: I don't know if I want to do that. You can see that with having children, as well. The same thing, the percentage of high school seniors who say that they are likely to have kids was very high and very stable from 1976 until about 2012 or 2013 and then it started to decline. And that's especially striking because it means that that number stayed stable and high for millennials and that's the childbearing group right now and birth rates are very low. So they said they wanted kids in high school and then they didn't end up having kids. Gen Z isn't even saying they want kids when they're 18.
Scott: Yeah, I wonder what, if that trend continues, what the next generation might think about marriage and family and things like that. That, at least on the surface, doesn't seem to bode well for the future of the family.
Jean: Certainly for the idea of two parents raising children together, that has certainly become less popular as an expectation and a choice among Gen Z.
Scott: Would the notion of single parent by choice be something you might see that would take its place?
Jean: Potentially, given that even with the decline, the number that say they want children is still fairly high, but then there's more skepticism around relationships and marriage, that is certainly a possibility.
Scott: Yeah, this is fascinating stuff. We hear a lot of discussion about mental health crises among Gen Z. Now on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being worst, how serious do you think this is? And particularly, what role does social media play in this?
Jean: I think we're out of nine or 10 when you look at the statistics. So clinical level depression, so that really requires treatment that's very serious, that has doubled among teens. It's not 20% among teens—and this is a screening survey, we're not talking about people who go to a doctor's office and get a diagnosis. It's not due to being more willing to admit or seek help or anything like that. The suicide rate is at very, very high levels among teens. The rate of emergency room admissions for self-harm behaviors has quadrupled among 10 to 14 year old girls. I mean, think about that age group. We’re thinking about fifth graders, sixth graders, and seventh graders. And they're—four times as many are being admitted to the hospital for things like cutting or taking pills. I mean, we have to take this extremely seriously.
Scott: That's heartbreaking to think about.
Jean: It absolutely is. I mean, I think it should be heartbreaking and concerning for everyone without a doubt. But I think it especially hurts when you're a parent. And I have three kids, they're 16, 13, and 11. So just thinking about what those kids are going through and then what their parents are going through. I mean, it really is heartbreaking. You can't even really express in words just how terrible and horrible it is. So, yeah, we know that this is happening and we know it's not just anything. We can't dismiss it as some have tried to do by saying: oh, it's just they're more willing to admit to problems. Well, if that was the case, then we wouldn't see any changes in objectively measured self-harm or things like suicide, and unfortunately we do. So I think the time for dismissing this was over years ago when people are still trying to do that, which is very frustrating. So then the question is what caused it? And I do think that you can make a pretty strong case for the changes in technology. So these changes started to happen in the early 2010s. So depression started to increase around 2012, for example. That happens to be the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. It's also around that same time that social media use became much more common among high school students—daily social media use. And social media use kind of changed over that around that time. Facebook bought Instagram and social media became much more visual and the algorithms changed, became much more sophisticated. Plus, that coincided with teens spending a lot less time with each other in person, interacting with each other face to face. Teens also started to spend less time sleeping around that time. So you put that together, more time online, less time with friends in person, less time sleeping. Is it really that surprising that we got a big uptick in mental health issues? Because that's a terrible formula for mental health.
Scott: That sounds like a pretty toxic brew to me.
Scott: Well, that's definitely something to keep our eyes on in the future. That's very distressing. My kids are a little older than yours, but if I had middle school and high school aid kids, that'd be the stuff that would be keeping me up at night.
Jean: I have to say something at this point, too, that even though I study this stuff, it's still a struggle. That, if you're a parent and you have kids in this age group and you're struggling with technology use—you are not alone. Even parents who lock stuff down as much as possible, which is what I try to do, we still struggle with it because it is everywhere. And don't take that— you should not give up. I've heard a lot of people say, oh, it's everywhere, you might as well not do anything. What? Are you kidding me? No, you can still do things. But it is very difficult because it is the way that kids tend to relate to each other now. The good news is they don't have to be on social media. Social media is the most toxic of the brew. So they can do other things. They can call each other, for example, or text. You don't have to do it through social media. But it's stuff like my kids have school laptops and the school laptops have YouTube on it. And there's no way to put parental controls on a school laptop. So, you know, we're all in this battle, and a lot of times it feels like we're losing.
Scott: That raises a whole other set of questions that maybe we'll have time for another time. Now a couple more questions for you. You have a section at the end of the book entitled “The Future of Religion.” What do you think that future is?
Jean: Well, I think it might very well look different from what we have now. That we're going to have to reconsider the way the religious landscape looks. And you know, I have additional graphs in there just showing some of the changes. Overall, I think this trend is going to continue, that there's going to be a smaller number, a smaller population of the US population who is religious. I think we've already seen this lead to generational misunderstandings. Often the generational break is between Gen X and millennials. So Gen Xers and Boomers on one side, even though I'm a Gen Xer and, you know, we don't have a ton in common with Boomers. But at least from this picture that politically and religiously the two generations get grouped together kind of across a divide from millennials and Gen Z. So, there's going to be declining congregations. But, on a more hopeful note, I do think that there are opportunities for religious organizations to fill a real gap that's there in modern life in terms of social interaction and in terms of meaning.
Scott: Just one final question. Let me be a little more specific. Biola University is a conservative Christian institution that has a unique set of challenges, we have being in California for one. But what unique challenges do you think that conservative religious institutions like Biola will have going forward? What suggestions would you offer to us for continuing to educate the next generation well while staying faithful to our founding principles?
Jean: You know, emphasizing a lot of those core values around fellowship and around meaning. And there is still a sizable portion of the young population who is religious and will be attracted to that atmosphere. One thing that comes up quite a bit, I read, you know, especially when I wrote my last book iGen about Gen Z, I went in depth into reading some books about researchers, usually from a Christian perspective, who were looking at the young generation and seeing where the disconnect was between young people and either staying in Christianity or coming toward it. And a big theme that came up over and over was the association with being against being LGBT. So, I think that may be another, just based on that research, I think that's another avenue forward of changing some perspectives around that, that there are going to be, even in religious populations, more and more young people who identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender who often still want a religious home.
Scott: Jean, this has all been super insightful—so appreciate your work. And I want to commend to our listeners your book “Generations,” JeanTwenge, “The Real Difference Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silence and What They Mean for America's Future.” Thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate the insightful way you brought the data to bear on these generational shifts and what that means for culture, for religious life, and for Christian institutions in general.
Jean: Thank you.
Scott: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. If you'd like to submit comments, ask questions, make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover or a guess you'd like us to consider, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. Enjoy today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything. ♪♪♪