Psychology Across the Generations

December 2009 18,645 views 2 Comments

Psychologist Jean Twenge believes there’s plenty of evidence to tie our emotional well-being to the berth we occupy along the generation spectrum. The author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, she has studied decades worth of psychological data and contends that depression, loneliness, and panic attacks are all significantly more characteristic of today’s twenty-somethings than of preceding generations at the same age.

“The fact is that expectations have outpaced reality,” Dr. Twenge says. “Young people today are expected to achieve the extraordinary but it’s getting harder and harder to do. It takes more than it used to to get into a good college, get a good job, or buy a good house.” All too often, she adds, the result is “crippling anxiety and crushing depression.”

To reach her conclusions, she studied decades of results from university-administered personality inventories, and examined research that traced the rising demand for depression treatment on college campuses and that documented marked increases in panic attacks and suicide ideation among teens and young adults. She acknowledges that the trends have been accompanied by a greater acceptance of mental health issues and a growing receptiveness to treatment, but contends that those factors have not been significant enough to account for the dramatic rise in anxiety and depression in recent and current college students. “

Even when controlled for socially desirable responses, there is more anxiety and depression in this group than there was in earlier birth cohorts,” she says.

The Millennial Generation, which comprises some 78 million Americans born between 1983 and 2000, isn’t the only one with its own sociological persona or unique psychological challenges. Social scientists have portrayed Generation X as skeptical risk-takers, resourceful and independent individualists who have charted their own paths to success and their own rules for getting there. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are known for the tight grasp they have maintained on the post–World War II idealism that saw them through the civil rights and women’s movements. They have been characterized by optimism and ambition, work has always been central to their lives and, unlike the “Xers” who followed, they have played by the rules rather than creating their own. It is this cohort—the largest ever born in the United States—that is changing the role that mental health plays in the aging process.

“Of all the Americans who have ever lived to 65, two-thirds are alive right now,” says Dr. Donald Schultz, a California psychologist specializing in geriatric issues and an affiliate faculty member in The Chicago School’s Marital and Family Therapy program.

That percentage will continue to grow as Boomers—the first of whom will reach 65 in 2011— continue to age. Eighty million strong, this generation has in recent years commandeered the public spotlight as they march steadily toward retirement, a progression that—because of their sheer numbers—threatens to drain the Medicare and Social Security coffers and dramatically increase the need for medical and psychological health care tailored to the needs of senior citizenry.

That concern—of insufficient resources to see them through their golden years—heads the list of psychological burdens that Boomers carry. Loneliness—the consequence of the divorce upsurge and geographically scattered families—registers as a close second. And not to be overlooked, there is the pressure to resist aging more adamantly than their parents or grandparents.

“They consider themselves the timeless generation, often unwilling to let go of their youth,” says Dr. Daniela Schreier, assistant professor of clinical counseling at The Chicago School. “It’s a lingering characterization of their idealism and may account for trends like Botox and plastic surgery.”

“Sixty is the new 40,” she says.

Dr. Schultz notes that, in many ways, Boomers are better equipped to handle psychological challenges than the generations that came before.

“They have seen a lot in their lives,” he says, ticking off events that range from assassinations and the unrest of the ’60s to the increased threats of terrorism today. “As a result, they have developed better coping styles, they’re less likely to be overwhelmed, and they are the first generation really willing to consider psychotherapy.”

Going a step further, Dr. Schultz suggests a correlation between the lower incidence of depression that Boomers experienced when they were younger and the fact that they continue to be less depressed than either Generation X or the Millennials today.

“The best predictor of a person during the aging years is how they were when they were younger,” he says.

The Latchkey Generation

Sometimes referred to as the Sandwich Generation because of their positioning between two much larger cohorts and the expectation that they eventually will have to care for members of both simultaneously, many in Generation X grew up as “latchkey kids.” Their mothers were the first to return to the workplace in droves, leaving them to develop a sense of independence unmatched by children who came before and after.

Young people today are expected to achieve the extraordinary but it’s getting harder and harder to do. It takes more than it used to to get into a good college, get a good job, or buy a good house.

“We are a generation that has always been in the shadow of the Baby Boom,” says Dr. Schreier, who identifies herself as an Xer. “They saw things that we never saw—things like civil rights demonstrations and campus sitins— and I think we have always felt we had missed out on that.”

But their refusal to live by rules they deem irrelevant and their insistence on a balanced lifestyle—a marked departure from the workaholic mentality of the Boomers—has established this generation as one that charts its own path. Their skepticism of everything from marriage to the rigidity of Corporate America has left an indelible mark on the household and the workplace alike. A relentless determination to do it “their way” has resulted in delaying marriage and children and then, when they decide the time for a family is right, rethinking their professional aspirations—tailoring them to meet their expectations rather than their employers’— so that they can have it all.

Having it all can be stressful, however. The American Psychological Association’s 2008 Stress in America survey found that no group feels as much stress as the Sandwich Generation, typically ages 35–54. The demands of balancing the care of growing children and aging parents while pursuing professional and personal fulfillment often takes its toll on relationships and emotional well-being. Nearly 40 percent of Gen Xers surveyed reported “extreme levels of stress,” compared with 29 percent of Millennials and 25 percent of those older than 55, an age bracket that includes both Boomers and the World War II-era “Traditionals.”

Dr. Schreier contends that the flexibility and adaptability that are hallmarks of her generation also manifest themselves in a tendency to move around—from location to location and from partner to partner.

“It is a generation of nomads,” Dr. Schreier says. “Many never settle down into a job or a relationship. They adapt easily to new situations, but they also feel torn, like they are always floating and wondering ‘where do I belong’?”

Generation Y

But it is the Millennials—aka Generation Y or the Net Generation— who have dominated headlines, blog traffic, and water-cooler conversation since they began coming of age in the last decade. Terms used to define them range from “entitled” and “narcissistic” in Dr. Twenge’s books to “overprotected, overscheduled, and socially conscious” by psychologists such as Dr. Dave Verhaagen, author of Parenting the Millennial Generation.

Parents today feel uncomfortable in their roles as authority figures. They want to be their kids’ friends and have their kids’ approval rather than the other way around. They have brought the ‘everybody-is-equal’ philosophy of their youth to their roles as parents.

While narcissism, which Dr. Twenge references loosely as too much self esteem, may seem a heavy—if not downright judgmental— label to pin on today’s teens and twenties, she grounds her assertion in data collected for a 25-year time span, evidence she considers so compelling that it led to her most recent book, The Narcissism Epidemic.

“When looking at the incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), you would expect to find higher rates in those who have lived longer and had more time to experience episodes of NPD, but that’s not what the research shows,” she says. She cites a 2005 National Institutes of Mental Health study of 35,000 respondents that reports that people in their 20s were three times as likely to have experienced an episode of NPD than people over 65.

“I was blown away by the fact that the prevalence was tripled in a group that had only lived one-third as long,” she says. To further prove her point, she points to evidence gathered from decades of Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) results. In the 1950s, only 12 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” By the late 1980s, more than 80 percent agreed.

Many psychologists and parenting experts attribute the trend to the fact that Millennials have often been treated more like partners than children as they were growing up. They cite families who allow a 6-year-old to choose the family car and pre-teens to decide where to go—or even whether to go— on vacation. It is a phenomenon spawned by the Baby Boomers who are doing much of the parenting today, they claim. As a generation that identifies strongly with the equal-rights marches and antiestablishment protests that defined their seminal years, they can find it hard to deal with the hierarchy of the “traditional” family that assumes parents make the rules and children follow them.

“Parents today feel uncomfortable in their roles as authority figures,” Dr. Twenge says. “They want to be their kids’ friends and have their kids’ approval rather than the other way around. They have brought the ‘everybody-isequal’ philosophy of their youth to their roles as parents. The downside comes when kids grow up and realize they are not the center of the universe.”

Dr. Verhaagen, who has spent much of his career providing mental health services for children and adolescents and is currently a managing partner at Southeast Psychological Services in Charlotte, N.C., agrees.

“Is this generation more narcissistic? Probably. After all, they’ve been raised by parents who taught them that they can do anything,” Dr. Verhaagen says. “It’s both good and bad. It’s great to believe in yourself, but not so great if problems have always been solved for you and you haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.”

The problem solvers that he references—“helicopter parents” as they are known in 21st-century lexicon—are mothers and fathers who “hover” over their children, serving as ubiquitous buffers between them and the occasional hard knocks that life has to offer.

“The notion of the helicopter parent is not made up and not over-blown,” Dr. Verhaagen says. “Everyone who works in academia has stories about the father who calls the professor to question a grade or the grandmother who is on the phone with the registrar’s office about the registration process.”

The result is a generation that lacks the ardent independence of Generation X’s latchkey kids yet struggles continuously to live up to their parents’ expectations. Add to that the dependence on the technology and social media that have revolutionized their communication channels and turned them into achievement-oriented multi-taskers.

“One thing that is clear and is that this generation is more stressed than any previous generation,” Dr. Verhaagen says. In contrast to Dr. Twenge’s assertions, however, he believes that Millennials are handling this pressure. He points to data produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that track trends in youth risk behaviors associated with stress, including the use of alcohol and illegal drugs and suicide related behavior.

“There are lower rates of drug use, lower rates of pregnancy and STD (sexually transmitted diseases). Most of the indicators for high-risk behavior are either trending down or holding steady.”

The reason? Dr. Verhaagen offers several: goals, family values, and a determination to do meaningful work. Despite frequent declarations that this generation is the “most coddled” in history, he contends the very actions cited for creating entitled, narcissistic youth have also built up a degree of resilience. They may be stressed but they have goals to work toward. They may be overscheduled, but they’re not idle.

“They might be our next generation of heroes,” he says. “They’re a good generation—well nurtured, able to relate well to others, and with a strong sense of the future. They have the potential to be great. Time will tell.”

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