When I was your age, children knew to respect their parents. We didn’t give anyone any lip. We owned up to our responsibilities. We took advantage of our opportunities. We knew what was what. Kids these days have gotten everything all messed up. Kids these days just aren’t what they used to be. Kids these days.
Or, this version, if you’d prefer. When I was your age, we had to walk to school ten miles. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways. And let me tell you a thing or two about the meaning of hard work. You think what you’re doing is working hard? Well, you just take a good listen.
You can idealize the good old days and bemoan the sorry state of today’s youth. You can point out how much harder it was in the past and how easy everyone has it now. Whichever version you take, one thing is clear: our memory becomes warped over time. Can it really be that every generation is so profoundly different, that the past is both good old days and tough old days, all at once? Hardly. The oft-sung tune reminds me of the ending of Shel Silverstein’s poem, “When I Was Your Age”:
My uncle said, “How old are you?”
I said, “Nine and a half,” and then
My uncle puffed out his chest and said,
“When I was your age… I was ten.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the issue with our memory for the past.
In her most recent book, Twentysomething: Why do Young Adults Seem Stuck, co-authored with her twenty-something daughter Samantha, Robin Marantz Henig delves into the hard data that makes poems like Silverstein’s possible: what—if anything—is it about kids these days? the mother-daughter team asks. And why is it that every generation seems to think that there’s something different going on with kids these days, as compared to any other?
In 2000, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett proposed the existence of a new stage of development: emerging adulthood. Whereas before, we’d go straight from adolescence to full-blown young adultdom, now, there was a step in between, an area where our adult selves were emerging but not-quite-emerged. The advances of modern industrialized societies had been pushing adult-defining choices—marriage, children, and the like—further and further into the twenties and thirties, and as a result, we no longer had to grow up as quickly as we once did. We could instead indulge in a newly created stage of development.
As Marantz Henig is quick to point out, Arnett isn’t the first to discuss this possibility. In a 1970 article in The American Scholar, the psychologist Kenneth Keniston also thought he discerned a new trend of unsettled wandering. He termed in simply, “youth.” And that youth “sounds a lot like Arnett’s description of emerging adulthood a generation later,” Marantz Henig writes, going on to say that, “despite Arnett’s claims to the contrary, we weren’t really all that different then from the way our own children are now. Keniston’s article seems a lovely demonstration of the eternal cycle of life, the perennial conflict between the generations, the gradual resolution of those conflicts. It’s reassuring….”
Equally reassuring is the mother-daughter team’s own equanimity: while they could so very easily take the, well, so very easy way out and look at all the signs that point to the extreme newness of the present moment—the power of social media; the seemingly endless proliferation of choices for todays twentysomethings that make the options of yore seem quaint and touchingly antiquated—and leave it at that, they do instead something quite different. They do touch on the newness of the now, even going one better with the myriad studies and citations they bring to bear on each point. But then they take a step back—and look at the very same claims and studies, but from prior generations. Think we’re the first to throw our hands up at the lure of technology? Try the head-shaking and laments that accompanied the first telephone (such an invasion! and how lazy must you be to not pay a visit in person?). I’m getting my ivory calling cards ready.
From studies on Google’s effect on memory (it may be hurting us, by subverting our memory and our attention—or helping us, by freeing up our mental resources and allowing us to be more flexible; and yes: it certainly is changing our brains, just like everything else we choose or do not choose to do) to observations on the nature of real adulthood (“If owning two devices for two different ways of smashing up food isn’t adulthood, I don’t know what is,” writes the younger Henig, and I can’t help but nod in recognition), the two-part call-response structures sets up a debate that we’ve heard many, many times over, but does so in a fresh, engaging, non-judgmental and highly informed fashion. The more things change, the more they stay the same, perhaps; but this particular take still manages to sound new.
Just as I was finishing up the book, I came across an intriguing new study. Writing in Psychological Science, two psychologists from the University of Alberta sought to explore the paradox of intergenerational knowledge: while we learn stories by hearing them passed down from one generation to another, the memory upon which those stories are based—and into which they will, in turn, be encoded—is highly selective. Not only do we remember our own experiences incompletely at best (and inaccurately, at worst) but the problem becomes magnified when you apply it to a model where that same experience is passed on to listener after listener. It’s the telephone effect of memory. The researchers were interested, specifically, in the nature of remembered events themselves: what do we remember, and why?
In what’s known as the reminiscence bump, we tend to recall events that occurred between the ages of 10 and 30 more than we do events from any other age. Many explanations for the phenomenon have been offered—Twentysomething explores the possibilities that “young adulthood is when so many events occur that will have consequences for a lifetime” and that youth is “when people’s emotions tend to be running at full throttle,” which means we’ll be better at encoding events and better able to retrieve the created memories at a later point—but one in particular stands out as most probable for Connie Svob and Norman Brown. They favor transition theory: the events that we recall in our own lives and the lives of those around us are those that have been marked by change. The transition can be of several kinds: so-called cultural life-script events, like graduation or marriage; personal, idiosyncratic events, like accidents or failure at something; or so-called collective transitions, that effect entire groups of people at once, like wars or natural disasters. But whatever the specific sub-type, they are characterized by a change from the status quo.
To test their theory, Svob and Brown broke 60 University of Alberta undergraduates into two groups: a conflict group and a non-conflict group. The conflict group came from families that had lived through violent political upheavals in countries like Iran, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. The non-conflict group was Canadian, born and bred.
Both groups first identified the ten events they viewed as most important from their parents’ lives, writing each event down on a separate index card. Some of the cards were then randomly re-presented to each participant, who then had to estimate the year the event in question took place. The events were presented a final time. This time around, participants had to rate them on four scales: how often did their parents discuss the event? What psychological impact had it had on them? What mental impact did it have? And to what degree was the event a historical one, such as a war?
What the researchers found was that, for both groups, most remembered events centered around life transitions that were seen as both psychologically and materially meaningful. What’s more, these were events that had been discussed frequently in family settings—and while only 19% of the conflict group had any personal experience of the conflict in question, fully 29 out of 30 mentioned it as one of the formative events of their parents’ lives. And the non-conflict group? Absent such remarkable transitions as political upheaval and immigration, they nevertheless focused on moments of change, be it getting a dog or winning or losing a major sports event. In both cases, the same perceived psychological importance dictated the choice – and the same age-centric reminiscence bump was apparent as would be in an autobiographical account.
If these results hold, it would seem unlikely that the emotionality of encoding as such dictates the bump’s presence. Rather, the heightened memory seems to lie in the nature of the event itself, its importance as a moment of life change, be it major (war) or relatively minor (new pet). And what does this mean for our endless when-I-was-your-aging? If we see our own lives as a series of important changes and meaningful transitions, it would stand to reason that an older us would look at a twentysomething who isn’t transitioning and conclude that there’s something wrong with kids these days. We forget those same periods of stagnation in our own lives and focus instead—and selectively—on the moments where that stagnation gave way to something new and was stagnant no more. No wonder that in comparison, the youth of today suffers. Over. And over. And over.
The present is profoundly myopic. The further away we get from the here and now, the more our perspective becomes warped. In our reminiscings and pronouncements, we are profoundly egocentric. We compare what we see to our so-called memories and not to facts. We don’t even see what we think we see. We see it all through the veil of ourselves, our own lives, our own transitions, our own selective remembering. It’s convenient, really. And isn’t it nicer to think that you were once better than all that?
So is emerging adulthood really emerging—or more like created? The truth is, becoming an adult is a matter of necessity as much as of choice. We grow up when we need to grow up. Humans are remarkably good at stepping up to the plate when we need to, at taking on responsibility and living up to higher expectations when circumstances call—and truly call—for it. Marantz Henig brings it back to the work of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, that famous pyramid that illustrates that we can only ascend to higher levels, like self-actualization, once basic needs, such as food and shelter, have been met successfully. “When people were forced to adopt adult responsibilities early, maybe they just did what they had to do,” she writes, “whether or not their brains were ready.” The point is an important one: if we have to grow up, we do it. If we don’t, it’s far nicer to linger.
Industrialization has made growing up less of a prerogative. As society progresses, there’s less of a hurry. We don’t need to help on the family farm, take over the family apprenticeship. We have the leisure of choice. But choice is just that. It’s a thing of leisure. Even adolescence wasn’t a new developmental stage, back when G. Stanley Hall announced it as such in the early 1900s. It was instead the opportunity for a stage that had always existed in potential to actualize itself in reality. Our brains didn’t suddenly change in profound ways, and neither did our biology. We just never had the luxury of adolescence before, and so, we grew up without a fight.
It wasn’t necessarily a good thing, that adolescence-less transition to adult responsibility that characterized pre-required-high-school-education existence. We may well have suffered as a result of that forced early maturation. (Otherwise, where would Freud have found his patients?) But that doesn’t mean we suddenly acquired any new stages of development. We just gained the choice, the liberty of indulging what had always been preference.
Consider how norms have always influenced how we act. Women used to faint all the time. Did they suddenly become stronger over the last decades? Unlikely. And consider, too, how different “normal” development looks when we step away from Western societies. Those that must grow up, do. They always have, and they do it still. They may well look at us as privileged babies.
The privilege of choice isn’t something to take lightly. But by the same token, it is not inherently a bad thing to take your time growing up. We should just take it for what it is. A privilege offered by societal progress and your own social standing within that society. A privilege afforded by luck of birth—both in time and in place. Not a developmental necessity or a prerogative.
The Henigs get this. Same as it ever was. There’s nothing about kids these days. They’ll grow up when they need to, just as quickly as they need to. And if they have the leisure of prolonging that moment of not-quite-adulthood, who are we to blame them for taking full advantage of it?
Svob, C., & Brown, N. (2012). Intergenerational Transmission of the Reminiscence Bump and Biographical Conflict Knowledge Psychological Science, 23 (11), 1404-1409 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612445316