Jean Twenge’s book iGen is one of the most fascinating – and depressing – texts I’ve read in the past decade. A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has been, for years, studying trends among young Americans, and her most recent book focuses on the generation born between 1995 and 2012. Since this is the first cohort of young people who have never known a world without iPads and iPhones, and since these devices have remarkably shaped their consciousness and behaviour, Twenge naturally enough has dubbed them the “iGen”.
One of her many eye-opening findings is that iGen’ers are growing up much more slowly than their predecessors. A baby-boomer typically got his driver’s licence on his 16th birthday (I did); but an iGen’er is far more willing to postpone that rite of passage, waiting until her 18th or 19th year. Whereas previous generations were eager to get out of the house and find their own way, iGen’ers seem to like to stay at home with their parents and have a certain aversion to “adulting”. And Twenge argues that smartphones have undeniably turned this new generation in on itself. A remarkable number of iGen’ers would rather text their friends than go out with them and would rather watch videos at home than go to a theatre with others. One of the upshots of this screen-induced introversion is a lack of social skills. Another is depression.
Now, there are many more insights that Twenge shares, but I was particularly interested, for obvious reasons, in her chapter on religious attitudes and behaviour among iGen’ers. In line with many other researchers, Twenge shows that the objective statistics in this area are alarming. As recently as the 1980s, 90 per cent of high-school seniors identified with a religious group. Among iGen’ers, the figures are around 65 per cent and falling. And religious practice is even more attenuated: only 28 per cent of twelfth graders [the final year of secondary school] attended services in 2015, whereas the number was 40 per cent in 1976. For decades, sociologists of religion have been arguing that, though explicit affiliation with religious institutions was on the decline, especially among the young, most people remained “spiritual”, that is to say, convinced of certain fundamental religious beliefs. I remember many conversations with my friend Fr Andrew Greeley along these lines.
But Twenge indicates that this is no longer true. Whereas even 20 years ago the overwhelming number of Americans, including youngsters, believed in God, now fully a third of 18- to 24-year-olds say that they do not believe. As late as 2004, 84 per cent of young adults said that they regularly prayed; by 2016, a quarter of that same age cohort said that they never pray. We find a similar decline in regard to acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God: a quarter of iGen’ers say that the Scriptures are a compilation of “ancient fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men”. Her dispiriting conclusion: “The waning of private religious belief means that young generations’ disassociation from religion is not just about their distrust of institutions; more are disconnecting from religion entirely, even at home and even in their hearts.”
What are some of the reasons for this disconnect? One, Twenge argues, is the iGen preoccupation with individual choice. From their earliest years, iGen’ers have been presented with a dizzying array of choices in everything from food and clothes to gadgets and lifestyles. And they have been encouraged, by practically every song, video and movie, to believe in themselves and follow their own dreams.
All of this self-preoccupation and stress upon individual liberty stands sharply athwart the religious ideal of surrendering to God and his purposes. “My life, my death, my choice” (a rather iGen friendly motto which I recently saw emblazoned on a billboard in California) sits very uneasily indeed with St Paul’s assertion, “Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.”
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