Are generational or cohort-level changes strong?

Here is the view of Kali H. Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, in their piece “Rethinking “Generation Me”: A Study of Cohort Effects from 1976-2006”:

Social commentators have argued that changes over the last decades have coalesced to create a relatively unique generation of young people. However, using large samples of U.S. high-school seniors from 1976 to 2006 (Total N = 477,380), we found little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status over the last 30 years. Today’s youth are less fearful of social problems than previous generations and they are also more cynical and less trusting. In addition, today’s youth have higher educational expectations than previous generations. However, an inspection of effect sizes provided little evidence for strong or widespread cohort-linked changes.

The pointer is from @hardsci.  As he (Sanjay) notes on Twitter: “Researchers these days just don’t make cohort arguments like they used to”  And here are some related results on narcissism.


You often hear the mantra that "race doesn't exist" because the differences within races are bigger than the differences between races.

But that's like saying that "generation doesn't exist" because the differences between races are tiny compared to the differences within generations.

I once read a long article by the generation mavens whom Steve Bannon is always citing. But I could never figure out what point they were trying to make by their examples like "Ty Cobb, Eleanor Roosevelt, and W.C. Fields."

This doesn't mean that generational differences aren't a topic worthy of study, but they are delicate to tease out compared to all the other influences like race, sex, religion, IQ, etc etc

My impression is that self-consciousness about one's generation started to emerge among European artistic elites around the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

By the Baby Boom generation, this kind of thinking had filtered down to the masses. But the baby boom generation was particularly homogeneous in terms of race (white) and class (middle). After that generation other kinds of diversity, such as race, came to matter more (except among marketers, who love generation-think, as in the Simpson's great "Itchy and Scratchy and Poochy" episode).

Now, there is once again some emphasis on generation.

Thanks for bringing wars into discussion because wars are the kind of experiences people born in the same date range share. Wars have such a large impact on societies that all people experience it in one way or another: a death in the family, poverty, fear, stress, exile, even the rich feel the consequences.

Events that produced similar consequences to were famines and epidemic diseases.

What is very debatable is the arbitrary 20 years span between "generations". Take the division between boomers and Gen X, do these people really had markedly different life experiences? People will say we had not TV, but is it really comparable to consequences of US civil war were 1 in 5 of the Confederacy men died and women simply can't marry? Take the boundary between Gen X and Millenials, dumb boomers see a child use a smartphone and exclaim "another generation", but can it really be compared to the change in Europe after the 20 million death of WW1? The Black Plague squeezing the labor pool in England and maybe incentivizing the Industrial Revolution?

"... but can it really be compared to the change in Europe after the 20 million death of WW1?"

Yes. Both are profound changes.

The change between the cohort size in 1930-1945 and the Baby Boom of 1946 to some arbitrary point in the 1960s was big enough to have broad effects. On the other hand, it might make more sense to group 1940 to 1950 together: being born either right before the Baby Boom or in its early years was pretty good for your career opportunities because the world needed young men. Most of the really famous rock stars were born during WWII and three Presidents have been born in 1946. By 1961, however, America had plenty of young people. Reading 1961-born Obama's autobiography, you can tell he was looking around for some kind of angle to give him an edge over all the other tens of millions of Baby Boomers. Being born in 1961 wasn't like being born in 1946 when there was practically nobody in front of you in the career hierarchy.

Being born in 1961 wasn't like being born in 1946 when there was practically nobody in front of you in the career hierarchy.

Steve, the 'Baby Boom' consisted of a 21% year over year increase in the size of the birth cohort between 1945 and 1946. There was a modest and graduated increase between 1946 and 1957, followed by decline. No clue how this translates into "practically nobody in front of you in the career hierarchy." in your mind.

Of course, the study missed the biggest event affecting the lives of everyone, young and old, the financial crisis and great recession. Millennials were the hardest hit by the financial crisis. One very large affect on them is risk-aversion, or so we are told. As between generation x and generation y, they were hurt in different but profound ways ways. Generation x suffered both loss of income (depressed wages) and loss of net worth, while generation y suffered loss of income (because of the absence of jobs) but suffered little in terms of net worth (because they had none to begin with). I would expect generation x to be more risk-averse in making investments, while generation y would be more risk-averse in choosing a job. Wealthy baby boomers may have suffered loss of net worth, but for those with enough wealth to have participated in the long period of rising asset prices during and following the recovery, many are in better shape today than when the financial crisis occurred. Wealthy baby boomers.

I would like to see the results of a study that compares the great depression generation with the great recession generation. The government responses were vastly different and the consequences to different cohorts were vastly different. Of course, the great depression generation eventually became known as the greatest generation while the millennial generations have become known as the slacker generation. In between, the baby boomers have become known as the whining generation.

Outliers generally get the greatest attention from the media. Sort of like watching the Jerry Springer show for insight into the general culture.

Even the issue of the desire for increased education has had an upward trajectory for a few generations now. Not really that much of a change from trend line I would think.

As the ads for some product currently running claims, as we age we tend to turn into our parents.

However, some things do change. Government programs can change the number of single-parent households. Patterns of children living at home can go up and down based on the economy. You do see some cultural differences based on traditions and values.

If you take a longer perspective it is easier to see the general trend lines without overreacting to occasional bumps that revert back to trend.

Given that 1976-2006 is barely larger than a single generational cohort, does the homogeneity say anything about the cohort hypothesis?

Also: since the study was based on high school seniors, do cohort effects necessarily occur during childhood, or is it more a part of young adulthood? What would be the results of a similar study of 40 year olds?

Well that's a relief, the only difference between kids now and 20 years ago is their skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression

or the skyrocketing diagnoses of anxiety and depression.

This has been studied. It seems rates of anxiety and depression truly are going up substantially. Interestingly in children it seems to be mediated to some extent by overparenting

Yet what happened a little over twenty years ago? The Mental Heallth Parity Bill

Money for treatment increases and more people meet the criteria for treatment.

Kindest assumption, a lot of people slipping through the cracks are getting treatment.

Or perhaps in twenty years humans have evolved to have more mental illness. More people Han people you survived the Great Depression WW III. 60”s riots etc

Is it possible that some of the biggest generational difference are in actual social behaviors not captured by individual survey data? You can ask me to rate my view on "the importance of social status" in isolation, but how that variable actually manifests when I am in a group (online or in real life) with my actions visible to my peers, may be very different, and different across generations.

There is a good discussion at the link below, including the comments, particularly the elucidation of the concept of age, period, and cohort effects, without which analytic clarity is impossible.

The difference between American high school seniors in 1971 and 1976 would be much more illuminating, the earlier groups of seniors facing the certainly of the draft compared to those in 1976 knowing that the Vietnam War was over, as was the draft.

"relatively unique": maybe they spent too much time talking to ill-educated young twerps.

“Researchers these days just don’t make cohort arguments like they used to”

Okay, that was good.

How about: "blog commenters lack self-awareness".

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