Introduction Who Is iGen, and How Do We Know?
When I reach 13-year-old Athena around noon on a summer day, she sounds as if she just woke up. We chat a little about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I ask her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she says. “Do your parents drop you off?” I ask, remembering my own middle school days in the 1980s when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she says. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every thirty minutes.”
Hanging out at the mall with your mom around isn’t the only difference in teens’ social lives these days. Athena and her friends at her middle school in Houston, Texas, communicate using their phones more than they see each other in person. Their favorite medium is Snapchat, a smartphone app that allows users to send pictures that quickly disappear. They particularly like Snapchat’s “dog filter,” which inserts a cartoonish dog nose and ears on people’s heads as they snap photos. “It’s awesome—it’s the cutest filter ever,” she says. They make sure they keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes
they screenshot particularly ridiculous pictures of friends so they can keep them—“it’s good blackmail.”
Athena says she spent most of the summer hanging out by herself in her room with her phone. “I would rather be on my phone in my room watching Netflix than spending time with my family. That’s what I’ve been doing most of the summer. I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people.” That’s just the way her generation is, she says. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
iGen has arrived.
Born in 1995 and later, they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.
The oldest members of iGen were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and high school students when the iPad entered the scene in 2010. The i in the names of these devices stands for Internet, and the Internet was commercialized in 1995. If this generation is going to be named after anything, the iPhone just might be it: according to a fall 2015 marketing survey, two out of three US teens owned an iPhone, about as complete a market saturation as possible for a product.
“You have to have an iPhone,” said a 17-year-old interviewed in the social media exposé American Girls. “It’s like Apple has a monopoly on adolescence.”
The complete dominance of the smartphone among teens has had ripple effects across every area of iGen’ers’ lives, from their social interactions to their mental health. They are the first generation for whom Internet access has been constantly available, right there in their hands. Even if their smartphone is a Samsung and their tablet is a Kindle, these young people are all iGen’ers. (And yes, even if they are lower income: teens from disadvantaged backgrounds now spend just as much time online as those with more resources—another effect of smartphones.) The average teen checks her phone more than eighty times a day.
But technology is not the only change shaping this generation. The i in iGen represents the individualism its members take for granted, a broad trend that grounds their bedrock sense of equality as well as their rejection of
traditional social rules. It also captures the income inequality that is creating a deep insecurity among iGen’ers, who worry about doing the right things to become financially successful, to become a “have” rather than a “have not.” Due to these influences and many others, iGen is distinct from every previous generation in how its members spend their time, how they behave, and their attitudes toward religion, sexuality, and politics. They socialize in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos, and want different things from their lives and careers. They are obsessed with safety and fearful of their economic futures, and they have no patience for inequality based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. They are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011. Contrary to the prevalent idea that children are growing up faster than previous generations did, iGen’ers are growing up more slowly: 18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to, and 13-year-olds like 10-year-olds. Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.
Drawing from four large, nationally representative surveys of 11 million Americans since the 1960s, I’ve identified ten important trends shaping iGen’ers and, ultimately, all of us: In No Hurry (the extension of childhood into adolescence), Internet (how much time they are really spending on their phones—and what that has replaced), In person no more (the decline in in-person social interaction), Insecure (the sharp rise in mental health issues), Irreligious (the decline in religion), Insulated but not intrinsic (the interest in safety and the decline in civic involvement), Income insecurity (new attitudes toward work), Indefinite (new attitudes toward sex, relationships, and children), Inclusive (acceptance, equality, and free speech debates), and Independent (their political views). iGen is the ideal place to look for trends that will shape our culture in the years to come, as its members are very young but still old enough to express their views and report on their experiences.
I’ve been researching generational differences for nearly twenty-five years, starting when I was a 22-year-old PhD student in personality psychology at the University of Michigan. Back then I focused on
how my own generation, Generation X, differed from Boomers (more gender equality and more anxiety, among other things). As time went on, I found a broad array
of generational differences in behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that distinguished the Millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and early 1990s.
That research culminated in my 2006 book Generation Me, updated in 2014, a look at how the Millennials differed from their predecessors. Most of the generational differences that defined GenX and the Millennials came along gradually, building to a crescendo only after a decade or two of steady change. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like hills slowly growing into peaks, with cultural change making its mark after a measured rollout that started with a few young people and swelled to many.
But around 2012, I started seeing large, abrupt shifts in teens’ behaviors and emotional states. All of a sudden, the line graphs looked like steep mountains—rapid drop-offs erased the gains of decades in just a few years; after years of gradual inclines or hollows, sheer cliffs suddenly brought traits to all-time highs. In all of my analyses of generational data—some of it reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.
At first I wondered if these were random blips that would disappear after a year or two. But they didn’t—the trends kept going, creating sustained, and often unprecedented, trends. As I dug into the data, a pattern emerged: many of the large changes began around 2011 or 2012. That was too late to be caused by the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009.
Then it occurred to me: 2011–12 was exactly when the majority of Americans started to own cell phones that could access the Internet, popularly known as smartphones. The product of this sudden shift is iGen.
Such broad generational shifts have big implications. A whole new group of young people who act and think differently—even differently from their neighbors the Millennials—is emerging into young adulthood. We all need to understand them, including friends and family looking out for them, businesses searching for new recruits, colleges and universities educating and guiding students, and marketers figuring out how to sell to them. Members of iGen also need to understand themselves as they explain to their elders and their slightly older peers how they approach the world and what makes them different.
Generational differences are larger and more broadly influential than ever. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their
predecessors was in worldview, with more focus on the self and less on social rules (thus the term Generation Me). But with the popularity of the smartphone, iGen’ers differ most in how they spend their time. The life experiences they have every day are radically different from those of their predecessors. In some ways, this is an even more fundamental generational shift than that which created the Millennials; perhaps that’s why the trends announcing the arrival of iGen were so sudden and large.
The Birth Year Cutoffs
The breakneck speed of technological change has created a surprisingly large gap between those born in the 1980s and those who started life in the 1990s. “
I am not a true digital native,” Juliet Lapidos, born in 1983, wrote in the New York Times. “The Internet wasn’t a fact of nature. I had to learn what it was and how to use it . . . . I didn’t have a mobile phone until I was 19.” Lapidos was 19 in 2002, when texting required hitting the same key several times on your flip phone and surfing the Web meant sitting at a desktop computer. When the iPhone was introduced just five years later in 2007, all of that changed. iGen’ers are the first generation to enter adolescence with smartphones already in their hands—a stark difference with wide-ranging implications.
iGen got here faster than anyone anticipated. Until recently, most of the generational patter focused on Millennials, sometimes defined as Americans born between 1980 and 1999. Yet this is a long span for a recent generation: Generation X, immediately before the Millennials, lasted only fourteen years, from 1965 to 1979. If the Millennial generation lasts the same amount of time as GenX, the last Millennial birth year is instead 1994, meaning that iGen begins with those born in 1995—conveniently, that’s also the year the Internet was born. Other milestones fall close to 1995 as well. In 2006, Facebook opened up to anyone over the age of 13—so those born since 1993 have been able to live their entire adolescence on social networking sites. A cut in the mid-1990s also makes sense based on the hard data: in 2011, the year when everything started to change in the survey data, the 13- to 18-year-olds answering the questions were born between 1993 and 1998.
It’s anyone’s guess when iGen will end; I’d put my money on fourteen to seventeen years after 1995. That would mean the last iGen’ers were born somewhere between 2009 and 2015, with 2012 right at the middle of that range. That makes the birth year span of iGen 1995–2012. As time goes on, those boundaries might be adjusted up or down, but 1995–2012 is a solid place to start. A lot is going to depend on the technology developed in the next ten years and whether it changes young people’s lives as much as the smartphone did. With 1995–2012 as the range, the first iGen’ers graduated from high school in 2012 and the last will in 2030 (see Figure 0.1
Figure 0.1: Time span when each generation dominated the population of high school seniors and entering college students, based on the generational birth-year cutoffs.
Any generational cutoff is arbitrary; there is no exact science or official consensus to determine which birth years belong to which generation. In addition, people born right before and right after the cutoff have experienced essentially the same culture, but those born ten years apart but technically within the same generation have experienced a different culture. Nevertheless, generational labels with specific cutoffs are useful; just like city boundaries, the demarcation of 18 as legal adulthood, and personality types, they
allow us to define and describe people despite the obvious limitations of using a bright line when a fuzzy one is closer to the truth. No matter where we set the cutoff, it’s important to understand how those born after the mid-1990s differ from those born only a few years before.
As a label, iGen is concise, broad, and relatively neutral. At least one writer has described the iGen label as “bland,” but that’s actually a strength. A generational label needs to be inclusive enough to capture an extensive swath of people and neutral enough to be accepted by the generation itself and older generations. It also needs to capture something about the generation’s experience, and for iGen’ers, the Internet and smartphones have defined many of their experiences thus far. The prominent magazine AdvertisingAge has backed iGen as the best name for the post-Millennials. “
We think it’s the name that best fits and will best lead to understanding of this generation,” Matt Carmichael, AdvertisingAge’s director of data strategy, told USA Today.
Another name suggested for this group is Generation Z. However, that label works only if the generation before them is called Generation Y, and hardly anyone uses Generation Y now that the term Millennials has won out. That makes Generation Z dead on arrival. Not to mention that young people do not want to be named after the generation older than themselves. That’s why Baby Busters never caught on for Generation X and why Generation Y never stuck for the Millennials. Generation Z is derivative, and the generational labels that stick are always original.
Neil Howe, who along with the late William Strauss coined the term Millennials, has suggested that the next generation
be called the Homelanders, given their upbringing in the time of homeland security. I doubt that any generation wants to be named after the government agency that makes you take your shoes off at the airport. Howe also believes that the generation after the Millennials doesn’t begin until those born in 2005, which seems unlikely given the fast pace of technological change and the sudden shifts in teens’ time use and traits starting around 2011. Other labels have been suggested
In 2015, teens polled by MTV chose the Founders as their preferred generational label. But: founders of what?
As far as I know, I was the first to use the term iGen, introducing it in the first edition of my book Generation Me in April 2006. I’ve been using the term iGen to talk about the post-Millennial generation for a while; in 2010 I named my speaking and consulting business iGen Consulting.
What we know about iGen so far is just beginning to take shape. Polls will announce that 29% of young adults don’t affiliate with a religion or that 86% of teens worry about finding a job. But these single-time polls could be capturing beliefs universal to young people across all generations. Boomer or GenX teens in the 1970s or 1990s may also have shunned religion and worried about employment. One-time polls with no comparison group tell us nothing about cultural change or iGen’ers distinctive experiences. You can’t draw a generational conclusion with data from only one generation. Yet so far, nearly all the books and articles about iGen have relied on minimally useful polls like those.
Other one-time surveys include members of several generations. That’s better, but even they have a major flaw: they can’t separate the effects of age from those of generation. If a study finds (for example) that iGen’ers want to make friends at work more than GenX’ers do, that might be because iGen’ers are young and single and GenX’ers are older and married. In a one-time survey, there’s no way to tell. That’s unfortunate, because if you’re capturing differences based on age, it doesn’t tell you much about what has changed—whether what worked to motivate young employees or students ten years ago will work now.
To really understand what’s unique about this generation—what is actually new about it—we need to compare iGen to previous generations when their members were young. We need data collected across time. That’s what the large, over-time surveys I analyze in this book do: they ask young people the same questions year after year so their responses can be compared over several generations.
I draw primarily from four databases. One, called Monitoring the Future (MtF), has asked high school seniors (12th graders) more than a thousand questions every year since 1976 and queried 8th and 10th graders since 1991. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has surveyed high school students since 1991. The American Freshman (AF) Survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute, has questioned students entering four-year colleges and universities since 1966. Finally, the General Social Survey (GSS) has examined adults 18 and over since 1972. (For more details on these surveys and their methods, see Appendix A
.) These surveys can show us how Boomers were grooving when they were in high school in the 1970s, how GenX’ers rocked it in the 1980s and 1990s, how Millennials bopped through the 2000s, and how iGen is making its own waves in the 2010s.
By comparing one generation to another at the same age, we can observe the views of young people about themselves, rather than relying on older people’s reflections on a time gone by. We can see differences that are due to cultural changes and not to age. These differences can’t be dismissed by saying that “young people have always been this way.” In fact, these surveys show that young people are now quite different from young people in previous decades. The relative youth of these samples is also exciting—it allows us a peek at iGen’ers as they are forming their identities, starting to articulate their opinions, and finding their path toward adulthood.
These data sources have three other distinct advantages. First, they are large in sample size and scope, collecting data on thousands of people every year who have answered hundreds of questions anonymously. All told, they have surveyed 11 million people. Second, the survey administrators were careful to ensure that the people answering the questions were representative of the US population in terms of gender, race, location, and socioeconomic status. That means that the conclusions can be generalized to American young people as a whole (or, in the case of college students, to college students as a whole). Third, all of these data sets are publicly available online— they are not hiding behind paywalls or fees, so the data are transparent and open. These surveys are national treasures of Big Data, providing a glimpse of
the lives and beliefs of Americans in decades gone by as well as an up-to-date look at young people in recent years. With this solid mass of generational data now emerging, we no longer need to rely on shaky one-time studies to understand iGen.
Because the survey samples are nationally representative, they represent American young people as a whole, not just an isolated group. Of course, the demographics of American youth have changed over time; for example, more are Hispanic than in previous decades. It’s fair to ask whether the generational shifts are solely due to these demographic shifts—that’s a question of cause rather than accuracy, but it’s still worth asking. For that reason and others, I’ve also examined whether the trends appear across different groups (for example, black, white, and Hispanic; girls and boys; in the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West; in urban, rural, and suburban areas; lower socioeconomic status and higher socioeconomic status—such as whether one’s parents attended college or not). With only a few exceptions, the generational trends appear across all of these demographic groups. These sweeping changes appear among poor teens and rich ones, those of every ethnic background, and in cities, suburbs, and small towns. If you’re curious about what the trends look like within these groups, I’ve put figures with some of these breakdowns in the appendices.
For a preview of some generational differences, take the quiz on the next page to find out how much your experiences overlap with those of iGen. Regardless of when you were born, how iGen are you?
Take this 15-item quiz to find out how “iGen” you are. Answer each question with “yes” or “no.”
______ 1. In the past 24 hours, did you spend at least an hour total texting on a cell phone?
______ 2. Do you have a Snapchat account?
______ 3. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
______ 4. Did you get your driver’s license by the time you turned 17?
______ 5. Do you think same-sex marriage should be legal?
______ 6. Did you ever drink alcohol (more than a few sips) by the time you turned 16?
______ 7. Did you fight with your parents a lot when you were a teen?
______ 8. Were more than one-third of the other students at your high school a different race than you?
______ 9. When you were in high school, did you spend nearly every weekend night out with your friends?
_____ 10. Did you have a job during the school year when you were in high school?
_____ 11. Do you agree that safe spaces and trigger warnings are good ideas and that efforts should be made to reduce microaggressions?
_____ 12. Are you a political independent?
_____ 13. Do you support the legalization of marijuana?
_____ 14. Is having sex without much emotion involved desirable?
_____ 15. When you were in high school, did you feel left out and lonely fairly often?
SCORING: Give yourself 1 point for answering “yes” to questions 1, 2, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. Give yourself 1 point for answering “no” to questions 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10. The higher your score, the more iGen you are in your behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs.
The Demographics—and the World
Using the birth years 1995 to 2012, iGen includes 74 million Americans, about 24% of the population. That means one in four Americans is a member of iGen—all the more reason to understand them. iGen is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history: one in four is Hispanic, and nearly 5% are multiracial. Non-Hispanic whites are a bare majority, at 53%. The birth years at the end of iGen are the first to have a nonwhite majority: beginning with the iGen’ers born in late 2009, less than 50% are non-Hispanic whites.
That means no one group is in the majority, practically the definition of diversity. The generation after iGen—those born in 2013 and later—will be the first majority nonwhite generation.
The data here are from US samples, so the conclusions can’t be directly generalized to other countries. However, many of the generational shifts that appear here are emerging in other cultures as well. Researchers around the world are documenting many of the same trends, with new studies constantly appearing. The Internet and smartphone boom hit other industrialized countries at about the same time as these technologies took hold in the United States, and the consequences are likely to be similar.
To flesh out my number crunching with a sense of real people, I have taken a deeper look at iGen in a number of ways. First, I interviewed twenty-three iGen’ers in person or on the phone for up to two hours, delving into their thoughts on pop culture, teen social life, current events, campus controversies, and their all-important smartphones. These young people ranged in age from 12 to 20; they were black, white, Asian American, Latino/a, and Middle Eastern American; from Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, Georgia, and California; and attending middle school, high school, community college, or four-year college, the vast majority at institutions that would not be considered particularly elite. I also posed written interview questions online on sites such as Amazon’s MTurk Requester, conducted a survey of 250 introductory psychology students at San Diego State University, where I teach, and discussed various issues as they came up in classes with my undergraduate students. I also read a wide array of opinion pieces from college newspapers around the country. These sources are not nationally representative, so they are not a replacement for the survey data. These iGen’ers’ individual experiences are just that and might not be representative of their generation. The survey data are always the gold standard; the interviews and essays illustrate that data and do not in any way replace it. They are, however, a path to humanizing the young people behind the data. As iGen’ers age and start to
shape our world, they deserve to be heard in addition to being understood empirically.
When I wrote Generation Me, my book about the Millennials, I was just a little older than the cohort I was writing about and had experienced many of the same cultural phenomena. Hard data from surveys formed the core of that book, just as they do here, but as a GenX’er my own life mirrored much of what I wrote about. That’s not as true in this book, where I’m twenty-five to thirty years older than iGen teens. (To my chagrin, one of the college students I interviewed told me I reminded him of his mother. As it turned out, I actually am the same age as his parents.) My role here is much more observer than participant. However, I now have another perspective: my three daughters were born in 2006, 2009, and 2012, in the later years of iGen. I have thus seen firsthand some of the quintessential iGen experiences such as a toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad. I’ve also experienced having a 6-year-old ask for a cell phone and hearing a 9-year-old describe the latest app to sweep the 4th grade. Maybe if I name their generation, my kids will listen to me when I tell them to put on their shoes.
In this book, the voices of iGen’ers—whether the statistics from the large surveys or their own words in interviews—speak for themselves. The book also features more than a hundred graphs of the survey data spanning the generations so you can see the data for yourself—not just the data for iGen but the data for Millennials, GenX’ers, and Boomers as well. The graphs summarize a large amount of data in a small amount of space (a graph is worth a thousand words). You’ll see firsthand how iGen stands out, with the abrupt drop-offs and sheer rock faces around 2011 for many traits and behaviors and more gradual changes in others.
As a generations researcher, I’m often asked questions such as “Why are you blaming the kids? Isn’t it the parents’ fault?” (Or “the Boomers’ fault?” or “GenX’ers fault?”) This question makes two false assumptions: first, it assumes that all generational changes are negative; second, it implies that a
single cause (such as parenting) can be identified for each change. Neither is true. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. There’s a natural human tendency to classify things as all good or all bad, but with cultural changes, it’s better to see the gray areas and the trade-offs. Given that many generational differences are positive or at least neutral, using words such as fault and blame doesn’t really make sense. It’s also counterproductive, leaving us squabbling about whom to blame rather than understanding the trends, both good and bad. Cultural change also has many causes, not just one—it’s not just parents, but technology, media, business, and education working together to create an entire culture that is radically different from the one our parents and grandparents experienced. It’s nobody’s fault or everybody’s fault. Cultures change, and generations change with them; that’s the important point. It’s not a contest to see which generation is worse (or better); the culture has changed, and we’re all in this together.
Once we know that a generational change has occurred, the natural next question is “Why?” This can be a difficult question to answer. The gold standard in science for showing that one thing causes another is an experiment, in which people are randomly assigned to have different experiences. For generational differences, that would mean randomly assigning people to grow up at different times—a true mission impossible. The next best way to identify possible causes is a two-step process. First, the two things must be correlated with each other. For example, we can see whether teens who spend more time on social media are more depressed. Second, the two things must change at the same time and in the correct direction. If social media use and depression both increase during the same years, one might cause the other. If they don’t (say, one goes up while the other stays about the same), one is likely not causing the other. This approach can, at the very least, rule out possible causes. It can’t fully rule causes in, but it can provide evidence that points toward something as the culprit.
Another caveat: the numbers here are averages. For example, the average iGen teen spends more time online than the average Millennial did in 2005. Of course, some iGen teens spend little time online, and some Millennials spent a lot of time—there is considerable overlap between the two groups.
Just because there is an average difference doesn’t mean that everyone in the generation is exactly the same. So why not treat everyone as an individual? If you’re going to analyze data, that’s just not possible. Statistics rely on averages, so you can’t compare groups of people without them. That’s why virtually every scientific study of people relies on averages. This isn’t stereotyping; it’s comparing groups using a scientific method. Stereotyping occurs when someone assumes that any individual person must be representative of his or her group. It’s not a valid criticism of generational studies to say that they describe “everyone” in a generation in one way or to say that they “overgeneralize.” Any overgeneralizing that occurs is due to a mistaken interpretation by individual people, not to the data themselves.
What if the cultural changes are affecting everyone and not just iGen? In many cases, they are. This is known as a time-period difference, or a cultural change that has an equal effect on people of all ages. Pure time-period effects are fairly rare, because age usually affects how people experience events. Cultural change often affects the young first, and then spreads to older people. Smartphones and social media are a perfect example of that. However, much of this book is about how iGen’ers’ adolescence is markedly different from their predecessors’, which is naturally a generational difference as the teen years of Boomers, GenX’ers, and Millennials are already past.
The Way Forward
Where iGen goes, the country goes. Parents of adolescents wonder how their teens’ constant smartphone use will affect their brains, their emotions, and their relationships. The majority of college students are already iGen, bringing their values, viewpoints, and ever-present smartphones to campuses around the country. Young recruits to businesses will soon be dominated by iGen’ers, not Millennials, which may catch some companies unprepared for iGen’ers’ different perspective. iGen’ers’ product preferences are already shaping the marketplace with their teen and young adult influences, and they will soon dominate the lucrative 18-to-29-year-old market. iGen’ers’ political preferences will shape elections far into the future, and their attitudes will dictate policy and laws. Their marriage rates and birthrates will
affect the demographic balance of the country, determining whether there will be enough young workers to support Millennials and GenX’ers in their retirement. iGen is at the forefront of the enormous changes under way in the United States today, driven by the Internet, individualism, income inequality, and other forces of cultural change. Understanding iGen means understanding the future—for all of us.
So what’s really different about iGen?