By Neil Howe
Sunday, December 7, 2008
It is the prerogative of every generation of graybeards to look down the age ladder and accuse today's young of sloth, greed, selfishness -- and stupidity. We hear daily jeremiads from baby boomers who wonder how kids who'd rather listen to Linkin Park and play "Grand Theft Auto III" than solve equations or read books can possibly grow up to become leaders of the world's superpower. The recent publication of "The Dumbest Generation" by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University epitomizes the genre. His subtitle -- "How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future" -- says it all.
Generational putdowns, Bauerlein's included, are typically long on attitude and short on facts. But the underlying question is worth pursuing: If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today's working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation?
The answer may surprise you. No, it's not today's college-age kids, nor even today's family-starting 30-somethings. And no, it's not the 60-year-olds who once grooved at Woodstock. Instead, it's Americans in their 40s, especially their late 40s -- those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. They straddle the boundary line between last-wave boomers and first-wave Generation Xers. The political consultant Jonathan Pontell labels them "Generation Jones."
Whatever you call them (I'll just call them early Xers), the numbers are clear: Compared with every other birth cohort, they have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they're the dumbest.
Obviously, we're talking averages. No one would apply the word "dumb" to Barack Obama (born in 1961) or Timothy F. Geithner, his nominee for secretary of the Treasury (born in the same month). Yet the president-elect himself has written eloquently about how hard it was for him and his peers to obtain a serious education during their dazed-and-confused teen years. Like it or not, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (born in 1964), who stumbled over basic civics facts during her vice presidential run, is more representative of this group. Early Xers are the least bookish CEOs and legislators the United States has seen in a long while. They prefer sound bites over seminars, video clips over articles, street smarts over lofty diplomas. They are impatient with syntax and punctuation and citations -- and all the other brainy stuff they were never taught.
Want proof? Let's start with the long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is housed within the U.S. Department of Education. Considered the gold standard in assessing K-12 students, the NAEP has been in continuous operation for decades. Here's the bottom line: On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
The same pattern shows up in SAT scores. The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort (including such notables as Gilda Radner and Oliver Stone). Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort (Mike Myers, Quentin Tarantino). Ever since, the SAT has been gradually if haltingly on the rise, paralleling improvements in the NAEP. In 2005, teens born in 1988 scored better on the combined SAT than any teens born since 1956 -- and better on the math SAT than any teens born since 1951.
Some critics say that the average SAT score should be adjusted for the share of all teens taking the test, since a larger share "dilutes" the average with lower-aptitude kids. Good point, but it only deepens the mystery. Early Xers have both the lowest average score and the lowest share of test-takers. The share taking the SAT peaked at about 40 percent in the mid-1960s, fell to a low of only 30 percent around 1980 and has since been rising again -- to a record high of more than 45 percent during the last few years.
These numbers make the recent rise in SAT scores by the new Millennial generation seem even more impressive -- and the early Xer low even more disappointing. With a lot more kids getting higher scores, the average SAT scores of Ivy League undergrads have jumped since the late 1970s -- from 1230 to 1425 at the University of Pennsylvania, for example. Average scores for nearly all graduate exams have also been rising since the early 1990s, including the GRE, the LSAT, the GMAT and the MCAT.
Now let's turn to education and career outcomes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60, and they're tied for lowest in graduate degrees. Pushed by their passion for enlightenment (and by their fear of being drafted for Vietnam), first-wave baby boomers became obsessive degree achievers. That drive dropped off sharply during the next 10 or 15 years. Less-degreed than their elders, early Xers represent an anomalous back-step in educational progress.
Once early Xers entered the labor force in the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noticed something else: For the first time in decades, the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop. Around the same time, economists began to worry about the stagnation of median income and the decline of household assets among Americans in their 20s. Today, they're worrying about the economic stagnation of Americans in their 40s.
So what explains the smartness deficit (and the related income gap) that has tracked these early Xers throughout their lives? Some say it's demographic pressure. Early Xers were born into large families at the tail end of the baby boom, with a relatively large share of higher-order siblings (just as first-wave boomers have a relatively large share of first-borns). As they grew up, they got crowded out in the competition for parental attention, good teachers and good colleges. Later on, by the 1980s, they arrived too late to enter the most lucrative professions and the cushiest corporations, by now glutted with boomer yuppies. Their only alternative was to pioneer the pragmatic, free-agent, low-credential lifestyle for which Generation X has since become famous.
Yet sheer numbers aren't the whole story. The early Xers' location in history also plays a large role. Quite simply, they were children at a uniquely unfavorable moment -- a time when the divorce rate accelerated, when the media image of children turned demonic and when the "latch-key" lesson for kids stressed self-reliance rather than trust in others. By the time they entered middle and high school, classrooms were opened, standards were lowered, and supervision had disappeared. Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, these kids were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs.
Most early Xers know the score. Graduating (or not) from school in the early 1980s, they saw themselves billboarded as a bad example by blue-ribbon commissions eager to reform the system for the next generation, the Millennials. Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those "For Dummies" books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around. And today, as midlife parents, they have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids' schools, as if to make double-certain it won't happen again.
Does America need to worry that this group is taking over as our national leaders? Probably not. Early Xers have certain strengths that many more learned people lack: They're practical and resilient, they handle risk well, and they know how to improvise when even the experts don't know the answer. As the global economy craters, they won't keep leafing through a textbook. They may be a little rough around the edges, but their style usually gets the job done.
Just don't tell the early Xers that today's youth are the dumbest generation. Not only is that jibe factually untrue, it also calls into question all the family sacrifices the early Xers are now making on behalf of these youth. Let Generation Jones keep the "dumbest" label. They know it fits, and they're tough enough to take it.
Neil Howe is the co-author of "Millennials Rising" and other books on generational issues.