Research News

"OK, boomer!" - Rob King of Applied Psychology on criticizing the youth of today

22 Nov 2019

A bunch of lazy and apathetic snowflakes, while being, simultaneously, overworked, preachy, and pushy. Millennials, eh? Criticizing the youth of today never gets old…

…and it’s fun. It’s been fun for centuries.

For instance:

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today … when I was young, we were taught … to respect our elders” —Hesiod, circa 800 BCE

“The children now love luxury… show disrespect for their elders… chatter… contradict their parents… tyrannize their teachers” —Socrates, died 399 BCE

“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves… have no reverence for parents… impatient… girls [are] foolish and immodest” —Peter the Hermit, Floreat, 1083 AD

“Young people are often encouraged to speak their minds these days, and while this is a nice idea in principle, sometimes when a young person opens his or her pretty mouth, a pile of steaming crap comes out.” —Brendan O’Neil, still around, 2019 AD

Putting Brendan O’Neil in the company of Hesiod, Socrates, and Peter the Hermit might be the highest honor ever done to him, and I promise I won’t do it again. But it’s worth pointing out that he’s part of a venerable tradition—old people having a go at the “youth of today.”

You might think that such commentators might look around, realize that on most objective measures the world is improving, and wonder how that might be the case. If each generation somehow manages to produce nothing more than a gang of noisy, selfish imbeciles, then why are things (mostly) getting better? The critics might even ask, who has produced that generation?

When it comes to things that are genuinely getting worse—such as the climate—the youngsters get it in the neck for taking that seriously. Are we criticizing the youngsters for paying attention in science class now? But, apart from climate change, for anyone who doubts that things are, otherwise-and-mostly, getting better, here are four minutes of Hans Rosling stats to cheer you up…

The illusion that the youth are going to the dogs, while everything is (more or less) improving, is like one of those Shepard tone auditory illusions, so beloved of composer Hans Zimmer, where a tone appears to be rising or falling in perpetuity. It works by confusing your sense of local change, with a more global effect. A recent study (Protzko and Schooler, 2019) shows us how this works at a psychological level.

“We Respected Our Elders”

No, you didn’t. At least, you didn’t do it any more, or less, than it's always been done. Protzko and Schooler found, in a pretty large (N = 3,458) study of American adults, that oldies' assessments of the decline of youth were closely connected to their own self-perception. Smart people think that everyone is getting dumber, authoritarians think that the youth have no respect, and those who read a lot think that no one else does. Irrelevant traits had no such predictive power. The tall don’t, for example, think that everyone is getting shorter.

I think we have our answer to our paradox, and it is rooted in some pretty well-understood human mechanisms. One, we are laser-guided to faults in others, especially in areas where we think we are pretty fancy. And two, we have biased memories that conveniently forget that, when we were smart, intelligent youngsters who “respected their elders,” everyone around us at the time thought that we were an insufferable, nerdy prig.

“In My Day, the Music Had Proper Tunes”

No, it didn’t. At least, the proportion wasn’t any different. Most of the music was rubbish then, and most of it is rubbish now. The reason that music appears better in the past is that, in the past, you cared about new music. Now, you don’t.

If you still cared about music, then you’d seek out the good stuff, and put up with the bulk of it that is garbage, and was always garbage, so as to get to the good stuff. Now, you can’t be bothered. But don’t take my word for this. Listen to what Henry Rollins (who still cares about new music) has to say on the subject.

“Hey, Boomer”

It’s not that young people don’t have some daft ideas. Of course, they do. Every generation has pretty much the same daft ideas.

They are the sort of known glitches in human reasoning that crop up when you are young. Or stoned. Or young and stoned. Daft ideas like, “All taxation is theft,” or “Let’s try communism just once more, maybe the 60th time is a charm?” Ideas that make a reasonable person want to smother the individual in question with their own Che Guevara t-shirt, or beat them over the head with a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Or both.

That’s not the problem.

It’s how the daft ideas are responded to that matters. For instance, every generation produces its own version of philosophical relativism. This is the self-refuting thought that “Oh, wow, man, there’s, like, no such thing as truth… err… hang on... is what I just said true or not? Oh damn. Back to the drawing board.”

Relativism is a daft idea. And it’s the responsibility of the older generation to point this out. If instead of living up to its responsibilities, the older generation founds huge departments worshipping daft ideas and encourages young people to sign up and waste their time pursing daft ideas, as if they weren’t daft, then they can hardly blame the younger generation for taking them at their word. We are looking at you, post-modernism. It’s the oldies who made Michel Foucault the most cited (so-called) philosopher on the planet. If we didn't prepare the youngsters for someone taking the whole "there's no such thing as truth, only power" nonsense seriously, and then running for president on that ticket, then whose fault is that? Postmodernists decrying Trump, is like listening to Hitler complain that you just can't a good bagel in Berlin these days.

The problem is not that young people don’t look to the oldies for advice. It’s that sometimes they can’t readily distinguish the horrifically bad advice (like that of Michel Foucault) from the good advice they do (sometimes) get offered.

For example, whatever his faults, Barack Obama knows a bit about the messy compromises that actually get things done, away from the moral grandstanding ideals that don’t. Obama’s suggestion about woke puritanism (because youngsters are no more immune to pointing fingers than the oldies are) was to ease up on those scorched-earth tactics, being constantly alert for 5th columnists, and call-out culture.

This was sensible advice: Not as much fun as pointing moral fingers at people, but if those fingers end up caught in the political equivalent of a Chinese finger trap, then, perhaps, you’d be wise to stop pulling, and think of another way out.

The reaction of Ernest Owens, writing in the NYT, was to criticize Obama on the grounds of his age (“Boomer”) and sex, call him an honorary (such an honor!) white person, and to insist that the solution to getting caught in a Chinese finger trap was, of course, to shout, “Let’s pull harder.”

Fairly daft things for Owens to say, on all counts. But, let’s hope the older generation has done its duty and prepared the younger generation to judge wisely. More wisely than they, themselves, managed.


Brendan O'Neil

Protzko, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2019). Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking. Science advances, 5(10), eaav5916.

For more on this story contact:

Dr Rob King

School of Applied Psychology

Síceolaíocht Fheidhmeach

Cork Enterprise Centre, North Mall, Cork.,