The Dumbest Generation

That’s the generation many of us on this blog belong to, according to an interesting piece by Neil Howe in today’s Washington Post.  Americans born in the early 1960s apparently lag behind both older and younger Americans in standardized test scores and educational achievement.  Howe calls us “early Xers” — though I must say I prefer the “Generation Jones” moniker Howe attributes to another writer.  According to Howe,

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.

The possible causes discussed here range from birth order to Vietnam to the open classroom craze of the 1970s.

But wait:  If it’s true that we’re the dumbest, isn’t it our parents’ fault?  And if the kids that came along later are smarter, don’t we deserve some credit for that?  Exactly, according to Howe.  He says one of the reasons those of us in our 40s are so focused on our children’s education is because we’re bound and determined to see our children educated better than we were.  That strikes me as a little far-fetched, but I do find the test data on which Howe premises his argument fairly provocative, particularly as we prepare to inaugurate the first president from Generation Jones.

As always, I invite reasonable minds to articulate dissenting views.  But this time, let’s pay more than the usual attention to syntax and punctuation.  The whole world’s watching.

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3 Responses to “The Dumbest Generation”

  1. Franklin Says:

    I like your blog; both the content and the name “Reasonable Minds”. I also read that Howe op-ed in WashPo today. I am proud to be part of Generation Jones, and am pretty offended by Howe’s years of trying to undermine our long-lost generation (the problem is that Howe’s theory doesn’t allow for the fact that most generational experts now view generations as shorter than the traditional 20 years which Howe’s theories depend on).

    If you have a chance, read the comments responding to this op-ed today; I was happy to see lots of people defending Generation Jones. Here’s one of my favorite comments, from ‘CultureAndPeople’…

    “As someone who has studied generations for years, I must say that I’m very surprised that Neil Howe would go this far when it comes to attacking GenJones. It’s well-known to many of us in the field that he has felt very threatened by the whole GenJones thing, but you’ve got to get over it, Neil! Generations are getting shorter, there is a Generation Jones. Instead of embarrassing yourself trying to diss it, just figure out a way to adapt your theory to include the shortening of generations. Your theories can co-exist with GenJones; figure it out.

    This article takes the cake when it comes to your attempts to diss GenJones. Using ridiculously bad science to try to position GenJones as “The Dumbest Generation”?! Wow. Feels over the top to me.

    First, Neil, framing this generation as “dumb”?! As you know, dumbness is another way of saying “low intelligence”. What evidence do you have that Jonesers are less intelligent?! If Jonesers were the “victims” of ineffective educational experiments, less attentive parents, a souring national mood toward youth, etc., etc., etc., on what basis does that make them less intelligent? You might more plausibly say that they are, for example, less knowledgeable (although I believe that would also be untrue), but to characterize them as “dumb”?

    You might also frame this in a positive light; for example, showing how Jonesers have overcome these enormous obstacles to get where they’ve gotten (e.g. wealthiest generation in the country). But instead, framing them as the dumbest generation?!

    And the evidence you use to try to make this case makes my jaw drop. Take the SAT comparison you make as one example; how could you write this with a straight face? I find it hard to believe that you are not aware that: students now do all kinds of SAT prep that they didn’t do in the 70s/80s, that SAT scores were re-normed in the 1990s which significantly inflated the scores, making any comparisons obvious apples to oranges, the relevant varying admission standards (including the 1970s admissions de-emphasis of SAT’s) affecting SAT scores, the fact that it was the ACT, rather than the SAT, that “smart” teens took in the 70s/80s, and all the other reasons why your SAT comparisons are completely absurd.

    In addition to your faulty SAT comparison, this article is filled with similarly ridiculous “evidence”. Are you so desperate to diss Generation Jones lest it hurt your business, that it’s worth cheapening your name this way?

    And given the dire situation our nation now finds itself in, and given that it is primarily GenJones, starting with Obama and most of his main appointments, who we are looking to lead us through these difficulties, do you really need to use the platform which you’ve built to try to position this new generation of leadership as the Dumbest Generation? Couldn’t you at least wait until they are sworn in and have a little time to try to lead before you launch this kind of attack?

    With all respect, Neil, it feels to me like you are putting your own selfish personal goals ahead of the country’s interests at a dangerous moment in our national history. William Strauss deserved better than this, Neil.”

  2. mullygrub Says:

    It seems to me that Howe is referring to what this generation is using to learn, rather than actual learning itself and that’s a bit misguided. There’s nothing “stupid” about preferring to learn using soundbites or video clips, it’s just a sign of the times. Isn’t the important thing the quality of the information we are getting, and how we think about that? Does this then mean by implication that Howe is suggesting that new media is less valuable than traditional media? You’ve given me some good food for thought. Thanks.

  3. The Icepick Says:

    Nice post and nice blog. I don’t so much buy into this Generation Jones concept, but am willing to give it more of a chance than I might have when I started out, though I’m still more in the “You’re-either-a-Baby-Boomer-or-Generation-X’er” camp.

    We’re probably all jumping the gun on this: only history (and the perspective it provides) and the history we’re all making throughout our entire lives will be able to tell for sure which birthyears equate to which generation or generations. History will either solidify the existing names for each of today’s generations, or it will reveal new names that we couldn’t even fathom today.

    On a related (and perhaps self-conflicting) note, if it turns out that I’m in the wrong camp with my “Boomer vs. X’er” view, can someone please coin a better name than “Generation Jones”? It’s a pretty meaningless name and doesn’t seem built so much for posterity — “keeping up with the Joneses” and “Jonesing for something” seem pretty much like jargon or slang that aren’t going to mean much in 100 years (maybe Generation “X” won’t either, but I digress).


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