Gen X (and even us elder Millennials) grew up in an era where cars meant freedom, getting out of the house on the weekend was everything, and we were willing to throw caution to the wind. We rebelled against our upbringing and our families, and most of us never considered talking with our parents about taboo issues back in the day. However, teenagers today are more than content to—gulp—stay at home. Gag me with a spoon!
How did things change so much in only a few decades? One answer is that we’re living in an age of technology. For those born from roughly 1961–1981, the world was a different place in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Social media wasn’t even an idea. Computers were the size of rooms or at least took up an entire tabletop. Plus, cell phones didn’t exist when Generation X were teens. At best, you were lucky enough to have a car phone.
With the advent of technology, most people would assume that there are differences between Gen X and their kids. After all, teens today communicate more online than in real life, are overscheduled, and are more ok with staying home thanks to COVID-19 lockdown orders and virtual schooling. However, other differences between Gen X and their teenage children may surprise you.
Gen X Couldn’t Wait To Start Adulting
If you’re part of Generation X or even an elder millennial, what was the one thing you and your friends looked forward to as a teenager? Getting a driver’s license! Most of us celebrated our 16th birthday at the DMV. It was a rite of passage. Plus, it gave us the radical independence so many of us sought but couldn’t get elsewhere.
Not so with teens these days. In fact, the Federal Highway Commission Administration confirms this. In 2018, 61% of American 18-year-olds had a driver’s license, down from 80% percent in 1983. During this time, the number of 16-year-olds with licenses dropped from 46% to 25%.
Several Gen Xers recently shared on Reddit their experience with their teenage children not wanting to drive. The sentiment shared by many parents is summed up in this Reddit user’s comment: “I wanted to drive pretty much anything with tires and a motor as soon as I could reach the pedals and steer. My kids, not so much. Both of my sons were seniors in [high school] before getting their learner permits, and that was just to shut me up. They really weren’t interested.”
Teenagers today just don’t have the same interest in driving. Why not? Because teens just don’t leave the house that we did decades ago. For those of us who couldn’t wait to get out of the house on the weekends or during the summer, we just don’t understand why our kids want to stay home. As one Reddit user recently posted, “[My kids are] more than happy to gather 5-6 friends on Zoom or whatever and giggle and shriek at each other that way. The in-person hangout time just isn’t as important.” Perhaps teens today are more willing to hold onto their childhood and not rush into emulating adults.
Does Community Still Exist?
As teenagers grow up today in an era impacted by COVID-19, social media, and information being available at a moment’s notice, one searing difference between Gen X and their teens is the sense of community. One area where community is vastly different between the generations is religious institutions.
While Gen X was growing up, nearly 70% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque according to a Gallup poll. In 2020, that number had dropped to 47% and had declined for over 20 years. Although Gen X remembers well the hypocrisy many experienced in houses of worship, some lament that they destroyed these communities without replacing them with a better communal option.
As one self-described atheist said on Reddit, “I never really considered how much of a role the churches played in the community aspect of people’s lives. I grew up in a Catholic family, and the community was massive. It was far from perfect, but it made a difference in people’s lives. Arguably, the positives outweighed the negatives by a large margin.”
Teens today are also more accustomed to online communities. Teenagers play video games and connect with friends all over the world through social media. However, even though these online communities exist, this generation may be defined by a lack of cultural touchstones. Since there is so much online media to absorb, no one is taking in the same content.
One Reddit user reflected, “I wonder what it will be like for them when they reach our age and don’t have the same cultural touchstones. There is so much media that no one is consuming the same thing.” While Gen X has plenty of cultural touchstones to connect them as a generation, teens today may not.
Teens Today Are Healthier And More Socially Conscious
Just as driving was a teenage rite of passage back in the day, so was drinking, getting high, or having sex. For teens today, they’re much more conscious of the effects of drinking, smoking, drugs, and having lots of sex. In fact, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior recently confirmed what many Gen Xers have seen with their own kids. Though the study focused on sex, the lead researcher also found teens were driving less and drinking less alcohol.
Today’s teens are also more socially conscious than most of their parents were as teenagers. They’re involved in important discussions around racism, climate action, politics, and gender equality. As a parent remarked on Reddit, “At the age we were arguing which popular media franchise character was cooler, they’re engaging with discussions about the sociopolitical implications of how…characters’ roles are framed and presented.”
Plus, they’re more inclusive and understand that much in life is fluid, including gender, sexuality, and interests. According to one Reddit user, “They do have these amazing inclusive attitudes toward gender and sexuality—it goes beyond accepting others as they are, but more like you can be whatever you like and that’s just how it goes. I would say the current conservative political climate has no idea what is coming for them.”
Today’s Teens Are Cooler Than We Ever Were
At the end of the day, teenagers today are just way cooler than we ever were. As one parent shared on Reddit, “My teens are way cooler than I ever was, and so are all their friends. They are confident and put-together, and the agonizing awkwardness I went through is nowhere to be seen. They are somehow more sophisticated than I was at this age.”
They’re also full of creativity, as evident in their social media posts and videos. Plus, teens today aren’t concerned with stigmas that existed around mental health when we were growing up. They have the language to describe their anxiety and stress while seeking mental health support.
If anything, teens today are much more empathetic and caring than many of us were at that age. They’ve grown up in an era where bullying isn’t ok. They aren’t afraid of standing up to prejudice In fact, teens today stand up for each other and even stand up for themselves. They’re a generation that may just be defined by their kindness.
Overall, the sentiment Gen X has about their teenage children is best summed up in this parent’s Reddit comment: “I have a 25 [year old] and a 14 [year old]. Both are gamers and not at all interested in any sports, which I’m ok with. I wish they would get outdoors more though, both are stuck in their gaming routines. But both are caring and empathetic towards others. So I did something right.”