It’s Friday, August 18, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll talk about what’s now called the millennial success sequence, and we’re also going to look at a major report on the linkage between smartphones and happiness, or the lack of happiness among American adolescents and preadolescents. We’re going to look at a controversy in Great Britain over whether or not teenagers and young people should be set loose in order to spend even more time on the Internet and in digital technology. And we’ll consider the sad picture of children and teenagers very much at home, but completely unrelated to their own parents and siblings.
Goodness of marriage, family, and work validated in ‘millennial success sequence’
“The Millennial Success Sequence,” that’s the title of a new report in the American Enterprise Institute, and it is also something that has prompted some very interesting conversation in the culture. The New York Times wrote just several days ago,
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“Marriage before children is no longer the norm in the United States. More than half — 55 percent — of parents between the ages of 28 and 34 were not married when they had their first child, [that according to federal data]. Some of these millennial parents later married, while others remain unmarried. … It’s a stark change from the past. The question that inspires heated debate is whether this trend is a problem.”
Now we need to pause for a moment and reflect upon the fact that it takes a rather considerable amount of moral and intellectual detachment even to say they were not sure whether or not this is a problem. One of the facts that has been proved over and over again in the United States is that there is a linkage between out of wedlock births and all kinds of social pathologies, including, most importantly, poverty. That’s an unbroken line of evidence. But given the worldview of those who write for and edit the New York Times, this has to be posed as if it’s still an open question. This is a question as to whether this trend is a problem, and the new analysis offers some relevant evidence. The analysis is that report released by the American Enterprise Institute and its Institute for Family Studies the co-authors of the report, Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox. The New York Times wrote,
“It borrows from a concept called ‘the success sequence,’ developed by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.”
Now follow this logic, and I quote,
“People who follow the success sequence first receive at least a high school degree, then get a job, then get married and then have their first child. Doing so, the researchers argue, increases the odds that both the parents and their children will succeed — economically and socially, as well as in terms of health status and life satisfaction.”
Now, let’s pause again. Here we are told that there is a success sequence. The sequence is: Get at least a high school diploma, get a job, then get married, and then have your first child. Now one the things that comes immediately to my mind is that if this is new, it’s certainly not new to those who been watching these issues for a very long time. Furthermore, it’s not new to anyone who’s even passingly familiar with a biblical worldview because one of the things that we are told over and over again in Scripture is that marriage is the arena for human sexual activity and that the family — meaning that it begins with a married couple, a man and a woman — we have the family as the unit for the reproduction and the raising of children. But what’s so important about the biblical worldview is that this is not merely grounded in terms of human experience, or sociological research, it’s grounded in God’s purpose and glory in creation, in giving us these gifts for the good of humanity, and as a platform for human flourishing. But nonetheless wherever you find a testimony to the truth, you should be grateful. I’m grateful for this article that appeared for the New York Times. I’m also thankful for this report. I’m thankful for the very concept of a millennial success sequence. But it’s also rather haunting to recognize that even at the secular level, this truth, this knowledge has been around for very long time, and sometimes it has come from people who certainly wouldn’t be cited by some of those who are talking about the success sequence.
Now consider, for example, that in public speeches President Ronald Reagan, now a generation ago, was making these very same points. Observers have noted for a long time in the United States that the probability of being found in poverty declines massively if several conditions are met. If individuals heading household have a high school diploma, if they have a job, and if they were married before they had children. That’s absolutely massive. The New York Times writes about the millennials and the fact that now you have out of wedlock births as a majority, 55 percent of all live births in the United States, and the New York Times contacted Wang and Wilcox, the authors of this new report, in order to ask them to prove their case. They gave evidence and here is the most telling I quote,
“Among parents between the ages of 28 and 34 who themselves had grown up in low income households and then follow the success sequence, only 14 percent were living in poverty. For them, remaining in poverty was a relatively rare exception. By comparison, the poverty rate was 46 percent for those parents who had grown up in low income households and then had a child without ever marrying.”
Now this is fascinating sociology. It’s very important morally. But for Christians, it’s also an incredibly beautiful validation of the goodness of marriage and the goodness of the family and the goodness of work as gifts given to us by God for our good and for his glory. Now remember, both of these populations were of those who, as children, have lived in low income homes. But if those as adults then followed the success sequence, only 14 percent were found later to be in poverty. Amongst those who didn’t follow the sequence who had children out of wedlock, out of marriage, 46 percent were found to be in poverty.
The New York Times also writes this,
“Versions of this pattern also exist among parents who grew up in middle- or high-income families: Those who had a child outside of marriage were more likely to have their families slip into poverty.”
Now the New York Times is very careful to say that this shows correlation rather than causation, that’s statistically important. But when it comes to the moral picture here, that’s really irrelevant because where people live is in correlation not causation. By the way the same thing is true in terms of medical treatments. Medical treatments are generally approved on the basis of correlation, that is, do they work, rather than causation, having to know exactly how they work.
Columnist George Will of the Washington Post picked up on this. His column at the post had the headline,
“Listen Up Millennial’s, There’s Sequence to Success.”
He writes later in his article,
“Among today’s young adults, the ‘success sequence’ is insurance against poverty.”
He cites the very same study by Wendy Wang and Bradford Wilcox. He points to it, and he says the success sequence is not only real, it’s absolutely important. He goes to the same statistics. He also goes to Bradford Wilcox, citing him as saying that our problem is the soulmate model of marriage. As George Will describes it this is,
“A self-centered approach that regards marriage primarily as an opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment rather than as a way to form a family. Another problem,” writes Will, “is that some of the intelligentsia see the success sequence as middle-class norms to be disparaged for being middle-class norms.”
He also cites Charles Murray, who says that a problem in our society is that this can’t be discussed honestly because of an “ecumenical niceness” that replaces being charged with being judgmental, as if there is a problem. Bradford Wilcox has done some really important work over the years on marriage and the family, and he continues to do so. In response to liberal critics who say there really isn’t anything to this sequence, he says this,
“Until the left faces up to these hard truths it’s fight to end poverty in America is unserious. If young adults make bad choices about education, work, and family, all the jobs and policies in the world will not give them an equal shot at realizing the American Dream as their peers who follow the sequence to success.”
Yes, no doubt there is a success sequence, and it’s not a new discovery. It’s deeply embedded within the wisdom that God has given us, not only in Scripture, which is most authoritative, but even in human experience about the family, which is nearly universal. It takes a great deal of modern arrogance to reject a universal knowledge that has been the very support of civilization through successive millennia. But that’s where we stand, and Bradford Wilcox is exactly right. Until we face it, all of our concern, as we say, about ills such as poverty, well all that concern is just unserious until we face this issue squarely.
Smartphones and happiness: The dangerous effects of screen time on adolescents
Next, researcher Jean Twenge has written an article in the Atlantic that is rightfully getting a very great deal of attention. She asked the question,
“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The subhead in her article is this,
“More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But,” she says, “they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”
Her article opens up with a conversation she had with a 13-year-old about her life online. The girl’s identified as Athena — not her real name. She is said to live in Houston, Texas. She’s had an iPhone since she was 11. She told Twenge that she has spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, according to Athena,
“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.”
Now to this point Twenge offers us some generational analysis; it’s pretty interesting. You know, in the mainframe, the kind of pattern of generations from the greatest generation as they were called to the baby boomers and then of course to generation X and the millennials or generation Y. But now are looking at adolescents and preadolescents and here they’re simply identified as the post-Millennials. In any event, we know they’re living different lives — digitally and electronically. Also it turns out socially and perhaps psychiatrically.
What we are told is that these adolescents and preadolescents are increasingly living their entire lives online. These children and young people are increasingly losing the interest in relationships, as well as the ability to relate. They are offering some very interesting patterns of life. They generally are not now getting drivers licenses when they’re 16, many of them don’t even have driver’s licenses when they graduate from high school. Why? Because they no longer look to the automobile as the vehicle or the conduit for the kind of relating that teenagers and adolescence have yearned to do in the past. Furthermore, they’re not dating. According to Twenge in this article,
“The shift,” she says, “is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were dating less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”
Now at this point, the moral issue here is not dating in adolescent socialization, it’s the massive shift away from all relating in all socialization with these young people living their lives increasingly entirely online. Courtship has largely disappeared. Now it’s just a matter of talking or “liking” online. Of course there’s also the danger of not being “liked,” according to the contemporary digital parlance, more on that in just a moment.
It’s interesting that in this article Jean Twenge says that today’s adolescents and preadolescents are spending more time in their houses with their parents and families than at any point in recent American history. But here’s the thing, they’re actually spending less time in terms of relationships or communication or conversation with those very same people. They’re in the house, but they’re not in conversation with the other human beings in the house, they’re in communication — digital socialization — with people who may be somewhere else in the world. And this is leading to a very fragile psychological and psychiatric state. Furthermore, it’s not just as problem in the United States. Twenge writes,
“Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”
Now, later in the article she says this very importantly,
“Psychologically they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration,” she writes, “to describe [this new generation] as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”
“Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Later, she writes this,
“There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”
They’re also not growing up. Later in the article she cites a great deal of evidence and then she summarizes,
“18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-old used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood,” she says, “now stretches well into high school.”
Looking at a great deal of data, and especially in terms of how adolescents and preadolescents describe themselves as more and less happy, Twenge says this,
“There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.”
She says this,
“If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen.”
More time on the internet or less? Great Britain’s debate about technology, security, and health
Now, finally, we note that all this comes as a conversation, a controversy rages in Great Britain over these very same issues. The UK children’s commissioner in recent days has warned parents,
“that they must intervene to stop their children over using social media and consuming time online ‘like junk food.’”
That according to Michael Savage writing for the Guardian, a major London newspaper. Now, all of that seem to resonate with a good many parents in Great Britain when on the heels of that article came a front-page article in the Daily Telegraph with the headline,
“Set Young Free Online to Save the Country.”
Ben Farmer, reporting for the Telegraph, tells us,
“Parents should encourage their children to spend more time online to improve their cyber skills and ‘save the country.’”
This according to the former head of what’s identified as the GCHQ, that’s a major government technology agency.
“Rather than allowing youngsters to ‘mooch around on the streets’ during the holidays, it is [the]’ patriotic duty [of families] to encourage more screen time, [that] according to [the individual here,] Robert Hannigan.”
Hannigan, as it turns out, is a former head spy chief in terms of Great Britain, and he’s concerned that Britains are falling behind other nations in terms of this kind of technological and digital expertise. His answer, set the kids in Britain loose with smartphones and social media in order to develop the skills that they can then use in the employment of Britain’s intelligence agencies and technology sector.
There was an immediate backlash to Hannigan’s suggestion, but the big question is this: What are parents in Great Britain actually going to do? But, furthermore, it’s a huge question for all parents. What are parents going to do with the evidence brought forward by Jean Twenge and the research that she cites. There is a direct linkage, we are told, between the smartphone and happiness. Of course for Christians, happiness is not the ultimate issue, but it’s not unimportant. The specter of children in houses not relating to their parents and family members is not only sad, it’s downright tragic, and there’s something for all of us to think about in terms of this research.