When I want to find out how a particular characteristic has changed over the generations, I begin by searching computer databases for journal articles, master’s theses, and dissertations that used a particular scale. I keep only those that used a normal population of a specific age – usually college students or children. Then I search to find the data sources at the library or in full text databases online, since only the entire article or thesis will have what I’m looking for: the average score of the sample on the questionnaire. Once I find all of the data, I can then graph those scores by the year the data were collected. Because the samples are roughly the same age (say, college students), this shows how young people differ from one generation to the next. No one had ever done this type of analysis before, so I started from scratch developing a way to find and analyze the data. In most of the projects, I look at the correlation between the average scores and the year the data were collected.
This makes the book unique among those that discuss generations, because it summarizes psychological data – and a very large amount -- collected at various times. I haven’t surveyed the generations as they are now, with Boomers middle-aged and GenMe in youth and rising adulthood. Instead, I’ve found data on what Boomers were like when they were young in the 1960s and 1970s and compared it to data on young people from the 1990s and 2000s. This is an enormous benefit, as I can be confident that the changes aren’t due to age or to people misremembering what they were like when they were young (how many parents have fudged a detail or two about their own teenage years?)
You might wonder if the changes in the questionnaires happen because people now have fewer qualms admitting to problems. There are several reasons why I think this doesn’t account for much of the change. The questionnaires across all of these studies were given on paper and not in interviews, and they’re anonymous – respondents don’t put their names on them. The questionnaires also ask about specific symptoms (“Some unimportant thought runs through my mind and bothers me”) rather than asking point-blank something like “Are you anxious and depressed?” The responses to all of the symptoms are added up to form the score, so the respondent only admits to small parts of a problem at a time. In addition, the changes described in the book are diverse. Some of them are in “good” traits (like self-esteem), but others are in “bad” traits (like anxiety), and some (like who controls your fate) have questions worded so there is no obvious “good” or “bad” answer. If people were more comfortable admitting to bad things, we’d expect to see change only in traits that are considered undesirable, but the changes show up in all kinds of characteristics.