If it seems like your teenager and his or her friends are more interested in money, but less motivated to work than you were at their age, that might be because it's true. According to a new study on the attitudes and values of high school seniors from the 1970s to now, there's a growing gap between teens' desire to work hard and own nice things.
"Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they're willing to work hard to earn them," said study co-author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book Generation Me, in a press release.
Materialism rose substantially from the mid-1970s, peaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but remaining at historically high levels through the start of the new millennium, the study claims. The findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on Wednesday. The researchers used a sample of more than 355,000 high school students who participated in the so-called "Monitoring the Future" survey, an ongoing study of the behaviors of adolescents and teens that started in the mid-1970s.
To gauge materialistic values, researchers looked at things like whether teenagers wanted a new car every few years or hoped to be wealthy some day.
Teens today appear to desire money more than high school seniors did in the 1970s: 62 percent of those surveyed from 2005 to 2007 said it was important to them to have a lot of money, compared to just 48 percent from 1976 to 1978.
In the 1970s, nearly 49 percent of teens said they expected to earn more than their parents; by the 2000s, that had jumped to 60 percent.
But at the same time that teens' desire for wealth and certain material goods has increased, work ethic has sloughed off, the study found.
In the late 1970s, a quarter of students surveyed admitted they did not want to work hard. By the mid-2000s, that had jumped to 39 percent.
The study raises a major question, but can't fully answer it -- Why are attitudes shifting this way? Relying on prior research and theories, the researchers offer up two hypotheses.
Children raised during periods of broader societal instability (i.e., when unemployement is high) as well as disconnection (when more parents are separated from each other), are more likely to espouse materialistic values, particularly if they experienced either during mid-childhood and early adolescence.
Exposure to advertising also seems to play a role, according to the researchers, particularly when children were tweens or in their early teen years.
Many of those broader societal factors are beyond parents' control, Twenge admitted in an interview with The Huffington Post. But exposure to advertising is one element parents can help control, by simply limiting it as much as possible. She also recommends that, to whatever extent they are comfortable, parents should talk with their children about the cost of items in their lives. Making costs clearer will allow kids to have more realistic expectations about the work that goes into earning an income and buying possessions, Twenge said.
But outside experts cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about what the study means and what its implications are, given the difficulty of linking historic trends together, particularly over large spans of time.
"Many other forces could be in play, and one never is able to control all of those," said Jerald Bachman, a research scientists and professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in an email to the Huffington Post. "The best one can do is to try to narrow things down, and be as specific as possible," Bachman said, adding that results should be interpreted with a great deal of caution.
"I should add that I am certainly sympathetic with interpretations that lay a lot of blame on much of the advertising that plagues our present society," he added.