Whatever you call them (I’ll just call them early Xers), the numbers are clear: Compared with every other birth cohort, they have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they’re the dumbest.
Obviously, we’re talking averages. No one would apply the word “dumb” to Barack Obama (born in 1961) or Timothy F. Geithner, his nominee for secretary of the Treasury (born in the same month). Yet the president-elect himself has written eloquently about how hard it was for him and his peers to obtain a serious education during their dazed-and-confused teen years. Like it or not, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (born in 1964), who stumbled over basic civics facts during her vice presidential run, is more representative of this group. 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.
Want proof? Let’s start with the long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is housed within the U.S. Department of Education. Considered the gold standard in assessing K-12 students, the NAEP has been in continuous operation for decades. Here’s the bottom line: On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
The same pattern shows up in SAT scores. The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort (including such notables as Gilda Radner and Oliver Stone). Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort (Mike Myers, Quentin Tarantino). Ever since, the SAT has been gradually if haltingly on the rise, paralleling improvements in the NAEP. In 2005, teens born in 1988 scored better on the combined SAT than any teens born since 1956 — and better on the math SAT than any teens born since 1951.
Gee…go figure. We grew up in the seventies, raising ourselves because our parents were worthless. We were the generation of divorce and single parents and free lunches and food stamps. We got ourselves off to school because our mothers were already off to work by the time we got up, or left as soon as we were awake, and there was no one there when we came home in the afternoon. Sociologists even coined a term to describe us: Latchkey kids. Everybody over thirty had a drink in their hand and and a medicine chest full of mood-altering drugs, and everyone under thirty had a straw in their nose. We had a lot of stellar examples of what not to be when we grew up.
It wasn’t a Leave it to Beaver world we grew up in, that’s for damned sure.
But we came out of our screwed up childhoods determined to do better by our own children, and we did. And we will hang on to the mantle of the stupidest generation. It was cast upon us by our parents, who were selfish and altered and worthless. But we will cling to it because the alternative is to be as pathetic as our parents were and cast it upon our own children. And most of us vehemently declare “over my dead body” and mean it. Our kids have turned it around and score better than any birth cohort since 1951.
And hey – while the cocktail party people who screwed us over are still alive, maybe the academics will delve into why we are less educated and accomplished, and place the blame where it belongs, at the feet of our selfish parents who thought that childrearing could be done on their terms and we would just have to deal.