Is this generation dumber?
Studies suggest IQs are lower among younger people. Charlotte Lytton, 26, asks if older always does mean wiser.
It’s an awkward truth that many have long suspected to be true – young people today are less intelligent than they used to be. According to the first ever authoritative study on the subject, those born in 1991 (which includes me . . .) have IQs lower than previous generations by an average of seven points.
A Norwegian study of more than 730 000 standardised test results found that the decline likely began with those born in 1975.
British studies have found similar results, estimating an IQ drop somewhere between 2.5 and 4.3 points per decade.
However, I’d wager that it’s not academic or mental dexterity that’s dwindling among young people – we’re using the wrong yardstick to measure them.
To be a young person in 2018 is, after all, a more splintered existence than those of generations before.
Perhaps we don’t speak French or German as well as our elders, but we are contending with multiple modes at any one time, be they water-cooler chats or executive-level work e-mails; in abbreviated text-speak or 280 characters on Twitter.
None of these may be delivered with the same flourish of a devastating insult reeled off in perfect Italian – but, as currency in today’s society, they’re surely worth their weight in gold (emoji).
It also does not follow that communicating with small images of an exasperated face or smiley poo robs you of the ability to do so in more traditional forms. And, in the spirit of standardised tests, I went to Mensa’s website to try their “online workout” – a quiz in which you have 12 minutes to answer 18 questions.
I was pitted against Harry de Quetteville, The Telegraph’s special correspondent (technology), who, having been born in 1975, would have avoided the tipping point for the nation’s plummeting intelligence.
The workout is not an IQ test per se and was, even to my far from academic eye, on the simple side.
Still, I felt reasonably pleased with my score of 17 out of 18 – 94% – until I received an e-mail from Harry to say he got top marks. I was let down by my knowledge about lakes.
And worst of all? Harry’s crushing blow was delivered with a single word of millennial slang: “Soz.”
Why is IQ on the decline?
The inevitable conclusion drawn by older generations is that young people spend too long staring at their screens to engage with the real world, and while we are undoubtedly glued to our gadgets far more than we should be, we can access a world of knowledge through our devices, should we so choose. (Though we likely won’t)
This generation’s plunging IQ rate puts an abrupt end to the Flynn effect, which saw it rising steadily for the last 70 years. But this growth was not because people were becoming more astute, explained James R Flynn, the eminent social scientist after whom the theory is named.
In the 19th century, when IQ tests were first established, they were at odds with the rigidity of daily life, failing to take into account that people’s concrete routines did not give them the diversity of thought and experience that the questions demanded.
So when the 20th century rolled around, and people had to employ a more vast range of thinking, their test performances improved, thus raising results across the board.
A century later, the pendulum has swung back the other way: it is now the tests that are too inflexible to accommodate the granular nature of modern life.
Our scores may be getting worse, but that does not necessarily mean our mental ability is.
What went wrong with the Me Generation?
The failure of the IQ system to capture the nuance of present-day intelligence likely begins at school, where pupils are put through an endless series of standardised tests that largely revolve around memorising large chunks of information that is expunged upon exiting the exam hall.
As more of us than ever go on to higher education – 49% of all young people in England now attend university – why is this increased interest in academia not yielding more fruitful results?
It is likely to be a case of squeezing snowflake-shaped pegs into old, round holes.
Much as I, an actual millennial, find it hard to understand how job titles such as “influencer” and “vlogger” exist, being shepherded towards an irrelevant degree to meet social expectations of “having a 2:1” surely serves little purpose.
Take the contestants on Love Island, who apparently have a clutch of diplomas between them, yet this week were found scratching their perfectly coiffed heads at the notion of Brexit.
Could it be intelligent people’s fault after all?
For Richard Lynn, a psychology professor, there’s a more scientific reason for millennial brain drain: dysgenic fertility, or the slowing reproduction of clever people.
“Intelligence is largely inherited and transmitted from parents to children,” he says. “Intelligent parents have intelligent children.”
With fewer children being born into intelligent families, he says – thanks to modern contraception and the rise in educated career women – IQ scores inevitably suffer.
I can only wonder where I fall on Lynn’s intelligent families scale, having one state-educated parent with a 2:2 degree from a red-brick university (mum) and the other whose mixture of private and state education produced one O-level (dad).
So I approach the debate as thoughtfully as any 26-year-old might, by posting a question to our family WhatsApp group: are its senior members cleverer than me?
My sister (30, Oxford-educated) is first to reply: “They’d be better at a generic IQ test,” she suggests, “but we know how to use newer technologies, and things that are more pertinent to the way people live their lives now.”
She follows this up with the acronym IMO (“in my opinion”), which she misspells.
After an hour and a half, my mother adds that “my generation’s knowledge is wider and we have lived longer, so experienced more”.
She agrees that “your generation’s technical knowledge is far superior than mine”, to which my sister decrees: “I said that and was faster to respond. Younger generation WINS [sticking out tongue emoji]“”.
It’s not the stuff of George Bernard Shaw, granted, but I suppose it does illustrate the point.
Ask the family: How would you and yours score in a Mensa IQ test?
1. In a supermarket, the first 25 customers bought an average of two items each.
After a further 15 customers, the average number of items bought by each customer rose to eight. What was the average number of items purchased by the last 15 customers only?
2. What number is missing from this sequence?
3 7 13 27 53 ? 213
3. Ben has four dogs, eight hamsters and seven rabbits. How many horses does he have?
4. For each of the following, find a word beginning with ‘H’ with an opposite meaning: despairing, wicked, solid.
5. Which three-letter word can be attached to the beginning of mark, nest, piece and shot to give four longer words?
6. If Mark gives Tony £3, they will both have the same amount of money. If Tony gives Mark £3, Mark will have four times as much as Tony. Who has what?
7. Rearrange the letters of ‘any time’ to give a seven-letter word. What is it?
1: 18. 2: 107. 3: Answer: 6 (the number of letters gives the amount). 4: Hopeful, Holy, Hollow. 5: Ear. 6: Tony has £7 and Mark has £13. 7: Amenity
How did you score?
3 or below – need more practice
4 – average
5 – good
6 – excellent
7 – now try a full Mensa workout . . .
The IQ-style questions in this quiz have been compiled randomly to form a mini quiz.
A score obtained by completing this quiz will have no scientific meaning in relation to IQ.
For a full Mensa test, and more information, go to mensa.org.uk – The Daily Telegraph