The image of a retiree complaining about the local kids is so ubiquitous it has become a cliché—everyone knows that each generation loves to be appalled by the behavior of those born later. Now research confirms this observation and suggests that by thinking about youngsters getting in trouble, older people are actively boosting their self-esteem.
Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University and her colleague Matthias Hastall of Zeppelin University in Germany asked people between the ages of 50 and 65 to read articles in a magazine under the guise of becoming familiar with the publication. In a subsequent survey, the participants who read experimenter-created articles about the trouble young people got themselves into reported higher levels of self-esteem. The more the older subjects looked at the articles about the bad behavior and ill fortune of younger people, the more their self-esteem rose. Knobloch-Westerwick explains this as a classic case of schadenfreude—people feel good about the misfortunes of a group to which they do not belong.
For 18- to 30-year-old volunteers, however, the reverse was not true. Knobloch-Westerwick suggests that in our youth-idealizing culture, older people are simply marginal in the eyes of the young. [For more on the psychology of schadenfreude, see “Their Pain, Our Gain,” by Emily Anthes; Scientific American Mind, November/December 2010.]
Editor's note: This story was originally titled in print as "Kids These Days."