Do we get grittier with age?

Do we get grittier with age?

June 27, 2021 0 By Rick

I recently finished re-reading “Grit: Why Passion and Resilience Are the Secrets to Success, Angela Duckworth’s classic book dealing with the long-standing debate about talent versus persistence and hard work. I discover something new each time I read it. This time around, I became fascinated with Chapter 5: Grit Grows. It got me thinking about life’s “school of hard knocks” and what we learn in it as we age. I’m pretty sure that every generation has complained, moaned and whined about the younger generation(s) following them. That certainly was the case with my grandparents, parents and sadly me, too. But, of course, it’s been scientifically proven (in my head, that is) that we Baby Boomers are much grittier than Gen X, the Millennials and definitely way, way grittier than Gen Z. While the previous statement was meant to be a somewhat humorous generalization, there may be some truth in this, according to Angela Duckworth. But what is grit? Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for a long-term goal and holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”

Measuring grit
Duckworth agrees that it’s challenging to identify, define and measure something as intangible as grit, but that didn’t stop her from tackling this trickly issue. She developed a method to study the degree of grit in different age groups. Duckworth wanted to determine if grit results from the way a person is raised – entitlement versus self-reliance – or maturity. Her many years of research seem to indicate that grit develops with age. “I’ve discovered a strikingly consistent pattern: grit and age go hand in hand. Sixty-somethings tend to be grittier, on average, than fifty-somethings, who are in turn grittier than forty-somethings, and so on…,” says Duckworth. So, why is that? 

Life experience
Plain, old-fashioned experience plays a significant role here. Older people have lived longer than younger people (duh) and have experienced more ups and downs. They’ve survived more crises and developed more coping mechanisms. Some researchers even say that we get kinder, less impulsive, less moody and less grumpy as we age. Still, I know my fair share of grumpy old men and women, so who knows if that theory is true? There are exceptions, of course, but I do believe Duckworth’s explanation of grit is spot on. You must have experienced hardships and learned how to overcome them to develop grit.

Baby Boomers versus Gen X/Millennials/Gen Z
I’m often reminded of the lyrics from an old song (“Guide Me Home” ): “When your hands are worn down to the bone; when you’re not sure you can stand on your own; when the darkness won’t leave you alone.” We’ve all been there to some degree at some point in life. This is when grit kicks in and enables us to move forward and not give up. While the older may be slower, see and hear poorer and unable to “party like it’s 1999” (or maybe 1969) anymore, we are blessed with one of life’s greatest gifts – grit gained through experience. As the years roll on, we learn more and more about ourselves. We learn what we’re interested in. We learn what we like and dislike. And we learn that failing is not a catastrophe. On the contrary, it can be a blessing if used correctly. Best of all, we learn that we can pick ourselves up when we fall, dust ourselves off and soldier on. What we learn as kids can affect us later in life. But what happens when well-meaning parents “over-protect” their offspring? Enter helicopter parenting. 

Helicopter parenting
Are we over-parenting and over-protecting our children? Have our children become too fragile for their own good? Are we helping or hurting them? When I was growing up (disclaimer: I’m 74 and grew up in the USA), the idea of wearing helmets when we bicycled or seatbelts in cars was non-existent (and yes, seatbelts didn’t exist then, but no one seemed in a hurry to invent them, either). I was an overly energetic kid who was allowed to be outside and roam the neighborhood unsupervised by adults from the age of six. I learned about the consequences of my actions, played games, made up rules for playing and solved disputes and other problems. I had adventures, made huts and built treehouses that would never pass a safety inspection today. But hey, I was a kid! And most importantly, I failed, learned from it and moved forward. I’m sure my “free-ranging” childhood gave me what I needed most in life – grit and a never-give-up mindset! But what about the youth of today? How are they developing grit in this age of mass distraction? Is it tougher to develop grit today?

Grit and social media use
Young people today are facing entirely different challenges than my generation faced. They live in an increasingly digitalized age that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. The Internet and social media have opened many possibilities, but they’ve also opened a Pandora’s Box of problems that require a different type of grit. Net bullying, net shaming and rumor spreading are only a few of the dilemmas young people must deal with. And the fact that what you put out on the Internet seems to remain there forever presents another problem. One moment of bad decision-making can have lasting consequences. But that’s just one aspect. What about the time young people spend on social media? What about the distractions? How does this relate to grit? 

Dopamine dumps
We live in a world characterized by the Internet, games and social media. It’s no wonder that parents and teachers alike complain that today’s youth find it difficult to focus on homework, projects and other things. Yet, some young people can stick to things without a need for instant gratification. What enables these kids to sustain focus over long periods when others seem to jump from activity to activity? It’s grit. Social media and gaming offer them quick dopamine dumps thanks to the “likes” and “leveling up” provided by short-term feedback. Is this making it difficult to develop self-motivation and grit today? Will the younger generations develop the grit they will need as they age?

Time and hard work
Let’s face it, real life seldom offers the rapid, almost immediate feedback that today’s kids have come to expect. It takes time and hard work to achieve a successful career. How will the younger generations learn to develop the grit necessary to succeed in life if they’re constantly being deluged by nearly instant rewards from games and social media? Gritty people tend not to spend hours and hours on social media, according to Dr. Scott Kaufman, an American cognitive scientist who focuses on intelligence, creativity and human potential. And while young people are more likely to become addicted to social media because the Internet offers users high autonomy, opportunities for identity exploration and a parent-free space, grittier individuals tend to be less addicted to Internet and mobile phone addiction. So, do we get gritter with age? The experts say so, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But then again, I’m just a crazy boomer struggling to cross generational fences without losing my senses.