Human Resources Managers repeatedly complain about the quality of applicants. A former Berlin Finance Senator is concerned about the intellectual decline of the whole country due to “Digital Dementia”. In plain English: with today’s reliance on technology, candidates no longer have the same quality of skills as the previous generation.
But is this assessment accurate? The Flynn Effect claims the exact opposite: that intelligence increases from generation to generation. Therefore, candidates are actually smarter now. So, who are we to believe?
The Youth: no longer what it once was?
““I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.”Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE)”
Aristoteles (384 v. Chr. – 322 v. Chr.)
This quote is from none other than the great Aristotle. Today however, anyone would have thought that this quote was from any Human Resource Manager. They are often frustrated by candidates’ lack of manners, poor education, and laziness. Despite Aristotle’s worries 2,400 years ago, civilization has continued to prosper.
In fact, the older generation worrying about the younger generation taking control of the future seems to be a tradition. The lack of manners and laziness can be attributed to the generational gap. However, the allegation of intellectual deterioration stems from differences in lifestyle and values.
Continual deterioration? No Way
In 1987, Mr. Flynn found that the intelligence in industrialized nations of the Western world increased by 3 IQ points per decade. In developing countries, the increase is even more dramatic. Recent studies, such as those reported last year in the American Psychologist (Nisbett, 2012), have shown the continuity of this trend. Critics argue that the test subjects are only achieving better scores because it is always the same test (usually Raven’s Progressive Matrices test). Therefore, the Flynn Effect is the result of its method.
However, many years after use of digital media has become widespread and other supposed catalysts of mental deterioration, our “dumbing down” is not in sight. How can we explain the contradiction between scientific data and the fact that HR managers see a decline in candidate quality?
It’s the benchmark that counts
One explanation lies in what psychologists call the “frame of reference”. The question always is: who is – smarter, dumber or less capable – than whom? The “whom” refers to a benchmark, one that keeps changing. Not only are lifestyles and values constantly changing, but also the knowledge and skills that are required for candidates’ work life. So every candidate evaluation must take into consideration these changes.
If this does not happen, then there are two main issues with comparing the new generation of candidates to the old:
- The criticism of decreasing intelligence refers to educational content that is no longer relevant to the current work environment. This type of knowledge will continue to decrease in the next generation. For example, the ability to recite classic literature has been on the decline for decades. However, there have never been more capable programmers than there are today.
- The comparisons by Human Resources Managers, Politicians or Finance Directors should be taken with a grain of salt. Their knowledge has developed through lifelong learning. The discrepancy between the new applicants and the “control group” increases every year because the “control group” continually develops new skills through experience. So the knowledge gap becomes wider, yet the candidates are still compared to them. That’s why every year, candidates seem more and more uneducated.
Conclusion – Knowledge and skills are constantly changing
There is no empirical evidence of degrading mental performance during the late Roman times. Rather, quite the opposite. However, the knowledge and skills are constantly changing. Therefore, making the older generation the benchmark leads to inaccurate assumptions. Criticism of the alleged stupidity and laziness of today’s candidates should be relaxed; remember how Aristotle’s predictions turned out. Using a frame-of-reference from the past has always been a barrier to innovation, though innovation often finds a way to prevail.
There were many pessimists 15 years ago when the Internet was introduced. There were also those on horseback who laughed at people learning to drive, and those who continued to use candlelight instead of electricity.
So instead of getting frustrated and complaining about “the new” (new candidates, new technologies, new processes), we should try and consider them with an open mind. If we don’t, we will get stuck in the past, unable to move forward.
Further Reading:Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). Intelligence: New findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 97,130 -137.
Flynn, J. R. (1987). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 171–191.