Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is book reading really trending upwards?

This past week, headlines about millenials screamed from the LA Times: Millenials Read More Books Than Their Elders, Study Finds; and from the Atlantic: Millennials are reading more books than the over-30 crowd, Pew found in a survey of more than 6,000 Americans.

And, from NPR:

As it turns out, the generation that has grown up in the age of technology has a fondness for a very old-fashioned habit - reading. According to a new Pew Research Center report, those under 30 were more likely to have read a book in the last year than those over the age of 30. And they're more likely to use the library as well.
Perhaps our schools aren't doing such a bad job fostering enthusiasm for the printed word.

Before leaping to this conclusion, however, let's read the printed word a bit more carefully, starting with the Pew's own website:
Millennials are quite similar to their elders when it comes to the amount of book reading they do, but young adults are more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months. Some 43% report reading a book—in any format—on a daily basis, a rate similar to older adults. Overall, 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older. Young adults have caught up to those in their thirties and forties in e-reading, with 37% of adults ages 18-29 reporting that they have read an e-book in the past year.
There's a rather simple explanation for the slight edge that millennials have over older adults in their reading and library habits: school.
Our surveys have found that older teens (ages 16-17) are more likely to read (particularly print books), more likely to read for work or school, and more likely to use the library for books and research than older age groups.
As far as reading that isn't for work and school goes:
[R]espondents ages 16-29 are somewhat less likely than adults 30 and older to say they read for pleasure; 76% of those younger than 30 read for this reason, compared with 81% of adults 30 and older.
As for library use, if you factor out those millennials who are most likely to be in school, the group differences are hardly surprising:
...[M]any of the library habits and views of adults in their late twenties (ages 25-29) are often more similar to members of older age groups than their younger counterparts. They are less likely than college-aged adults to have read a book in the past year, but are more likely to keep up with the news. In addition, a large proportion (42%) are parents, a group with particularly high rates of library usage. Additionally, library users in this group are less likely than younger patrons to say their library use has decreased, and they are much more likely to say that various library services are very important to them and their family.
Why is any of this headline news? To the extent that there are any significant differences, it's a huge leap to say that they indicate changes in trends. Perhaps 16-17-year olds reading more than older people dates back to the onset of universal high school.

These sorts of snapshot-based measurements of generational differences can lead to all sorts of bizarre conclusions. For example:

1. Millennials are healthier than baby boomers. (After all, they're decades younger).
2. Millenials have lower life expectancy than baby boomers. (The life expectancy today of an American 16-year-old is about 79; that of a 60-year-old is 83)
Therefore:
3. Life expectancy is negatively correlated with health.

How's that for a screaming headline?

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