Down with Reading?

An interesting table of statistics – yes I am assuming statistics are interesting, why yes, I am a huge nerd – crossed my feed today. The table, presented below, shows the household expenditure breakdowns over time (1990-2009). The highlighted lines show the amounts spent on entertainment and reading.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)
US Bureau of Labor Statistics (with labour spelt incorrectly)

For those of you who are blind or prefer reading my words rather than a table of numbers, the statistics show that since 1990 there has been a pretty steady increase in household expenditure on entertainment, but the amount spent on reading has been in steady decline. Clearly it is time to panic. Movies, TV and gaming have won. Time to give up reading and writing. No future in it.

Well, that would be the conclusion if you don’t go and look for the source data.

Now I am rather lazy, so I haven’t bothered to look up every year of data and tried to recreate the table. But what I have done is looked up the figures from a few of the years not included in the table: 2010, 20112012 and 2013. The spend on reading from those years is $100, $115, $109 (no 2013 data as yet) and entertainment spend of $2,504, $2,572, $2,605 and $2,482. Seems like that trend stopped, or something.

Actually, the trend has more to do with the household demographics and income than any change in book buying. Whilst in the early 2000’s there was a drop in reading for entertainment from ~0.4% of household expenditure to ~0.2%, this has been consistent since. So readers are still buying and reading books at roughly the same proportion as always.

And who are the readers? Well, from the demographics breakdown the readers tend to be middle-aged or older, higher income, educated households, or households without kids. Apparently having kids stops you reading, can’t think why. And clearly older and more affluent people are the ones who can afford the hardcover prices, or see the value in them, or just like having something on the bookshelf surrounding their money pile – rich people have money piles in their houses, right?

To me this doesn’t say reading is a dying industry, rather that there are groups being missed by the current industry. Of course I’m biased and probably daydreaming about a magical place where books hunt down DVDs for sport. The younger people tend to have less entertainment expenditure, with the average consumer spending 5% of their income on entertainment, whilst under 25s spend between 4 and 5%. Their book buying appears to have declined and is lower than the average consumer, at 0.14% (2012). This makes them a missed market (or possibly buying cheaper e-books). The other groups spending less on books are the less educated and lower income people, and again, not just in total expenditure but in the proportion of household expenditure.

Clearly these three groups could be reading just as much but instead of buying books they are borrowing them from friends or libraries, or they might be buying cheaper books. But something tells me this isn’t the case, what with the kids these days with their hippity hop music and haircuts. To my mind the fear that the market for books is shrinking, as suggested by the above table, is not borne out by the more recent data. We see more competition for entertainment dollars yet books don’t change that much ($150 to $110 over 22 years is 3 paperbacks in the US) suggesting that the problem is in who is reading. If reading is going to be only for richer, older and more educated people then we have a problem, especially if we aren’t creating the next generation of readers.

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Kids these days.

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Something I’ve noticed on social media, and the media in general, is the denigration of kids these days. Whether it be Gen Whatever complaining about the Millennials, or just people complaining about how (insert disparaging adjective here) the younger generation are, I never fail to be amused with the curmudgeons and their ironic statements.

Complaining about the younger generation has been a popular pastime for old people since the invention of young people. Usually, the complaints are followed by the creaks of arthritic joints as canes, walking sticks and Zimmer frames are waved at the sky; because everyone knows kids live in the sky these days. Even some of the great philosophers have gotten in on the act of denigrating these uppity kids:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers. – Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.)

That’s right, since the dawn of time, old people have complained about young people and how they are destroying society. And we should know, just look at how terrible society is now: deaths from war are at a thousand year low, homicides are also on a steady decline, the economy is on a 2000 year high, literacy levels are at an all time high, we live longer, and less kids die so they get to grow up, become old, and complain about the kids these days. How can we live in such a terrible time in history!

You see what is happening is a form of nostalgia, pining for a time that never really existed. This golden age only appears golden through a pair of rose coloured glasses, from which only the good memories remain, the bad memories having been covered over with years of alcohol abuse. The kids these days are doing the same stuff the oldies were doing at the same age (as witnessed in this Daily Show video).

We really need to stop with this ageist nonsense. Society has advanced: kids learn different things at school because different things will be expected of them in the future, computers are a thing now, phones are really handy, pop music is as dull as ever, and nobody cares how far you had to walk to school back in your day. So let’s stop picking on different age groups and get back to criticising the things that really matter: sport referees.

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More articles worth a read:
http://xkcd.com/1227/
http://www.anxietyculture.com/antisocial.htm
http://mentalfloss.com/article/52209/15-historical-complaints-about-young-people-ruining-everything
http://startupguide.com/world/the-world-is-actually-getting-better/
http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/the-self-righteousness-instinct-steven.html
2,500 years of kids these days.

Update: Vsauce did a fantastic video on Juvenoia (i.e. fear of kids these days) that is well worth a watch.