Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Generation Me

The Washington Times has a lengthy article on the narcissism of Americans born after 1970 or so. Apparently, I missed the Baby Boom by a few months and I missed being in Generation Me by 5 years. I need to come up with a nifty nickname for those of us born from 1965-1969. I'm leaning towards Generation Awesome, but that sounds too much like what a Generation Me person would call his generation. Anyway....

Americans born after 1970 -- including the so-called Generation X and Millennial Generation -- have become "an army of little narcissists," says Mrs. Twenge, who explains her views in her new book, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before."

Unlike their parents and grandparents, "GenMes" have "never known a world that put duty before self," she says. Instead, they were raised in a culture obsessed with self-esteem and feel-good mantras such as "Believe in yourself, and you can be anything" and "Never give up on your dreams."

The result is a generation of youths who are tolerant, confident, open-minded, ambitious -- and have wildly unreasonable expectations about how they fit into the adult world.

It gets more interesting.

Among Americans who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, between 1 percent and 2 percent experienced a major depressive episode in their lifetime, says Mrs. Twenge, who bases her book on decades of generational data. Suicide was more common among middle-aged people, not young people.

Today, the lifetime rate for major depression is between 15 percent and 20 percent, an increase too large to be explained by improved case reporting, she says. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, while rates have dropped for the middle-aged.

Why should Generation Me feel so much anxiety and pain when it has grown up in relative peace and technological and economic expansion? A big part of the answer is the constant focus on the self, Mrs. Twenge says. "[W]hen we are fiercely independent and self-sufficient, our disappointments loom large because we have nothing else to focus on."

Who's at fault here? Let's lay the fault squarely where it belongs: first on the parents, and second on anyone involved in the self-esteem movement--and that includes the schools. But Twenge's solution doesn't cut it in my book:

She recommends social changes that support two-parent working families, such as paid parental leave, public preschools, tax deductions for child care, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. school hours.

Why does socialism have to be the solution?

Twenge does support getting rid of the self-esteem crap, but unfortunately is countered by those from the National Association for Self-Esteem. Did you get that? We have a freakin' association devoted to that feel-good crap.

Despite its critics, self-esteem training and character education "are both alive and kicking," says Sharon Fountain, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE).

NASE defines self-esteem as "the experience of being capable of meeting life's challenges and being worthy of happiness," she says.

Personal competence grows out of self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence, which is linked to self-esteem, she says. "If we are prepared to deal with the world in context, with responsibility and accountability, then not only does it improve the quality of our lives, it adds to the world."

Healthy self-esteem is not egotism, arrogance, conceit, narcissism or a sense of superiority -- those characteristics are "pseudo-self-esteem," former NASE President Robert Reasoner says in an article.

Good self-esteem programs are grounded in reality and promote self-worth and competence, he says.

Nathaniel Branden, a pioneer in the field of self-esteem psychology, argues that self-esteem is far more than just feeling good about yourself.

"It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think," he writes. It is also "confidence in our ability to learn, to make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change."

How many times must I say this? Self-esteem is the result of accomplishment, not the cause of it. How can that not be plain? I agree with this next snippet, though:

Ample data now shows that "if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves," writes Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister. His advice to nonprofits, policy-makers, teachers, parents and therapists: "Forget about self-esteem, and invest in self-control."


Of course we're all painting with fairly broad brushes here, and these sweeping generalizations don't apply to specific individuals--especially generalizations about all the people born in the last 36 years. However, there does seem to be a societal movement afoot, one I'm not particularly fond of.

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