Generation Me

Generation Me
Jean Twenge
Author, Psychology Researcher, Professor, and Speaker
If you've read or heard about generations, you've probably heard
the current crop of young people (born after 1982) described as
"Millienials." (A term I'm not sure will stick ... remember Y2K?
Barely? Exactly). Some people have advanced the theory that this
generation is civically minded and group-oriented.
However, there is very little evidence that this is true.
Instead, the analyses highlighted in Generation Me (based on
historical survey data on over 1.3 million people) show clearly
that younger generations are more individualistic and are higher
in self-esteem and narcissism. There have been no changes in
"communal" traits. These are not anecdotal observations -- they
are based on young people's responses to psychological
questionnaires over many decades.
The piece of evidence often given to support the "civicallyoriented" agrument is the rise in youth volunteering. Yes,
increasing numbers of high school and college students report
that they have volunteered their time in the last year. However,
the trend for those who volunteer their time once a week or more
is completely flat, and the number who volunteer once a month
has barely budged (maybe 3-5%). (These data come from the
"Monitoring the Future" survey out of the University of
So young people volunteer, but they do it once or only a few
times. This might be because many high schools and colleges
require community service (or colleges like to see it on
admissions applications). So even the rise in short-term
volunteering might instead be "involuntary volunteering."
It's great that more young people are volunteering, whatever the
reason. But it doesn't seem to be a sustained activity -- and in
many cases it's not even voluntary.
One of the fun things about writing a book is hearing from
readers. I got an e-mail recently from a reader who heard Dr.
Wayne Dyer say, “The best thing about Jesus was that he had a
mom that believed he was the son of God. Imagine how much better
the world would be if all of our moms thought that way.”
God, no! Imagine how much *worse* the world would be if we were
all raised to believe that we were the second coming of Christ
and that the world revolved around us. Of course we want to
raise confident kids, but not narcissistic kids who think that
they are God's gift to the world no matter how they behave. I
guess I shouldn't be so shocked to see this type of statement,
given the current emphasis on self-esteem building, but this is
beyond the pale.
Previous generations believed that if you were brought up "too
high," you would be arrogant, self-centered, and difficult to
get along with (sound familiar?). They probably could have done
with more emotional expression back then, but current parenting
philosophies have clearly gone too far in the other direction.
We are telling kids they are special (and thus deserve special
treatment) and that they shouldn't care what others think (so
why should they be considerate?)
We are not all Jesus. Get over it.
Ana Marie Cox (aka the Wonkette, aka someone who I should have
known at U of Chicago but somehow didn't) recently wrote a
column in Time magazine about the MTV show "My Super Sweet 16."
If you have not had the nauseating pleasure, this is a show
about very rich, very spoiled kids whose parents spend half a
million dollars on their birthday parties. When I mention it in
the book, I point out that the irony of rich kids whining is
likely to slip past the typical 15-year-old watching the show.
Sure enough, one of my undergrads tells me her sister was
disappointed with her perfectly nice 16th birthday party because
it did not approach the excesses of this show. All I could do is
shake my head.
At any rate, Cox's column focuses on how these youngsters want
to be like celebrities. A few lines from the column: "Their
blingy flings are not celebrations of accomplishment; they're
celebrations of self." "Each guest of honor is really after only
one thing: 'I feel famous. I love it,' says one." "Far from
joining polite society like the debutates of the past, the kids
gleefully rip through social graces, alienating friends and
sacrificing tact."
I love pop culture analyses like this, but it's even more
interesting to take it a little deeper: *Why* do these teens act
this way? I'm sure there are multiple causes. At least one is
the underlying psychology I lay out in _Generation Me_: the
ever-present emphasis on the self that often crosses over into
narcissism. The obsession with becoming famous or acting like a
celebrity plays right into that -- the need for recognition is a
subscale on the narcissism inventory (Items: "I wish someone
would someday write my biography"," "I like to be the center of
Other possibilities -- Is American society more materialistic
now than it was, say, 30 years ago? Or is it something else?
If you saw the Today show, you saw that I tussled a little with
the other guest about the statement "You have to love yourself
before you can love someone else." She clearly believed this
statement, and I bet if you did a poll you would find that the
majority of Americans believe it too.
Of course, there's no evidence to support that it's true.
Narcissists -- people who really love themselves -- are horrible
relationship partners. My friend Keith wrote a great book on
this (called _When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself_).
Narcissists lack empathy; they play games; they cheat.
And as Keith also likes to say, "If I had to name the top ten
things necessary for a good relationship, loving yourself would
not be on the list." That's because most of the time, a good
relationship requires *not* putting yourself first. Good
marriages are based on compromise. And I don't think it's any
coincidence that the divorce rate has stayed high (despire
people marrying later, and thus probably wiser) at the same time
that the self-emphasis has grown. Previous generations didn't
worry much about loving themselves.
Some research does show that low self-esteem people are more
likely to doubt their partner's affection, but this doesn't mean
that they love their partner any less, and they don't choose bad
partners (contrary to another popular belief). And high self-
esteem people aren't much better -- they get mean and defensive
when they are challenged.
Much more important for relationship success is
called attachment style, which is about how you
(rather than your self-feelings). Having a good
attachment styles predicts relationship success
the self-esteem of the partners.
a variable
relate to others
match of
much better than
The popularity of this statement might have started in therapy
sessions, where people with serious addictions were told that
they needed to get themselves together first before they started
a relationship. But that's not the same as loving yourself
first, and there's no reason it needs to apply to everyone.
Web-Exclusive Book Review
Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident,
Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable—Than Ever Before
By Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. (Free Press, 2006)
Review by Aaron Shulman, January 2006
As a 23-year-old American who considers himself mildly confident
and assertive but neither miserable nor entitled, I was curious
to see what Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University
psychology professor in her mid-30s, had to say in her new book,
Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident,
Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable—Than Ever Before.
Twenge saddles herself with the task of describing the defining
characteristics of the children of Baby Boomers born from 1970
to the end of the 20th century, a group she terms Generation Me.
The members of this generation, while remarkably diverse in many
respects, share a unifying aspect: we are "unapologetically
focused on the individual," a trait inherited from our Boomer
parents and fanned to extremes by the culture they engendered.
While no one—especially a generation raised to worship
individualism—likes to have their sameness within a group
pointed out to them, I was struck by how consistently Twenge's
generalizations about GenMe rang true about me and most of my
friends. We think of work more as a path toward self-fulfillment
than as a means to a stable livelihood; we feel we can have it
all and believe in "following our dreams" and doing things our
own way; we heed social rules and figures of authority only
insofar as they don't get in our way; and we view our 20s as a
period to bounce around and "find ourselves" because otherwise
we won't be ready for married family life in our late 20s and
early 30s. As to whether these trends are good or bad, Twenge
only occasionally makes an outright judgment, letting her
research instead speak for itself. And most of the time her
research convincingly shows—though it never hurts to be reminded
that her data and sources are selectively mediated by her— that
these developments have no small hand in creating the doldrums
of the book's subtitle.
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In sketching out how these conditions came to be, Twenge tells
an engaging story, fueled and supported by a solid base of data,
illustrative quotes from her and others' research, and
barometric examples from TV shows, movies, comics, and
advertisements. She explains how the defiance of authority and
shirking of social approval pioneered by Boomers in the '60s and
'70s was subsumed by the mainstream and incorporated into the
status quo, informing GenMe's Weltanschauung. Twenge also serves
up a well argued critique of the self-esteem industry in the
United States, which she says has a narcissistic-tinged ethos
that is harming America's youth vastly more than it helps.
Throughout the book, her analyses of myriad topics articulated a
number of ideas on the tip of my mind's tongue, getting me to
think about myself and my parents, as well the culture we come
from and help create.
Generation Me is cogent, thoughtful, and fun to read, but over
the course of the book I couldn't shake my discomfort with the
sensationalistic use of the word miserable to describe my
generation. In spite of all the dispiriting trends that dog
GenMe—depression, crushing disappointment when the real world
doesn't deliver on the things we've been taught to expect,
credit card debt, mountainous student loans, divorce-like
breakups, rising health-insurance premiums and real estate
prices, estrangement from the community—to say we're miserable
seems to preclude resilience. Yes, GenMe must confront some
bleak obstacles, but doesn't every generation? Thinking of
ourselves as miserable doesn't seem to be a move in the right
direction. Twenge does realize this, in a sense, and closes her
book with prescriptive optimism: "Generation Me needs realistic
expectations, careful career guidance, and assistance when we
become parents. In return, we will gladly lend our energy and
ambition toward our work and toward helping others."
Aaron Shulman recently left his job at AARP to work on a novel,
while freelancing on the side.