Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable

As I mentioned in my last post, reading books is a painfully slow process for me right now. However, I did manage read David May's Book Notes on Jean Twenge's book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

I've heard only positive reviews and am very intrigued by the book, and the many quotes I've been pondering are fascinating. Twenge seems like a great counterpart to Wendy Shallit's book Return to Modesty that I reviewed here. I don't think either book is written by a Christian, but their conclusions dovetail with my beliefs. It speaks a lot to both the girls I work with and my own generation.

I was struck with the empty narcissism that has been drilled into my generation.
 
“The culture of self is our home town.”  “We simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.” (49)  Most of today’s common sense is focused on the self.  Just be yourself.   You have to love yourself before you can love someone else.  Express yourself.  Stand up for yourself.  (50)

In the years after 1980, there was a pervasive, society-wide effort to increase children’s self-esteem, to help them feel good about themselves for no particular reason, usually promoting feelings that are actually a lot closer to narcissism, i.e. excessive self-importance.  Feeling good is more important than performance.  This is a “cotton-candy sense of self with no basis in reality.”  (53-4)

The results are young people who can’t take criticism, who are easily hurt, who tend toward whiny defensiveness and little learning, and who become unfriendly, rude, and uncooperative.  “They tend to act as though they believe they have worthy and good inner essences, regardless of … how they behave, that they deserve recognition and attention from others, and their unique individual needs should be considered first and foremost.” (65)  

One of the most widely accepted cultural aphorism is that you must love yourself before you can love others.  Of course many in earlier generations loved their spouses and children even though they never thought about loving themselves.  But pop psychology [and much Christian material per dlm] teaches us otherwise.  Make sacrifices for yourself.  Make yourself happy first.  Be there for yourself.  This is narcissism—narcissists are people who really love themselves and aren’t very good at getting along with others. (92)  “It’s difficult to adapt to another person’s needs when you’re used to putting your own needs first and doing things your way.” (93) 

The author’s recommendation: “Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. … Self esteem is an outcome, not a cause. … Children develop true self-esteem from behaving well and accomplishing things.” (66)  




I was struck that that last sentence sounds like the Tiger Mother theory. I disagree with BOTH sides. I believe a child should be loved and valued regardless of how they behave. However, their behavior matters and should be guided and disciplined. Their self-esteem, though, should not flow from their accomplishments (which means pride) nor should it flow from empty praise or love of self (narcissism).

Chapter 3.  You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
 “The logical outcome of every kid having high self-esteem is every kid thinking that he can achieve anything.” (78)  Work should provide a rich and fulfilling experience as well as make me rich.  (80)  Of course, this often clashes with reality.  “Many twentysomethings struggle with the decision to keep pursuing their dream, or to cut their losses and go home.  More and more young people are going to find themselves at 30 without a viable career, a house, or any semblance of stability.” (83) 


The most common reason given for tattoos is “self-expression,” to communicate my individuality.  For many, adulthood begins at 30 [compared to perhaps 12 or 14 for our great grandparents] and the 20s are a time to move around, try things, and date people.  (97) 

“Materialism is the most obvious outcome of a straightforward, practical focus on the self: you want more things for yourself.  You feel entitled to get the best in life;… you deserve special things.” (100) 

Expectations are very high just when good jobs and nice houses are much harder to get.   When we are fiercely independent and self-sufficient, our disappointments loom large because we have nothing else to focus on.  The result can be crippling anxiety and crushing depression.  (109) 

Social contacts are slight and superficial.  There is a famine of warm relationships.  “We’re malnourished from eating a junk-food diet of instant messages, e-mail, and phone calls, rather than the healthy food of live, in-person interaction.” (110)      Almost half have divorced parents or have never known their father.  “The cycle of meeting someone, falling in love, and breaking up is a formula for anxiety and depression.  This often begins in high school.” (111)  “Many spend their twenties in pointless dating, uncertain relationships, and painful breakups.” (112)  “Even people in unhappy marriages are happier than those who divorce.” (115)

You need a college degree to be where high school graduates were a generation ago.  Essentials such as housing and health care are astronomically expensive.   “High expectations can be the stuff of inspiration, but more often they set GenMe up for bitter disappointment.” (130) 

There will be a full-scale collision between GenMe expectations and the unfortunate realities of life that will lead to a lot of anxiety, depression, and complaining. Young employees will expect job fulfillment and quick promotions.  Employers must try to understand GenMe with their high expectations for salary, job flexibility, and duties.  They were raised on extensive praise and expect it.  They are not motivated by duty.  They will be frank and they appreciate directness, but they do not take criticism well.  They do not respect authority and will feel free to make suggestions.  You have to earn their respect.  They will learn best by interaction and doing, not by listening or reading.  They are flexible and used to dealing with diversity.  They may have to be taught to clean up their attitude and language when talking with older folk.  They appreciate independence, flexible schedules, and casual dress code.   [Let me know how this all works for you! Dlm]


 Indeed! This is completely true of my generation. I feel like we were all taught we could do whatever we wanted, and to pursue our dreams rather than think practically. Now most of my friends are still wrestling with what to do, how to find a job they like, and how to become a self-supporting adult. We're almost 30.We struggle with focus, we find life, relationships, and careers to be generally disappointing and disillusioning. 

If I could go back and tell myself some things, I'd encourage a more practical approach to thinking about an actual JOB I'd work, and how to prepare academically for that job, rather than focusing on simply finding a course of study I liked. I also think I'm only just learning that after college you really need to get a job and work. It will be boring, it will feel meaningless, and it probably won't be what you want to do with your life. Suck it up. You are doing it to be productive, make money, learn the working world and how to function in it well. You are learning that  life and work will not pander to you, so you must learn to work hard and move toward goals. THAT is what your first years of work are for. Don't quit and be a spaz.

Fascinating stuff, huh? My world of evangelicals is slightly different in that we statistically marry and have children on average at a younger age than the rest of the generation. I think the work dilemmas are the same for us, though.


3 comments:

thisgrace said...

Funny. I was just thinking about this book this week. I have it in a box in TX somewhere. I read a few chapters, found it very interesting... but got distracted and never finished it. I should finish it.

Amy B said...

"If I could go back and tell myself some things, I'd encourage a more practical approach to thinking about an actual JOB I'd work, and how to prepare academically for that job, rather than focusing on simply finding a course of study I liked. I also think I'm only just learning that after college you really need to get a job and work. It will be boring, it will feel meaningless, and it probably won't be what you want to do with your life. Suck it up. You are doing it to be productive, make money, learn the working world and how to function in it well. You are learning that life and work will not pander to you, so you must learn to work hard and move toward goals. THAT is what your first years of work are for. Don't quit and be a spaz. "

I have been coming to this very same conclusion over the past year, and it makes me so angry with my college-self and all those around me who fed me nothing but praise and encouragement to "explore ideas" and "learn for learning's sake" and become a "well-rounded person." All those things are well and good, I suppose, but now I feel so limited and frustrated by my lack of qualification for a job with actual income potential. My husband feels the same way. All that learning was supposed to expand my horizons and enlarge my world, but now I only feel like it was narrowing self-indulgence.

Young Mom said...

I don't agree with all of his points, but I do think that this whole process takes balance. I was raised in one extreme (you can't do anything but what we tell you, you are not smart or gifted at anything but what we want you to do) so I think I am tempted to lean to far the other way in my own parenting (everything you do is amazing! You can be whatever you want to be!) I think balance is key. I thought this article was an interesting take on it. How to Land Your Kid in Therapy - The Atlantic