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If you're wondering what all of this means for the future, you are not alone. Reflecting on her role as a parent of this new generation, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan wrote: "We're told we will produce a generation of coddled, center-of-the-universe adults who will expect the world to be as delighted with them as we are. And even as we laugh at the knock-knock jokes and exclaim over the refrigerator drawings, we secretly fear the same thing."
Everyone belongs to a generation. Some people embrace it like a warm, familiar blanket, while others prefer not to be lumped in with their age mates. Yet like it or not, when you were born dictates the culture you will experience. This includes the highs and lows of pop culture, as well as world events, social trends, economic realities, behavioral norms, and ways of seeing the world. The society that molds you when you are young stays with you the rest of your life.
Today's young people are experiencing that society right now, and they speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities. Joan Chiaramonte, head of the Roper Youth Report, says that for young people "the gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater." If you would like to start an argument, claim that young people today have it (a) easy, or (b) tough. Be forewarned: you might need referees before it's all over.
I have researched generational differences for thirteen years, since I was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate working on my B.A. thesis. When I began, most of what had been written about generations was based on an amalgam of personal experience and educated guesses: it speculated about possible differences, but had little proof they actually existed. I read book after book that said things such as young people now are more likely to come from divorced homes, so they are more anxious and cynical (but were they really?). And, people born after 1982 entered a more child-centered society, so they would be more group-oriented (but was that really true?). It was all very interesting, but all very vague and nonscientific. I kept thinking, "Where's your proof? Has anyone ever found the real differences among the generations, instead of just guessing?"
The next year, I entered a Ph.D. program in personality psychology at the University of Michigan. I soon learned that academic psychologists measure personality traits and attitudes with carefully designed and validated questionnaires. Best of all, many of those questionnaires had been used thousands of times since they were first written in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and most people who filled them out were college students and schoolchildren. That meant I could compare scores on these measures and see exactly how young people's personalities and attitudes had changed over the generations. To my surprise, no one had ever done this before.
This book presents the results of twelve studies on generational differences, based on data from 1.3 million young Americans. Many of the studies find that when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you. Or, in the words of a prescient Arab proverb,
"Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers."
Right now in the 2000s, the Me Generation group ranges from elementary school kids to thirty-something adults, born in the 70’s-90’s. Although thirty years is a longer-than-average span for a generation, it nicely captures the group of people who grew up in an era when focusing on yourself was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. A member of this generation myself, I was born in 1971. Like most of us who came along after the Baby Boom, I'm too young to remember Vietnam, Woodstock, or Watergate. During the summer of 1980, when every tree held a yellow ribbon for the Iran hostages, my main activity was running when I heard the chimes of the ice cream truck. Since I'm at the leading edge of this group, however, I'm also too old to have pierced anything except my ears or to have ever owned a Justin Timberlake poster. But when I talk about Generation Me, I'm also talking about myself.
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