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My focus is on changes among young Americans -- and on trends that have arrived at different times, or not at all, in many other cultures. However, many of the changes here can be generalized to other nations, particularly other Western nations such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Germany. These cultures have also experienced the movement toward focusing on the needs of the self, as well as the dark flip side of increased depression and anxiety. Developing countries might well be next. Like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, American individualism is spreading to all corners of the globe. If current trends continue in developing countries, Generation Me boomlets might soon be arriving around the world. The more exposure kids get to American culture, the more they will rebel against the family-first, group-oriented ethos of many cultures around the world.
This generation is not only the future: we are now. The accelerated pace of recent technological and cultural change makes it more important than ever to keep up with generational trends. A profound shift in generational dynamics is occurring right now in the 2000s. Baby Boomers, usually defined as people born between 1946 and 1964, have dominated our culture since they were born, because of their large numbers. But this won't last forever: the first Boomers turned 60 in January 2006. Though they are loath to admit it, Boomers have already lost their grip on the marketers and advertisers of the world. As early as June 2000, Time magazine announced the "Twilight of the Boomers." Business and marketing have already moved on to GenMe, which, as of 2005, completely dominated the lucrative 18-to-35 age group as well as the teen and tween age brackets. These are the consumers everyone wants to reach, and it's time to understand them.
And I do mean understand, not change. I conclude by providing some advice on how to combat the more negative aspects of current generational trends, but I am not suggesting that we return to the supposedly ideal days of the 1950s (which, of course, were ideal only for some people). Nor am I suggesting that these trends are this generation's "fault." Instead, young people today should be seen as products of their culture -- a culture that teaches them the primacy of the individual at virtually every step, and a culture that was firmly in place before they were born. Asking young people today to adopt the personality and attitudes of a previous time is like asking an adult American to instantly become Chinese.
Morris Massey, for years a popular speaker on generations, put it this way: "The gut-level value systems are, in fact, dramatically different between the generations....The focus should not be so much on how to change other people to conform to our standards, our values. Rather, we must learn how to accept and understand other people in their own right, acknowledging the validity of their values, their behavior." As Massey points out and research supports, our value systems are set in childhood and don't change much thereafter. Massey's favorite question is "Where were you when you were ten?" Put another way, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Even the most innocuous TV comments now catch my attention. During a recent episode of her eponymous talk show, Ellen Degeneres said that the most important thing is "how you feel and being happy." It's a statement most young people take for granted. Dan Atkins, 17, says in Growing Up Digital, "my basic philosophy toward life is: do whatever makes you happy." But when I asked my mother (born in 1943) about this, she said, "In the early 1960s, most people would have said the most important things were being honest, hardworking, industrious, loyal, and caring about others. I can't even remember thinking about whether I was 'happy.' That's not to say we weren't happy -- we just didn't focus on it." We do now. Here's Mario, a recent college graduate quoted in the book Quarterlife Crisis: "I just try to do whatever will make me happier, and think of myself first." Welcome to Generation Me.
Excerpted from "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before" by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. Copyright © 2006 by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University, an the author of compelling book, “Generation Me.” Twenge places much of the blame on the self-esteem movement of the last few decades. For more information, check out www.generationme.org
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