The ME Generation
Why today’s youth are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable
The Associated Press calls them "The Entitlement Generation," and they are storming into schools, colleges, and businesses all over the country. They are today's young people, a new generation with sky-high expectations and a need for constant praise and fulfillment. Herself a member of Generation Me, Dr. Twenge explores why her generation is tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious. Here’s an excerpt:
Linda was born in 1952 in a small town in the Midwest. After she graduated from high school in 1970, she moved to the city and enrolled in secretarial school. It was a great time to be young: Free Love was in, and everybody pursued having a good time. Linda and her friends dabbled in a feminist consciousness-raising group, danced at the discos, and explored their inner lives at seminars and through meditation. The new pursuit of self-fulfillment led Tom Wolfe to label the 1970s the "Me Decade," and by extension the young people of the time the "Me Generation."
Compared to today's young people, they were posers.
Linda's Baby Boomer generation grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, taught by stern, gray-suit-wearing teachers and raised by parents who didn't take any lip and thought that ‘Father Knows Best.’ Most of the Boomers were well into adolescence or adulthood by the time the focus on the self became trendy in the 1970s. And when Linda and her friends sought self-knowledge, they took the ironic step of doing so en masse — for all their railing against conformity, Boomers did just about everything in groups, from protests to seminars to yoga. Their youthful exploration also covered a very brief period: the average first-time bride in the early 1970s had not yet celebrated her 21st birthday.
Today's under-35 young people are the real Me Generation, or, as I call them, Generation Me. Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.
Linda's youngest child, Jessica, was born in 1985. When Jessica was a toddler, Whitney Houston's No. 1 hit song declared that "The Greatest Love of All" was loving yourself. Jessica's elementary school teachers believed that their most important job was helping Jessica feel good about herself. Jessica scribbled in a coloring book called “We Are All Special,” got a sticker on her worksheet just for filling it out, and did a sixth-grade project called "All About Me." When she wondered how to act on her first date, her mother told her, "Just be yourself." Eventually, Jessica got her lower lip pierced and obtained a large tattoo on her lower back because, she said, she wanted to express herself. She dreams of being a model or a singer. She does not expect to marry until she is in her late twenties, and neither she nor her older sisters have any children yet. "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else," she says. This is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me.
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 2010s, 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.
Why the label Generation Me? Since GenMe'ers were born, we've been taught to put ourselves first. Unlike the Baby Boomers, GenMe didn't have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that our own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion, and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made us the most wanted generation of children in American history. Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom: why talk about it? It's just the way things are. This blasé attitude is very different from the Boomer focus on introspection and self-absorption:
GenMe is not self-absorbed; we're self-important.
We take it for granted that we're independent, special individuals, so we don't really need to think about it. This is not the same as saying that young people are spoiled. That would imply that we always got what we wanted. Although some parents are indeed too indulgent, young people today must overcome many difficult challenges that their elders never had to face. While families could once achieve middle-class status on the earnings of one high school-educated person, it now takes two college-educated earners to achieve the same standard of living. Many teens feel that the world demands perfection in everything, and some are cracking under the pressure. Many people reaching their twenties find that their jobs do not provide the fulfillment and excitement they had anticipated, and that their salary isn't enough to afford even a small house. There's an acronym that describes how this growing self-reliance can be stressful: YO-YO (You're On Your Own).
I am also not saying that this generation is selfish. For one thing, youth volunteering has risen in the last decade. As long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals, GenMe finds fulfillment in helping others. We want to make a difference. But we want to do it in our own way. GenMe also believes that people should follow their dreams and not be held back by societal expectations. Taking a job in a new city far from one's family, for example, isn't selfish, but it does put the individual first. The same is true for a girl who wants to join a boys' sports team or a college student who wants to become an actor when his parents want him to be a doctor. Not only are these actions and desires not considered selfish today (although they may have been in past generations), but they're playing as inspirational movies at the local theater. These aspirations are also being touted by politicians, even conservative ones —such opportunities are what George W. Bush is talking about when he says that "the fire of freedom" should be spread around the world.
This is the good part of the trend — we enjoy unprecedented freedom to pursue what makes us happy. But our high expectations, combined with an increasingly competitive world, have led to a darker flip side, where we blame other people for our problems and sink into anxiety and depression. Perhaps because of the focus on the self, sexual behavior has also changed radically: these days, parents worry not just about high school sex but about junior high school sex.
Contrast today with the 1950’s post World War II generation. Perhaps in an all-encompassing crisis today's young people would likely rise to the occasion -- people usually do what needs to be done. But I see no evidence that today's young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Instead, as you'll see in the following pages, young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves. This is not an attitude conducive to following social rules or favoring the group's needs over the individual's. Many argue that today's young people are optimistic. This is true for children and adolescents, who have absorbed the cheerful aphorisms so common today (Chapter 3 of this book, for example, is titled "You Can Be Anything You Want to Be"). Yet this optimism often fades -- or even smashes to pieces -- once Generation Me hits the reality of adulthood. If you are a Baby Boomer or older, you might remember the 1970 book Future Shock, which argued that the accelerating pace of cultural change left many people feeling overwhelmed. Today's young people, born after this book was published, take these changes for granted and thus do not face this problem. Instead, we face a different kind of collision: Adulthood Shock. Our childhoods of constant praise, self-esteem boosting, and unrealistic expectations did not prepare us for an increasingly competitive workplace and the economic squeeze created by sky-high housing prices and rapidly accelerating health care costs. After a childhood of buoyancy, GenMe is working harder to get less.
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.