Generation Me should start focusing on We
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
You can be anything you want to be. Never give up on your dreams. Believe in yourself and anything is possible. Yada, yada.
Repeated in popular culture and reinforced by parents, this is the self-empowering mantra of Generation Me. That's the label that psychologist Jean Twenge has affixed to those born in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
While it's always dicey to try to generalize about an entire generation, there are usually shared experiences for those who came of age at the same time in history.
An associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has spent more than a dozen years examining differences between the generations. Her research includes comparing studies on the self-esteem of more than 60,000 college students across the country from 1968 to 1994. As a result of all this, and the feedback of a couple hundred of her own students, Twenge thinks she has a good fix on young people today — what they're like, what they value, how they got this way, and what it means for the rest of us that they are this way. It doesn't hurt that she's one of the tribe herself, born in 1971.
She spells out her findings in her book, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before."
You could say that Generation Me was special before it was even born. As Twenge points out in her book, reliable birth control and legalized abortion helped make it one of "the most wanted generations in American history."
Many of these little treasures were raised in protective bubbles with nanny-cams and decals on car windows that read: "Caution, Baby on Board." From there it was off to public schools, where in the early 1980s, building self-esteem had become nearly as important as teaching math or English. Parenting experts, child psychologists and educators agreed: Boosting students' self-esteem would make them more confident and more successful. Some school districts did silly things such as discouraging teachers from using red pens to correct assignments. Red, it was said, had a negative impact on a student's self-image.
Twenge notes that members of Generation Me have gone through life feeling as if the world revolves around them because, well, for much of their lives, it has. A lot of them have a sense of entitlement. They think they're too good for menial jobs or even blue-collar work, and, when they do step into an interview for white-collar employment, they're ambitiously eyeing the vice presidency. They want to make an impact on society, do something fulfilling, and if along the way they become rich and famous, then all the better. They're notoriously impatient, and they won't hesitate to quit if a given job or project doesn't live up to expectations.
They cruise through life just fine until they hit a brick wall — as when they're rejected by their first-choice college or don't get their dream job, or get the job and discover it's not so dreamy after all. When that happens, watch out. Disappointment can turn to disillusionment, which can turn to depression. It's no wonder that, according to Twenge, one of the more popular drugs of choice for young people is Prozac.
But what these kids are really hooked on is individualism.
"Focus on the self and doing what's right for you rather than following social rules or rules of the society," Twenge told me in an interview, "that's the cardinal trait of Generation Me."
Of course, people also said that about baby boomers, one of the most self-absorbed generations in recent memory.
Twenge insists that Generation Me isn't self-absorbed, but self-important. Here's the difference. Boomers have spent almost 40 years trying to convince the rest of society: "This matters to us. So it should matter to you." Me-ers don't feel as if they have to convince anyone of anything, and just accept it as fact that: "We matter."
So why does this matter to the rest of us? There's the obvious answer: These are the workers and taxpayers of the future who will, one day, have to keep society afloat.
They'll find that easier to do if they don't constantly throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity. These kids have always been told they would succeed. But along the way someone should have told them that there is a lot to learn from failure.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.