Why Today's Young Americans Are
More Confident, Assertive, Entitled --
and More Miserable Than Ever Before
By Jean M. Twenge
Free Press. 292 pp. $25
As the Baby Boomers celebrate another milestone -- turning 60 -- with the usual paroxysms of nostalgia, Jean M. Twenge has a question that may take the wind out of their tie-dyed sails: Have they checked their children lately?
According to Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, when it comes to unbridled self-interest, even the self-absorbed Boomer Generation pales in comparison to its spawn: three decades of coddled kids whose untrammeled egos are now running amok in our schools and workplaces. In the insightful and mostly persuasive book of the same name, she christens them "Generation Me," though it's the hyperbolic subtitle that will turn heads: "Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before."
Whence this unprecedented gloom? Twenge, herself an older member of Generation Me, singles out a surprising culprit: the educational film "Free to Be You and Me." No, the ubiquitous musical doesn't have a secret Satanic subtext; for Twenge, the sinister content is right on the surface, in the message about loving yourself first and foremost -- and forsaking all others.
Twenge objects to this philosophical bent, in which self-esteem conquers all. Children born in the last 30 years, she argues, have been taught that feeling good about yourself is the most important thing in life. Self-love is not so much a goal as a birthright, affirmed by the cloying lyrics of a hit 1986 Whitney Houston song ("learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all"). Old-fashioned values like hard work and skill have been cast aside in favor of giving everyone a gold star -- because they're good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like them!
The daily affirmations aren't limited to school. Members of what Twenge calls the most wanted generation in history -- thanks to advances in birth control -- are told that they can be whatever their hearts desire. In this age of celebrity worship, the preferred career track is wealth and fame (talent notwithstanding). Desiring is the same as deserving -- as evidenced by the "American Idol" phenomenon, in which tuneless singers reject the verdict of the more discriminating judges and howl about their greatness, as their cowed parents nod in agreement. (Twenge might as well have dubbed these budding narcissists "Generation Moi," à la Miss Piggy.)
But in spite of the best efforts of indulgent parents, touchy-feely teachers and uplifting songs and TV shows, Generation Me is cruising for an emotional bruising, Twenge warns. When these junior superstars reach adulthood (chronologically, at least), they will discover that they don't always get a ribbon just for showing up.
Citing similar data to that deployed in Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner's Quarterlife Crisis, Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin's Midlife Crisis at 30, Charles J. Sykes's A Nation of Victims and other cautionary tales about today's youth, Twenge argues that overweening ambition is on a collision course with diminished possibilities. College is more competitive and expensive than ever, she writes; good jobs are fewer and often pay less; the costs of housing, health insurance and child care continue to spiral. Far from becoming millionaire rapper playboys with their own clothing lines, these kids will be lucky to squeak into the middle class.
Nor are crushed hopes Generation Me's only burden. High self-esteem doesn't correlate with achievement, according to Twenge; nor does it correlate to lower rates of drug use or teen pregnancy. Indeed, she attributes a spectrum of questionable attitudes and behaviors to the cult of individuality, from cheating on tests and shoplifting to political apathy and traffic violations. If the highest authority is your own volition, anything that contradicts your wishes is suspect, whether it's a school rule or a stop sign.
Twenge also blames the quest for self-expression for body art, lavish weddings and mass consumerism, as well as a more casual approach to sex -- or, in the parlance of Generation Me, "hooking up." But lest certain talk-radio hosts seize on Twenge's work to urge a return to the "seen, not heard" days of child-rearing, she also identifies some uniquely positive qualities of Generation Me. It embraces diversity of race, religion and sexual identity -- a logical extension of the belief that everyone should be "free to be you and me."
Twenge's theory sometimes overreaches in an effort to explain every aspect of every action of every young person, but such are the perils of popular social science. For anyone who, like Twenge, has had to work with some young thing expecting a smooth ride to the top regardless of performance, her arguments will make a lot of intuitive sense. Even if only half of what Twenge suggests is true, this book should be required reading for parents-to-be -- lest the next wave of little darlings turn out even worse. ·
Amanda Henry writes for the Tampa Tribune, VH1.com and Public Radio International.