Summit Vista

The ME Generation (page 3)

Why today’s youth are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever

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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.

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Article Reviewed: July 5, 2012
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