Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, by Jean M. Twenge. Originally published in 2006, updtaed in 2014. 304 pages.
At first glance of the title, you might think this is a book criticizing the character and behavior of millennials. Your first glance would be wrong. While millenials are certainly a part of Generation Me, the author makes it abundantly clear that the patterns and problems this book addresses encompass generations earlier than millenials.
It’s not about the boomers either. Although they take a bit of the responsibility for the mindsets they ushered in and the insanity that followed, they were raised by a generation of parents who had mostly instilled in them the tools to live a productive, reality based life.
No, this book takes aim first at my generation ( GenX), and then subsequent generations who drank our self-interested, self-centered Kool-aid and enhanced it with steroids.This author hits on some important insights about the way most of us have been conditioned to live, how unrealistic are our expectations of life, and how we are ill prepared for the realities of the way most of us will go through life: living an ordinary existence doing ordinary things.
Unfortunately for me, my curiosity was so piqued by this author’s work, that I went looking for other articles she had written only to find that while she did a superb job of diagnosing our post-modern problem, she is no closer to a solution to it than anyone else. Nonetheless, her book has several quotable points:
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 a pretty good introductory synopsis to what follows as you read through Generation Me. It is simply expanded upon through interviews, extensive research of generational surveys, and commentary from fellow cultural critics. One of the first things we note is the way media has shaped our collective delusion with respect to our specialness:
In the animated movie Planes, Dusty wants to be a racing plane. “You are not built to race; you are built to dust crops,” his friend Dottie warns him. But Dusty enters an international flying race—and wins. In another movie released the same year, Turbo is a snail who yearns to race. Close to the finish line in the Indianapolis 500, his once-skeptical brother urges him on: “It is in you! It’s always been in you!” Turbo wins, “proving,” as Luke Epplin observes in the Atlantic, “that one needn’t be human nor drive a car to win the country’s most prestigious auto race.” Epplin notes, “The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the nay-saying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.”
These movies are just the most recent example of the relentless cultural message to young people: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself. In the Google database of American books, the use of the phrase you can be anything increased 12 times over between 1970 and 2008.
Thankfully, there are parents out there who are cognizant enough of the realities of life to help temper their children’s delusions and try to guide them into a path commensurate to their abilities and talents, but for the most part, we are a generation (or three generations) trapped in a maze of circus fun house mirrors:
This ethos is reﬂected in the lofty ambitions of modern adolescents. In 2012, 58% of high school students expected to go to graduate or professional school—nearly twice as many as in 1976. Yet the number who actually earn graduate degrees has remained unchanged at about 9%. High schoolers also predict they will have prestigious careers. Sixty-eight percent of 2012 high school students expected to work in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 40% in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these aspirations far outstrip the need for professionals in the future; about 20% of Americans work in professional jobs, about the same as in the 1970s. Short-term ambitions fare little better: In 2012, 84% of incoming college students in the United States expected to graduate in four years, but only 41% of students at their universities actually do so. In The Ambitious Generation, sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson label these “misaligned ambitions,” and another set of sociologists titled their paper “Have Adolescents Become Too Ambitious?” Apparently the kids learned the lesson “you can be whatever you want to be” a little too well. This might benefit some, but many others will be disappointed.
Our young adult kids are in that lofty 41% of 4-year or less graduates (one graduated at age 20 and the others will be done by 22), but they did it on the cheap and at a social cost. Of course, they’ve known since they were pre-teens that none of us get to have “it all”. Despite economic realities, many people of our generation and subsequent generations have lofty career goals:
Young people also expect to make a lot of money. In a 2011 survey, 16-to-18-year-olds expected their starting salary to be $73,000, which they assumed would rise to $150,000 once they were established in their career. However, the median household income in 2009—for all adults—was $50,000, or around a third of the teens’ aspirations. Overall, young people predicted a bright future for themselves, even during the years of the late 2000s recession and its aftermath. Fifty-seven percent of high school seniors in 2012 predicted that they would own more than their parents; only 10% thought they would own less. In the 2011 survey, 59% believed they would do better financially than their parents.
Some people might argue that this is just youthful hope—after all, hasn’t every generation dreamed big during adolescence? Maybe, but GenMe’s dreams are bigger. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, we want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous.
In other words, reality bites, and too many of us don’t know it because we’ve been fed a media diet for the past 40 years that has told us that reality is what we make it.
One of the most popular television shows among Christians from the mid-90’s until it ended in 2007, was the religious family television show 7th Heaven. The show, based on the family and life of a Christian pastor, his wife, and family of seven children was not immune to the propaganda:
In an episode of the family show 7th Heaven, 21-year-old Lucy gives a sermon to the young women in the congregation: “God wants us to know and love ourselves. He also wants us to know our purpose, our passion. . . . So I ask you . . . ‘What have you dreamt about doing?’ . . . What you are waiting for is already inside of you. God has already equipped us with everything we need to live full and rich lives. It is our responsibility to make that life happen—to make our dreams happen.” So if you want to do it, you can make it happen. But what if your dream is to be a movie star or an Olympic athlete? Or even a doctor? What if we’re not actually equipped with absolutely everything we need—say, a one-in-a-million body, Hollywood connections, or the grades to make it into med school? Well, you should just believe in yourself more. Yes, some people will achieve these dreams, but it will likely be due to their talent and hard work, not their superior self-belief.
One professor encountered the GenMe faith in self-belief quite spectacularly in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partially on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can’t be right, they said, you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, “So you’re saying that I could be a ballerina?” “Sure, if you really wanted to,” said one of the students.
The book will hardly provide revelatory information for many of the people who read here, but it is something most young people read as they strike out into the world. A little grounding is always in order so that we can do the best we can with hard work and ethical behavior within the scope of our reality.
Grade: B for good content.