Op-ed by MICHELLE COTE
Society consistently underestimates America’s youth. Once again, we have been labeled self-important, entitled, and ill-equipped to lead this country into the future. This perspective, however, is inaccurate and unfair. It encourages despair and stifles progress, and because of this, threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In her recent book, “Generation Me,” Dr. Jean Twenge argues that Americans born after 1970 are more self-centered than any other group that has come before. She has come to this conclusion after researching generational differences in attitudes and lifestyles — and she believes that this trait will soon have damaging repercussions on society.
According to Twenge, we developed our sense of self-importance during our childhoods. We absorbed confidence-promoting messages from our parents, teachers, and pop culture. Self-esteem based lesson plans and relaxed (non) grading systems in schools led us to believe that we deserve success. Chart-topping hits such as Whitney Houston’s 1986 “Greatest Love of All” (â€¦is loving yourself) and advertising slogans such as “An Army of One” reinforced our inflated levels of self-importance, Twenge says.
Dr. Twenge fears that for many members of “Generation Me,” graduation to adulthood will be painful. Our upbringings have not prepared us to cope with frank appraisals of our job performance, the rising cost of housing, and the struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Twenge argues, “This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities.” We simply won’t be able to have it all, and when we fail to get what we want, it “will lead to a lot of anxiety, depression, and complaining.”
This is not an inspiring forecast for a group who will eventually be responsible for assuming leadership of the country, and the world.
However, we do not have to adopt the fatalistic attitude that Twenge promotes. Twenge believes “(â€¦)the society that molds you when you are young stays with you the rest of your life.” But with the right motivation and direction, our generation could put our trademark self-assurance to work for positive social change.
Just because “We take it for granted that we’re independent, special individuals” doesn’t mean that we’re self-centered. While our kindergarten teachers may have coached us to believe that we are all special, our economics professors also taught us to challenge the zero-sum principle. We understand that our success does not have to come at the expense of others, and that win-win scenarios are the ultimate triumph.
Dr. Twenge is also troubled by the fact that “GenMe is twice as likely to agree with the statement ‘There is no single right way to live.'” She argues that our generation has little regard for social norms, and suggests social order will soon be eliminated completely.
A free-thinking and speaking society, however, is essential for social change. Our generation’s open-mindedness could help us resolve conflicts and improve the world around us. Throughout history, those responsible for social advances have often challenged conventions — and relied on their self-assurance to overcome adversity.
Our confidence has also helped us to realize that we can choose an alternative for our lives, and that we are capable of looking beyond ourselves. In fact, we are looking for ways to contribute. Volunteerism amongst American youth has risen in the last decade. At the same time, growth of non-profit organizations outpaced both the business and government sectors at the turn of this century.
Society would benefit tremendously if it encouraged this trend instead of reprimanding us for our resistance to conformity. It would be in everyone’s best interest to recognize our generation’s confidence and independence as assets, and support young leaders in contributing their time and talents to society. Passion always produces better results than duty.
So, while it may be wise to take note of Dr. Twenge’s warning of the possible pitfalls of our generation’s self-focus, it is also irresponsible to write our generation off as incapable of contributing to the world around us. Our potential is too great to be dismissed. But don’t worry: we think too much of ourselves to let that happen anyway.
Michelle Cote is Co-Director of The Purpose Project, a non-profit venture working to create an inter-generational dialogue between retiring and future social leaders. Click here for more information, and to share your opinion about this article.