Misunderstanding "Generation Me"

A new study out this month in the journal Psychological Science aims to debunk the popular opinion that our generation -- those of us born in the 80s -- is narcissistic. The study, authored by Kali H. Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, and Michigan State University, finds that youth haven't changed their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors drastically over the last 30 years.

The study was done, in part, as a response to the work of psychologist Jean M. Twenge, who wrote Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In the book she argues that, largely because of the boom in self-esteem education in the '80s and '90s, young people today "speak the language of the self as their native tongue." Twenge is already at work on another book, this one with an even more damning title, The Narcissism Epidemic.

Trzesniewski and his colleagues conducted their extensive research (with a far larger sample than Twenge's) in California, the home of the self-esteem education movement, and found that measures of narcissism, despite all the media hype, remain essentially unchanged from previous generations.

The new study focuses on a measure of "self-enhancement," otherwise known as "the tendency to hold unrealistically positive beliefs about self." Twenge's work is also focused on this type of narcissism. She explains, "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." In Twenge's view, our generation is basically the byproduct of the boomers who trademarked "self-love." We are the Frankensteins of our parents' hippie experiments.

I imagine the truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

No doubt many of us were raised to see ourselves as "special," but as recent research on happiness proves, that lesson can turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing in this big, bad world. In so many cases, our outsized expectations have lead to great disappointment in our small, ordinary lives. We don't always get the A+. We don't score the winning touchdown. We lose in the last round of the mock trial debate. And suddenly our self-esteem, based on the premise that we are so special we will never fail, is shattered into a million shards of reality. That doesn't lead to narcissism; it leads to plain old disillusion.

Further, I see our generation's tendency to look inward as a product of our overwhelm, not our inherent egotism. It is far easier to edit your Facebook profile than to figure out how to respond to the situation in Pakistan. (Our parents had their own sublimations -- drug use, parties, domesticity -- but their methods were far less public; because of technological innovations, our experiments in narcissism tend to be writ large). Just as anorexic girls shrink their attention to the one measly meal they allow themselves a day -- if that -- in order to salvage some control in an uncontrollable world, I think some of us turn to our own little life projects -- trendy clothes, the latest gadgets, romantic dramas -- so that we don't have to face the deeper questions -- who am I? What is my purpose? Does my life align with my values?

There is a place for shopping and a place for angst, but some of us need to re-center those most important questions, to shift our tendency for self-focus to good ol' Platonic self-examination. He never claimed that the "unexamined life" wasn't fun, but he did say it wasn't worth living. When the latest Nikes have been purchased and the latest MySpace customization has been uploaded, there's still the pain of the world to process. If we're not actively doing it, we're putting it somewhere Freudian and potentially dangerous. We're drinking it away or saving it up for a depressed, rainy day.

In civic utopia, shoes and flashy profiles should be an afterthought -- an enjoyable, light experience after the heavy lifting of identity formation and political action. We don't live in that ideal world, but many of us have indulged in imagining one as of late. It's no surprise that our generation is voting for Obama in the Democratic primary by margins of two to one. We're hungry for someone to tell us that change is up to us, that we have a place in the public sphere, that we have to look up from our computer screens, roll up our sleeves, and get involved in the hard work of citizenship. It's more than his oratorical gifts that inspire us, the young and skeptical; it's his insistence that we are ready for a paradigm shift in politics and within ourselves.

Twenge found that in 1967, 86 percent of incoming college students said that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," was an essential goal. In 2004, only 42 percent of first-year college students agreed. We're not shallow; the world has gotten way deeper. When our parents were thinking about the world and their place in it, apartments were affordable, jobs were plentiful, AIDS wasn't a concern, and "terrorism" wasn't a household word. If they missed the nightly news or the morning paper, there wasn't much else to catch up on. They weren't expected to articulate their life goals and compose a competitive college resume at 17.

Today, a "meaningful philosophy of life" looks more like a tome than a protest slogan. It's not easy, but it's not hopeless. Perhaps the answers lies in borrowing the best from both our parents' and our grandparents' generations. Our parents mastered self-examination, to be sure; they also didn't always execute their "meaningful philosophies of life," as evidenced by all the former flower children now driving Range Rovers and spending beaucoup bucks on Buddhist retreats that double as spa vacations. Borrowing some of the crinkly pages out of our grandparents' history books would lead us to more action, less stewing. They were determined to give back (yes, I recognize that they were also racist, sexist, and homophobic, but we can borrow parts of the whole). They recognized that change isn't just something you wait to wash over you, but a dream you work towards, that community isn't a given, but something you nurture and grow.

And, of course, after borrowing, we must innovate altogether. After all, it's certainly not just the young among us that are feeling overwhelmed and prone to petty distractions. How can a person living in the 21st century stave off the overwhelm that leads to too much self-focus? How does she have self-confidence and realistic expectations? How can she reflect and act, examine her life and improve the lives of others, dance and protest? How can she live in the information age and still be driven by her intellect and emotions? As always, how can she link the personal and the political?

Heavy questions for a heavy time, I know, but necessary and even potentially joyful ones. Our ability to wrestle with them transcends the narcissism scores on any peer-reviewed study. It is our ideas and our actions, not bickering psychologists, that determine the legacy that a generation leaves. Call it narcissism, but I have a feeling ours is going to be pretty great.

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