Psychologist Jean Twenge Takes on 'Generation Me'
Is today's generation of college students a bunch of unrealistic narcissists?
The data show that they are certainly more self-absorbed than generations past, according to San Diego State psychology professor Dr. Jean Twenge, who as part of Occidental's First Tuesday series Dec. 4 spoke on the findings detailed in her book "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled-and More Miserable Than Ever Before."
Analyzing statistics on 1.3 million college students dating to the 1930s, Dr. Twenge has concluded that people born since 1970-including younger Gen Xers and Gen Y--are more narcissistic, depressed, anxious and manic than previous generations. They also tend toward unrealistic expectations of success, and materialism. She blames much of this shift on a cultural trend beginning in the 1980s that values baseless self-esteem, with aphorisms such as "You can be anything you want to be" and "Believe in yourself and anything is possible." These attitudes, she said, have become pervasive in parenting and the media. "I want people to have high goals, but ones that are right for them and at least somewhat realistic," Dr. Twenge said. "You can't be anything you want to be. Barney's wrong."
Young people today do have higher self-esteem, she said, but many also exhibit lack of empathy and poor relationship skills. Today's youth also show elevated levels of antisocial attitudes and exaggerated self-importance. On the plus side, the younger generation is more tolerant of different race, gender and sexual orientation than generations past. However, "if we didn't have so much self-centeredness, we might move beyond tolerating each other to actually connecting with each other," Dr. Twenge said.
The self-esteem trend, which started among the Baby Boomers, is "getting worse, if anything," Dr. Twenge said. "If I could get one message across to people, it's that narcissism does not lead to success." Rather, she suggests the formula for a happy life consists of being grateful for what you have, having enough dissatisfaction to keep you motivated, and feeling love for and connection to other people.
"Don't believe the people who say you can make yourself happy," she concluded. "We do need other people to make us happy."