Pop Culture

Why are younger Americans so miserable?

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, examines the generation of Americans born after 1970 in her book, “Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before.” Twenge argues that younger people are more self-assured than their parents, but they also more depressed. She bases her argument on 14 years of research comparing the results of personality tests given to boomers when they were under 30 to those of the Gen-Me cohort today. Twenge, invited to appear on the “Today” show, places much of the blame on the self-esteem movement of the last few decades. Here’s an excerpt:IntroductionLinda was born in 1952 in a small town in the Midwest. After she graduated from high school in 1970, she moved to the city and enrolled in secretarial school. It was a great time to be young: Free Love was in, and everybody smoked, drank, and had a good time. Linda and her friends joined a feminist consciousness-raising group, danced at the discos, and explored their inner lives at est seminars and through meditation. The new pursuit of self-fulfillment led Tom Wolfe to label the 1970s the "Me Decade," and by extension the young people of the time the "Me Generation."

Compared to today's young people, they were posers.

Linda's Baby Boomer generation grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, taught by stern, gray-suit-wearing teachers and raised by parents who didn't take any lip and thought that Father Knows Best. Most of the Boomers were well into adolescence or adulthood by the time the focus on the self became trendy in the 1970s. And when Linda and her friends sought self-knowledge, they took the ironic step of doing so en masse — for all their railing against conformity, Boomers did just about everything in groups, from protests to seminars to yoga. Their youthful exploration also covered a very brief period: the average first-time bride in the early 1970s had not yet celebrated her 21st birthday.

Today's under-35 young people are the real Me Generation, or, as I call them, Generation Me. Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self. Linda's youngest child, Jessica, was born in 1985. When Jessica was a toddler, Whitney Houston's No. 1 hit song declared that "The Greatest Love of All" was loving yourself. Jessica's elementary school teachers believed that their most important job was helping Jessica feel good about herself. Jessica scribbled in a coloring book called We Are All Special, got a sticker on her worksheet just for filling it out, and did a sixth-grade project called "All About Me." When she wondered how to act on her first date, her mother told her, "Just be yourself." Eventually, Jessica got her lower lip pierced and obtained a large tattoo on her lower back because, she said, she wanted to express herself. She dreams of being a model or a singer. She does not expect to marry until she is in her late twenties, and neither she nor her older sisters have any children yet. "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else," she says. This is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me.

If you're wondering what all of this means for the future, you are not alone. Reflecting on her role as a parent of this new generation, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan wrote: "We're told we will produce a generation of coddled, center-of-the-universe adults who will expect the world to be as delighted with them as we are. And even as we laugh at the knock-knock jokes and exclaim over the refrigerator drawings, we secretly fear the same thing."

Everyone belongs to a generation. Some people embrace it like a warm, familiar blanket, while others prefer not to be lumped in with their age mates. Yet like it or not, when you were born dictates the culture you will experience. This includes the highs and lows of pop culture, as well as world events, social trends, economic realities, behavioral norms, and ways of seeing the world. The society that molds you when you are young stays with you the rest of your life.

Today's young people are experiencing that society right now, and they speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities. Joan Chiaramonte, head of the Roper Youth Report, says that for young people "the gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater." If you would like to start an argument, claim that young people today have it (a) easy, or (b) tough. Be forewarned: you might need referees before it's all over.

I have researched generational differences for thirteen years, since I was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate working on my B.A. thesis. When I began, most of what had been written about generations was based on an amalgam of personal experience and educated guesses: it speculated about possible differences, but had little proof they actually existed. I read book after book that said things such as young people now are more likely to come from divorced homes, so they are more anxious and cynical (but were they really?). And, people born after 1982 entered a more child-centered society, so they would be more group-oriented (but was that really true?). It was all very interesting, but all very vague and nonscientific. I kept thinking, "Where's your proof? Has anyone ever found the real differences among the generations, instead of just guessing?"

The next year, I entered a Ph.D. program in personality psychology at the University of Michigan. I soon learned that academic psychologists measure personality traits and attitudes with carefully designed and validated questionnaires. Best of all, many of those questionnaires had been used thousands of times since they were first written in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and most people who filled them out were college students and schoolchildren. That meant I could compare scores on these measures and see exactly how young people's personalities and attitudes had changed over the generations. To my surprise, no one had ever done this before.

This book presents, for the first time, the results of twelve studies on generational differences, based on data from 1.3 million young Americans. Many of the studies find that when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you. Or, in the words of a prescient Arab proverb, "Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers." When you finish this book, you'll be ready for an argument about which generation has it easy or tough and why — you might even want to start it. At the very least, if you're part of Generation Me, you can use this book to bean that annoying guy who says that people your age are lazy and shiftless. Who says books can't be useful?

This book focuses on the current generation of young people, born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, whom I call Generation Me. Right now in the 2000s, this group ranges from elementary school kids to thirty-something adults. Although thirty years is a longer-than-average span for a generation, it nicely captures the group of people who grew up in an era when focusing on yourself was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. A member of this generation myself, I was born in 1971. Like most of us who came along after the Baby Boom, I'm too young to remember Vietnam, Woodstock, or Watergate. During the summer of 1980, when every tree held a yellow ribbon for the Iran hostages, my main activity was running when I heard the chimes of the ice cream truck. Since I'm at the leading edge of this group, however, I'm also too old to have pierced anything except my ears or to have ever owned a Justin Timberlake poster. But when I talk about Generation Me, I'm also talking about myself.

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.

All of this, and we don't even have a name. People born in the late 1960s to the 1970s are often labeled "Generation X," but they have not been reexamined since being named in the early 1990s, long before their primary identity veered from slackers to Internet millionaires. It's just not clear that the GenX label fits now that flannel shirts are out. One advertising executive called the early 1990s depiction of this generation as bored cynics "the most expensive marketing mistake in history." Some descriptions (and birth years) of GenX overlap with what I call Generation Me, but it's clear that the GenX description is incomplete and often misguided. And the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s — today's children, teenagers, and people in their early twenties — has no name at all. Some marketers have used "GenY," which simply parrots the GenX label and thus probably won't last long: who wants to be named after the people older than you? Some have called young people the "Net Generation," as this is the first generation to grow up with the Internet, but this label has not caught on (and being the first to experience something doesn't mean much; the Boomers were the first "TV Generation," but later generations have clearly trumped them in their attachment to the boob tube). "Millennials," a somewhat better name, has also yet to stick, and of course that whole millennium thing is so 1999. But combine this label with the Net Generation idea, and you can name this generation after a version of Windows: the Millennium Edition. The convenient abbreviation? ME.

A neat twist on the Generation Me label — and in the same computer-oriented vein — is iGeneration. The first letter is nicely packed with meaning: it could stand for Internet (as it does in iMac and iPod) or for the first person singular that stands for the individual. Its pronunciation also appropriately suggests vision, either the things inside young people's heads that are usually glued to the computer or the TV, or the vision of young people in shaping a new world. It's an appropriate name for a generation raised with on-demand "iMedia" like TiVo, the Internet, and the ever-present iPod.

I don't really expect the Generation Me label to replace the GenX, GenY, and Millennial labels, though I'd welcome it if it did (iGeneration or iGen might have a better shot). The GenX label has been with us since the early 1990s and is fairly well established, so those of us born between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s are probably stuck with it — though we'd love to shake that slacker stereotype. Those born after 1980 do not yet have a coherent generational identity or name, but this should arrive sometime in the next ten years. What it will be is anybody's guess. Generation Me is a description as well as a label, a way of capturing our most distinctive trait — the freedom and individualism we take for granted. After the relatively unified mass of the Baby Boomers, the rest of us can only hope to be understood; we might not be precisely defined.

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Excerpted from "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before" by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. Copyright 2006 by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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