Friday, September 21, 2007

Talkin' 'Bout Me Generation

Read a book a while back called “Generation Me”. It’s written by Jean Twenge (PhD) and deals with the differences between Baby Boomers and the generation after that.

Interestingly, Baby Boomers are referred to as the “Me Generation” in part because they were the first generation to attempt to find the journey to the self (somewhere Dr. Phil and Wayne Dyer are smiling and nodding). Not just as a drug-enduced search, but on a deeper level, the Baby Boom generation left societal norms behind and attempted to discover what was “true for themselves” – what they were passionate about, what was more than a “job”, but a “calling”. In their current, version 2.Oprah, Baby Boomers are on the verge of empty-nesterhood retirement and are reclaiming and rediscovering themselves and the interests that they gave up earlier in life or put on hold because of the families they raised. Now, time and money are enabling hobbies, passions, and edutainment excursions.

However, Dr. Twenge points out, despite the search for the self, the Baby Boom generation has always done everything in groups. Sit-ins and protests, consciousness raising, support groups, discos, even current “self-seeking” is based around joining classes, going out with girlfriends, joining a league, etc. As much as they can be, they are the “Cooperative Me Generation”.

Earlier I didn’t say “Gen X” or “Millennials” (nor Echo Boomers, Gen Y, or iGen). The author insists that Gen X is lumped in with our younger counterparts (which irks any Gen Xer – just ask us) and that Gen X, as a very label, is a misnomer because the same slacker mentality that got us the coolest of the generation names is not applicable to todays execs, entrepreneurs, and Internet millionaires who fall within that age range.

And so, the post-Baby Boomer generations (basically from 1967-1990) are all lumped together in Dr. Twenge’s definition and form “Generation Me” (or “GenMe” for short, buzzworthiness) - the flip version of the “Me Generation”.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The book points out that we are the true owners of this self-focused name because we have all grown up with the idea of “self-importance”. We were sent to school and sat through “self-esteem” curriculums. We have been reared on the notions that we can “do, be, and achieve anything we want in the world, as long as it makes us happy”. We take for granted that there could ever exist a time when our personal needs weren’t already met, or expected to be met. We don’t have to search for the self, the way our parents did. We live in the world of “self” because it is our birthright. Isn’t it? Twenge writes: “Today’s youth 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.”

The good doctor/author provides decades worth of comparative data of high school and college students between the 1950’s through the 1990’s showing the increase in such measures as “extrovertedness”, “desire to be famous”, “belief that my opinion matters”, “self-satisfaction”, “independence” and “self-promotion” among others. There is a clear rise in narcissistic behaviors and attitudes. We are more likely to argue that if we “do our best” that’s good enough. That (for example) a paper we wrote in college couldn’t possibly be challenged because what really matters is that we believe in its validity, not its execution or implicative merit. In plain English, GenMe is being labeled as the most self-serving of all time, and that we have no comprehension of reality. That despite our desire to be whatever we want because we believe we can, as Roper Youth Report states, “the gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater.” There are simple realities and truths we choose to ignore under the shingle of “positive self-esteem”: fat girls aren’t ballerinas and short kids aren’t in the NBA.

In fact, the very digital technologies that are so native to us (blogs, LiveJournals, etc.) play into this generation’s need to be recognized. Why have a MySpace page or a blog other than to collect “friends” or to have your opinion commented on. Rather than take the time to become an expert on a subject, we live in a YouTube-instant-authority world which enables anyone with a keyboard and a video, pardon me, digital camera to voice an opinion, and, if they’re lucky, become a celebrity du jour and experience the “Lonely Girl 15 Minutes of Fame” to which this generation is so latently entitled.

It’s a fascinating read so far. It has both had me baffled in indefensible agreement as well as had me turn to a stranger on the bus to let them know “that’s not true, she’s generalizing” or “why won’t she talk about the inherent positives of that kind of technology?”

What do you think? Are we self-centered or independently-minded? Entitled or optimistic? Young leaders or Narcissists?

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the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)