It’s All About Me

A new study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.

The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed, unconcerned about others or their environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the kids in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women up front who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about ten years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.

We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid we should judge them. Indeed, they have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system that demands little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says, “Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.” But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.”

Indeed not. At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; this report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the world my grandchildren will have to live in. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed individualists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and people around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.

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