A recent 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 and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. 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 and unconcerned about others or the 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 students 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 in front of those classes 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, or even to write coherent sentences. 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, many of whom bought “cheaters,” 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, however. 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 their elders should judge them. Indeed, the young have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter and everything they want should be handed to them with little or no effort on their part. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system — what Christopher Lasch has called the “helping professions” — that claims to know children better than their own parents do and which 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 disinterested and 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.” We are told repeatedly that we should be patient with the young because they are under so much “pressure.” But the notion that self-absorbed young people who are unaware of the world around them could be under any more pressure than young people in previous generations is absurd: it’s precisely awareness of the problems around us that creates stress and pressure.
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; the Chronicle report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the earth and the creatures living on it. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed narcissists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and the people and things around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.