Me First (A Repost)

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 fifteen 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, author of The Culture of Narcissism, has called the “helping professions” — that claim to know children better than their own parents do and which demand 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, and these young people appear to be totally unaware and, worse yet, unconcerned — by and large. Clearly, there are exceptions, thank goodness.
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. As I noted above: there are exceptions.


10 thoughts on “Me First (A Repost)

  1. Well said. Good post Hugh.
    I’m beginning to think that the ‘me’ generation has finally started showing its ugly head in people who are taking positions of power in the world. It is an especially scary (and dangerous) time. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung Ong, are classic narcissists. Many other world leaders are various shades of narcissism. I’m thinking here about the likes of Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Junker

    • I have noted before the interview with a young American college student after an all-nighter in Florida during Spring Break not long ago. The young man stood before a beach strewn with garbage as far as the eye could see and when the interviewer reminded the man that the tide was about to come in and asked who was going to clean up the beach, he responded: “It’s a large Ocean.” This young man is NOT one of the exceptions!

      • Sadly, I have seen similar attitudes. It seems that ‘it is someone else’s problem’ for most of these narcissistic types. Definitely a case of ‘I didn’t do it, so why should I care?’

      • Oh! That is such a disturbing attitude; I wonder if that student evolved ‘out’ of that close-minded choice and now regrets his behavior? Most wouldn’t but every so often there’s someone remorseful for earlier attitudes and behaviors..

        I’ve witnessed a ‘raised in the USA’ pre-adolescent who is on vacation with her family. She is very precocious and can be poised when reminded, but she can also be intrusive and demanding and shows little respect for the older generation, interrupts conversations, bulldozes her wishes on others, etc. I thought of your posts/stories about this type of behavior, and it does not reflect well to the outside world… These are young ‘ambassadors’ representing our country,and sometimes they don’t present a very favorable presence…

  2. As you may recall from some of my comments, I am married to an academic at a British university and he has similar tales to tell of poor attendance, unwillingness to read, listen or learn. One glimmer of hope is the new-found enthusiasm for politics here among the young – though I worry that since it seems to be focused on one man, Jeremy Corbyn, if that one man lets them down… Well, we shall see. But, allow me a personal aside: since the husband is at a university open day for prospective students and parents today, Saturday, I have take the opportunity to meet a young (33 yr old) friend for lunch. She wants to change the world and help the disadvantaged and work to lessen inequality. And is willing to work hard to do so. She preceded the 1982 implementation of the narcissism code, thank goodness. 🙂

    • Hopefully, your friend won’t burn out! It is tough work trying to change the dynamics of an uncaring world.

      As for Jeremy Corbin…they are youngsters, only concerned with getting free tuition and unending social programs to give them a head start (and who can blame that thinking?), but Jeremy Corbin is not the saviour they are looking for. His policies, (while seemingly idealistic), are really on a road to hard core communism, and not the answer to economic problems (real or imagined)!

  3. Excellent, albeit deeply disturbing, post, Hugh! The truly frightening part is that this “me generation” must undoubtedly pass this same attitude to their own children, who will likely take it even a step further. As you said and as Mary points out, there certainly ARE exceptions, but are they enough? At some point, obviously, the cycle has to end, and like most such cycles, history shows that a catastrophe of some major proportions (ie., war) is the catalyst for a re-set.

  4. Hugh, I feel we have become less community minded as a whole. We have become more inclined to not consider the greater good. I shared in s comment that 47 communities have seceded from school districts to create their own to the detriment of the larger district. We have too many living in gated communities with less concern for those who do not.

    If millennials are less engaged, I feel they are learning it from the parents. There are wonderful exceptions to everything I said above, but we have too many not being able to understand what the less fortunate go through. As a result, condescending comments disguised as solutions are not addressing the whole problem.

    Good post, professor. Keith

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