A few weeks ago, U.S. champion skier Bode Miller turned in a stunningly poor performance at the Olympics, with two non-medal finishes, a disqualification and two incomplete races.
Unabashed, he told the Associated Press: “I just did it my way. I’m not a martyr, and I’m not a do-gooder. I just want to go out and rock. And man, I rocked here.”
Mr. Miller’s exuberant self-assessment makes him “a poster child” for “Generation Me,” says San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge.
Americans born after 1970 — including the so-called Generation X and Millennial Generation — have become “an army of little narcissists,” says Mrs. Twenge, who explains her views in her new book, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”
Unlike their parents and grandparents, “GenMes” have “never known a world that put duty before self,” she says. Instead, they were raised in a culture obsessed with self-esteem and feel-good mantras such as “Believe in yourself, and you can be anything” and “Never give up on your dreams.”
The result is a generation of youths who are tolerant, confident, open-minded, ambitious — and have wildly unreasonable expectations about how they fit into the adult world.
“They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous,” Mrs. Twenge says.
But when reality hits, and they don’t get the coveted college placement or high-paying job, or they discover the high costs of housing and health care, many members of Generation Me crash emotionally, she says.
Among Americans who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, between 1 percent and 2 percent experienced a major depressive episode in their lifetime, says Mrs. Twenge, who bases her book on decades of generational data. Suicide was more common among middle-aged people, not young people.
Today, the lifetime rate for major depression is between 15 percent and 20 percent, an increase too large to be explained by improved case reporting, she says. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, while rates have dropped for the middle-aged.
Why should Generation Me feel so much anxiety and pain when it has grown up in relative peace and technological and economic expansion? A big part of the answer is the constant focus on the self, Mrs. Twenge says. “[W]hen we are fiercely independent and self-sufficient, our disappointments loom large because we have nothing else to focus on.”
She recommends social changes that support two-parent working families, such as paid parental leave, public preschools, tax deductions for child care, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. school hours.
But her most urgent advice is “ditch the self-esteem movement.” Praise based on nothing results in an inflated ego, she says.
Some people think Mrs. Twenge’s ideas sound like “stinking thinking.”
Despite its critics, self-esteem training and character education “are both alive and kicking,” says Sharon Fountain, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE).
NASE defines self-esteem as “the experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness,” she says.
Personal competence grows out of self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence, which is linked to self-esteem, she says. “If we are prepared to deal with the world in context, with responsibility and accountability, then not only does it improve the quality of our lives, it adds to the world.”
Healthy self-esteem is not egotism, arrogance, conceit, narcissism or a sense of superiority — those characteristics are “pseudo-self-esteem,” former NASE President Robert Reasoner says in an article.
Good self-esteem programs are grounded in reality and promote self-worth and competence, he says.
Nathaniel Branden, a pioneer in the field of self-esteem psychology, argues that self-esteem is far more than just feeling good about yourself.
“It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think,” he writes. It is also “confidence in our ability to learn, to make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change.”
Mrs. Twenge, however, is not alone in saying America has gone overboard with its self-esteem lessons.
Ample data now shows that “if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves,” writes Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister. His advice to nonprofits, policy-makers, teachers, parents and therapists: “Forget about self-esteem, and invest in self-control.”
Mrs. Twenge’s view of Generation Me is also too pessimistic for some.
“The overwhelming body of national data confirm that today’s collegians and teens are doing quite well on the whole,” says William Strauss, co-author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” a book about American youth born between 1982 and 2002. Mr. Strauss and his co-author, Neil Howe, say this generation will become a powerhouse “can-do” generation known for civic activities, moral courage and leadership.
Youth volunteering is up, while rates of crime, youth victimization, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, even youth suicide are all down, Mr. Strauss says. As for Mrs. Twenge’s assertion that today’s youth are “more miserable than ever before,” he says, “We see no evidence of that.”
Mr. Strauss says Marine Corps Gen. James Jones has it right when he says, “‘We’re seeing a huge cultural shift away from the word ‘I’ to the word ‘we,’ in this new generation … and that’s to be celebrated.’”
Mrs. Twenge agrees that today’s youth are optimistic, but she still worries about them. Another case in point in her book: Tone-deaf “American Idol” wannabe William Hung, who advises his fans, “Always try your best, and don’t giveupon your dreams.”