The Nation's Pulse

The Look-at-Me Generation

What a long strange ego trip it's been.

By 3.1.07

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Kids these days. They've got these things called blogs and Myspace, and they post nekkid photographs and videos of themselves doing crazy things on the Internets. I don't get it. It frightens and confuses me...

Okay, I'm not that old. On occasion I blog myself. My girlfriend has a Myspace page. Who hasn't seen a Ted Kennedy in his cups call the junior senator from Illinois "Osama bin Ladin" on YouTube?

On the other hand, I'm one of the last of the Boomers -- or first of the Gen Xers -- so I wasn't part of that millennial generation raised on an overdose of self-esteem and self-promoting technology that have combined to create a perfect storm of narcissism.

Nor was I surprised to read that a study led by San Diego State University psychologists finds that about two-thirds of college students have above average scores in self-adulation. That's thirty percent more than when I was in college in 1982. These millennials make Narcissus look like a self-hating Greek.

But while millennials are more confident, assertive, and head over heels in love with themselves, they have less reason to be. The study's authors note that Gen Y is shallower than its parents' generation and less well educated. It is emotionally challenged. And more miserable.

Perhaps the biggest clue to its shallowness can be found in its priorities. Asked what they most want out of life, most millennials answer "wealth and fame." Riches are most important to more than 80 percent of college students, and fame came in a near second. Ironically, today's generation has become the little materialists and "fame whores" (New York Magazine's term) their boomer parents so reviled.

And despite MTV's Rock the Vote efforts, they are the least socially aware generation in decades. The study contradicts the common view that millennials are civic-minded, public-service do-gooders who volunteer en masse to help hurricane and tsunami victims, who, rather than booze and sex it up on spring break, prefer to donate their time vaccinating poor children in sub-equatorial Ecuador. Instead, researchers noted that much of that community spirit is due to the fact that high schools require "mandatory" volunteer service, which also conveniently serves as a way to pad one's resume.

I HAVE NEVER BEEN a great fan of the Baby Boom Generation, which was no slacker in the Ego Overload Sweepstakes; Tom Wolfe, after all, dubbed it the "Me Generation." But at least that gang's number one priority, according to a 1967 college survey, was to find "a meaningful philosophy of life." Unfortunately, that "meaningful philosophy of life" entailed overly permissive parenting and systematic ego inflation. The millennials have had every aspect of their lives recorded and photographed and documented from the time they were pulled screaming from the womb. And it was the boomers who stressed self-esteem over learning, who lavished excessive praise on their kids and presented them awards for everything from their first bowel movement to just showing up. No wonder that this overindulged generation's heroes are vacuous celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton who is famous for a reality TV show and a sex video.

Oh, and you'll probably want to be careful when criticizing your younger employees. Millennials don't take criticism very well, the report says. They also tend to have less stable relationships and are to be more prone to violent behavior than their parents' generation. Why? According to the report, people with an inflated sense of self are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, and lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors. "I'm concerned we are heading to a society where people are going to treat each other badly, either on the street or in relationships," the report's lead researcher Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, told the Los Angeles Times.

Of course not everyone agrees. For an alternative view, some researchers regard narcissistic behavior not as the fault of bad boomer parenting, but as an adoptive mechanism in a culture that prizes the bottom-line over learning and cooperation.

"This is a bottom-line society, so students are smart to seek the most direct route to the bottom line," Marc Flacks, an assistant professor of sociology, said in the Times. "If you don't have a me-first attitude, you won't succeed....The old model was a collegial one in which students and professors alike sought knowledge for knowledge's sake. The new model is 'I paid my money, give me my grade and degree.'"

So next time you are stuck on an elevator with a young person who is screaming into his cell phone, try to remember that he isn't just some rude, vacuous millennial, he is rather a new model of bottom-line, free-market capitalism. And grin and bear it.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.