Arts : But enough about me

Sociologists ask why self-esteem and being special aren’t making youth happier

“I am an American, Chicago-born,” announced the narrator of Saul Bellow’s classic 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March. If that book were published today, Augie might also utter Stuart Smalley’s immortal line: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”

From birthday cards to reality TV, from advertising to every variety of religion, Americans are constantly told we are all unique individuals. That there is nothing nobler than “respecting ourselves,” finding out what we want, or who we are. So if it feels good, do it. If we need a tattoo to express ourselves, go for it!

Generation Me: Why Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before
Jean M. Twenge
Free Press
$25, 292 pages
In her new book, San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge argues that these attitudes have created a Frankenstein called Generation Me. Born after 1970, these Americans were too young for the hullabaloo of Vietnam, raised during the days of “morning in America” — when anything was possible, failure not an option. Just so long as your greatest love of all, as Whitney Houston put it, was yourself.

In Generation Me, Twenge chronicles the effects of this collective self-discovery, and they’re not exactly pretty. Manners are on the wane, academic standards have dipped. Who wants to scold someone for exploring themselves? “In 2005,” Twenge writes, “a British teacher proposed eliminating the word ‘fail’ from education.”

Drawing on 12 different studies of 1.3 million Americans, Twenge pokes holes in many of the sacred notions that have created this complex. For instance, young Americans are not suffering from low self-esteem. Quite the opposite: A 1997 study showed that 93 percent of teens felt good about themselves.

Neil Howe and William Straus argued in their 2000 book, Millennials Rising, that those born after 1982 would “usher in a new return to duty, civic responsibility, and teamwork.” Twenge doesn’t see this happening. In spite of their sense of entitlement, and the constant exhortation to think for themselves, Twenge argues, the members of Generation Me are not happy.

Fully 21 percent of teens 15-17 in one study had already experienced a major depressive episode. Anxiety and suicide are on the rise. There’s even something called a quarter-life crisis. “Do what’s best for Jason,” says a 25-year-old in the 2004 book Quarterlife Crisis. “I had to make me happy.”

So why is everyone so bleak? Well, with self-empowerment come higher expectations and a thinner skin when setbacks occur. And with rising home prices and higher education costs, not everyone can be a winner in the real world.

Twenge argues that we wouldn’t be in this boat if educators and parents let up on their “obsession with self-esteem.” To Generation Me, she says stop over-thinking and get involved in your community. Get outside yourself. Otherwise you might find yourself imprisoned there.

Hal Niedzviecki seems to have taken this message somewhat to heart. In Hello, I’m Special, he writes as a self-proclaimed hipster waking up to the realization that all his youthful rebellion makes him more a part of the mainstream than he’d like to admit.

It doesn’t matter if you’re protesting corporate logos, or wearing your clothes inside out. “Today, conformity is about doing whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like,” he writes, “so long as what you are doing is all about the new you. Individuality is the new conformity. Institutions take a back seat to our personal quest to be ourselves.”

Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity
Hal Niedzviecki
City Lights
$15.95, 259 pages
Hello, I’m Special takes a journalistic tour through this brave new conformist world of nonconformists, from amateur-wrestling circuits to iPod junkies. Taking the lead from their Boomer parents, Generation Me has embraced anything that helps differentiate themselves from each other — and that means anything. Asked by a reporter why she participates in a competitive hot-dog-eating contest, one woman responded: “Before, I was just normal, like everybody. Now, I’m special.”

All this focus on individuality has also, ironically, turned many young people into celebrity worshippers, Niedzviecki notes. Just look at the profusion of reality-TV shows that focus on the creation of a star, from Pop Idol to America’s Next Top Model. Hollywood irons out the wrinkles in our reality blanket by giving us a pantheon of figures — from Rocky Balboa to Erin Brockovich — who show how powerful regular individuals can become.

Niedzviecki doesn’t have any radical new ideas for how young Americans can unplug themselves from this current of empty individuality. He has always believed that reclaiming mass culture will help — even if it creates a generation of “I’m Specialers,” as he calls them. But he wants them to not just respond to pop culture, but invent something new. For that, how about starting with the dictum that everyone’s parents have uttered at least once: Turn off the television.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.


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