Talking About Which Generation?

Historians and paleontologists talk about “eras” and “periods.” Today, driven by marketers and psychologist, we focus on “generations.” The chronology is a bit contested but for all of us 21st century blogging American it runs as follows: Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” was followed by the Baby Boomers, who gave way to Generation X, followed by Generation Y, then Millenials, or perhaps Generation Z, and the whole endeavor sort of collapses under its own weight. Why generations? It is an easy, often lazy way to characterize deep changes in popular culture and the ways that we talk about change and popular culture. No one really challenges “generational” thinking. And into this contested morass, Jean M. Twenge offers her perspective in Generation Me (Free Press, 2006).Generation Me

Provocatively subtitled “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” the book is informed by years of meta-analysis of social science papers, studies and reports.  Twenge is a professor of psychology at Sand Diego State University with an engaging writing style and ambition.  She wants to be heard.  The result makes for a provocative combination.

Twinge’s narrative is conversational and her titles take chunks of recognizable topics that may, or may not, hold to be true. Chapter One (“You Don’t Need Their Approval: The Decline of Social Rules”) moves from the 1950s until today in a few paragraphs, collapsing changes in clothing with moral relativism with swearing. The historian in me winces, though I can easily see making some of these arguments at a bar in order to impress. A problem remains, though; haven’t social rules always been declining, or more precisely, changing? And hasn’t every older group looked at the younger and wondered about the shameful lack of respect?

Chapter Two, the “Army of Me” is on firmer ground and almost could stand alone. It has the self-esteem that it describes, and that sense of confidence segues nicely into Chapter Three, “You Can Be Anything You Want To Be.” Of course, Twenge notes, you really cannot and that it might be to everyone’s better interest to realize this sooner. We may not all be rich and famous and all that self-love may not be to our advantage. A longstanding concern about entitlements is woven throughout.

The wheels of the thesis start to wobble, if not fall off, in the next phase of Twenge’s argument: the significant uptick in anxiety and depression stems from higher degrees of loneliness, isolation and the pervasive concern about making the “right” choices. “It’s great to have the freedom to be whatever you want,” she writes, “but what exactly is that?” What indeed? Twenge moves to quickly away from this source of anxiety and instead moves to safer ground, the thwarted high expectations of twenty-somethings. These, she believes, lead to massive unhappiness, as do the very high costs of keeping up with the Joneses and all those expectations. Expectations are rising, too. The other consequence is cynicism, passivity and externalizing (the sense that control of one’s life lies outside). All is dire.

“Generation Prude Meets Generation Crude” covers sex with a focus on relationships and marriage. Greater degrees of freedom for women remains as a theme in the following chapter, which highlights a revolution in equality. The rate of change in attitudes and practice for women, gays, lesbians and minorities has been phenomenal, but not necessarily as substantive as some might believe, Twenge asserts. She emphasizes that the shifts are generational. What this all means, Twenge claims, is more self-esteem, higher expectations, and greater depression.

The conclusion of the book is for employers, for marketers, counselors, parents and generation me.  Twenge calls for more childcare and preschools, tax breaks for parents and more accommodating school hours.  She is at pains to emphasize that the subjects of her study are not “spoiled” but instead the consequence or broad social forces.

And what do we make of all this? It is not social science, but instead the application of meta-studies to explain what may or may not be a meaningful change. Twenge does not have a thesis; she has observations.  Her descriptions are provocative, but lack discipline, direction and structure. In sum, it is solid middlebrow fare, one of many works that takes a particular slice at middle class life in America today.

David Potash