Rating: 4 out of 5
GenY. Millennials. NetGen. iGen. Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is throwing another term in the ring to describe the current generation of young adults: Generation Me.
Twenge defines GenMe as anyone born in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, thereby including the later part of GenX, but I’d argue that that timeline is much too long. Typically, we’re talking about those born between 1982-2000. (Sorry, Twenge, you’re too old to play in our clubhouse!) Some extend the demographics a little longer, and overlaps can exist, but in my opinion, 9/11 serves as a stark divider between generations in America.
Media outlets would have everybody believe that anyone under 30 is snotty and spoiled, which Twenge addresses in the full title of her book: Generation Me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled — and more miserable than ever before.
Who wouldn’t pay attention with a title like that?
What I like about Twenge is that she actually examines the stereotypes to determine to what extent they apply. Using data from 12 studies on 1.3 million young Americans, she highlights the differences between the babies and the Baby Boomers.
Here’s just a sample of her research:
- GenMe is not very religious: Only 18% of 18-29yo attend weekly religious services, and while few would label themselves non-believers, most prefer their faith unorganized.
- GenMe has high expectations of success, but few actually meet them: 75% of college freshman in 2003 desired an advanced degree, but only 4% will go on to receive a Ph.D. In 1999, teens also predicted they would be earning $75,000 at 30yo. The average income at that age that year? $27,000.
- GenMe has delayed traditional markers of adulthood: Average age of first marriage is 27 for men and 25 for women. “In 2002, 57% of men and 43% of women ages 22 to 31 lived with their parents.” And only 37% receive their bachelor’s degrees in four years.
- GenMe is house-poor: “The number of middle-class families who paid over 35% of their income toward the mortgage more than quadrupled between 1975 and 2001. With the median home now selling for $219,000 and the median family income at around $43,000, the average American family would need to spend 5 times their income to buy this home.”
- GenMe is buried in debt: “Average student loan debt has increased 85% in the last ten years alone; 66% of recent college graduates owe more than $10,000, and 5% own more than $100,000.” And that’s just undergrad!
- GenMe is risking its health: Only 25% of adults 25-34 have health insurance, and bankruptcies caused by illness or medical debt increased 2,200% between 1981 and 2001.
I’ll admit that after reading this information, you can feel so overwhelmed that you just want to give up. How can anyone survive with such a rapidly rising standard of living?
And even though over half my paycheck goes to rent, I’m lucky enough to have a Bachelor’s and Master’s with only a small student loan, a full-time job that provides health insurance and a 401(k), no credit card debt, and a family that supported me until I was able to find a place of my own.
That doesn’t mean that life can’t take it all away at any moment. Everyone is only one accident, illness, or layoff away from poverty. So I’d argue that these hard economic times mean that the majority of 20-somethings are working insanely hard to support themselves. Sure, there’s always freeloaders mooching off their parents or the government, but for a generation that doesn’t expect to receive Social Security, most try their hardest to move up the income ladder.
But times were tough in the old days too. So why is GenMe medicating depression and anxiety like never before? I’m so glad that Twenge pulled from this quote from “Fight Club,” because it explains the sentiment perfectly:
“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve been all raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
And it’s that gulf between expectation and reality that has GenMe miserable. Twenge discusses how telling kids that they can “achieve their dreams” because “anything is possible” is damaging. Inflating their self-esteem and giving them trophies just for participating has increased narcissism to rampant proportions.
Ask any teacher who’s been working for decades, like my mother. She has witnessed the decline of children’s behavior due to their parents treating them like special snowflakes who are perfect and can do no wrong. And there’s nothing a school can do when parents refuse to have their child held back a year or recognize their learning disabilities.
It seems harmless to let your children dress themselves or pick what they want to eat. But when parents forfeit all decision-making power, their kids grow up to be obnoxious princes and princesses.
And when they realize they’re not actually princes and princesses? They’re now part of a disgruntled, attention-deficit workforce, making employers frustrated by high turnover.
I’m not saying that all young adults are ungrateful brats. But too many are, and it’s giving GenMe a bad–but often deserved–reputation. Yet, it’s easy to point fingers, because who do you think raised us? The Baby Boomers and GenX are simply reaping what they sow.
So what can we all do? Twenge’s last chapter gives some suggestions for several groups:
- Employers: Recognize hard work and give praise when deserved; Offer good salaries, benefits, and flexible schedules; Establish paid maternal/paternal leave.
- Educators: Provide better career counseling; Create a system of public pre-schools; Change school hours to mirror working hours.
- Parents: Teach self-control and good behavior; Don’t automatically side with your child; Limit media exposure to violence.
- GenMe: Limit consumption of materialistic media; Avoid overthinking; Value social relationships; Cultivate realistic expectations; Get involved in your community.
I particularly love the idea of changing school hours because it would make afternoon day care unnecessary, keep kids from getting into trouble, and improve academic performance. Why adults start their day at 9am, but kids who need more sleep are forced to start at 7:30am boggles my mind!
Ultimately, I recommend Generation Me to anyone interested in generational research and would like to learn more about what it means for the future. Whether you’re 27 or 72, Twenge’s findings demonstrate that there is much to discover about how young Americans play a major role in society.