Nobody ever stands up for the ‘70s. Those years just sit there, a gloomy inward interregnum in between more exciting and definitive decades, with their bad music and bad presidents and frantic rush for the suburbs. Louis C.K. arranged his SNL monologue last Saturday around a description of how far we’ve come since the ‘70s. “A very racist decade,” the comedian pointed out, and one with terrible taste. (“Of course everybody liked McDonald’s. It was the ‘70s.”) Last Sunday night, Mad Men ended its run at the outset of the ‘70s, with an image of Don Draper “om”-ing at a self-improvement retreat on the edge of the Pacific and dreaming of a Coke commercial, with his shortcomings — narcissism, glibness, failed transcendence — bleeding into the decade’s.
That we think of the ‘70s like this — that in our memory it carries the imprint not just of a failure but of a navel-gazing failure, the Me Decade — owes something to Christopher Lasch, a famed public intellectual who grew malcontented throughout the ‘70s and, by its end, in 1979, published the book that gave the decade its title and made an allegation that the country, 35 years later, hasn’t quite been able to shake: the Culture of Narcissism. Americans were turning inward, Lasch wrote, preoccupied with therapy and consumption and devoted to cults of experts for advice on the most basic human matters — how to raise a child, how to orgasm. “A nation of fans, moviegoers … Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations.” The book, as opaque and embattled as the decade itself, was a phenomenon and a best seller. Soon Lasch was featured in People and flying to the White House to present a version of his argument to Jimmy Carter, who used it to inform his disastrous speech on cultural malaise. When we think of Carter now, he has some of the qualities of the decade itself: a quavering and hugely empathic figure, gifted with a deep feeling for the suffering of Americans but cursed with a profound uncertainty about how to relieve it.
This cultural self-loathing has come around again, because in the millennials, older people have tended to see the imprint of the 1970s — the self-absorption, the malaise. The “narcissism” charge has been raised often. The Narcissism Epidemic was the title of one popular psychology book about the generation; its follow-up was called Generation Me. The American Psychological Association published a compendium titled Narcissism and Machiavellianism in Youth. On the popular bookshelves, the tone was more apocalyptic still: “Generation iY: our last chance to save their future,” one boomer-aimed volume intoned. As Louis C.K.(him again!) said in his crowning rant, the country was being wasted on “the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.”
The story that these scholars tell about millennials is easy to overstate, but in its essence, it is that we as a people are becoming more individualist and lonely at the same time that we are growing more tolerant of difference. Civic participation has been declining as long as statistics have been kept. Americans are more likely to live alone. When the Pew Foundation commissioned a broad survey of American millennials and asked them a very basic question — whether they trusted other people — Pew’s surveyors found that only 19 percent said they did. Even so, the “crappiest generation of spoiled idiots” is also, by some measures, the least prejudiced in American history — more accepting of immigrants, more open to interracial marriage. This particular generation is also the best educated on record, and its members are surprisingly optimistic, about the country’s future and their own. Abstract from these particulars and you get a portrait of a generation in which group ties are weakening and individualism is hardening.
But the false note in all this talk about millennials has always been its insistence that something unique is happening in this generation. It’s true that America has been subject to a profound social atomization, but those trends go back more than half a century. With only a couple of historical blips, Americans have been migrating out of rural areas since the 1920s. The average American family has shed about a person since the middle of the 20th century, and the decline has persisted as far back as we can count. The much-hyped tolerance of millennials may simply be a function of the country’s growing diversity — a slow but steady decline in white America that goes back decades.
I had been poking through this research a little while ago and so I had some of it in mind last weekend, when I was watching Louis C.K. lambast the ‘70s and Don Draper ascend (or descend, depending upon your point of view) into their epitome. And I started to think that perhaps we’d misunderstood the ‘70s a bit. We think of the decade in Lasch’s terms, as the moment when this emerging society began to imprint itself into the American psyche, when a lonelier country became more narcissistic. But it seems to me that what may really have happened was simply that we recognized who we were. In some ways, the most telling fact about Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism is how many copies were sold — how many readers were ready to believe that American individualism had taken a pathological turn. That there was such a market for The Culture of Narcissism doesn’t prove that Americans were becoming narcissists. It proved that a great many of them were worried about narcissism in their midst. It proved that Americans knew themselves.
The paradox that Louis C.K. has been working in — that America has become more amazing since the 1970s while Americans have become so much more self-involved — isn’t so mysterious. The self-involvement and the improvement may be part of the same thing. In this there is something enticing about the image of Don Draper, on the decade’s cusp, sitting on the edge of the Pacific in a religious pose dreaming about Coke. What we got in the ‘70s — as a culture — wasn’t transcendence. It was something both lesser and truer: self-awareness.