ink-stained wretches

‘The Me Me Me Generation’ vs. ‘The Me Decade’

Joel Stein’s already-much-derided Time cover story, “The ME ME ME Generation,” begins with an ostensibly self-aware but un-redeeming disclosure: “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow,” he writes. “But I have studies! I have statistics!” he adds, with exclamation marks that call to mind Tom Wolfe, whose own “The Me Decade” covered this magazine in 1976. Stein never approaches the insight or originality of the story to which his title alludes, opting instead for a limp bait-and-switch, which Time gives away on the cover: “Millenials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live their their parents. Why they’ll save us all.”

Instead of leaving it at that tweet-size oversimplification, Stein cherry-picks silly studies, throws in a personal essay, and arrives at the same oversimplification with bonus flabby optimism (paywalled). But first, he “proves” the first part of his point: “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older … They are fame-obsessed … And they are lazy” — insert percentages. Why?

They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one. The Industrial Revolution made individuals far more powerful–they could move to a city, start a business, read and form organizations. The information revolution has further empowered individuals by handing them the technology to compete against huge organizations: hackers vs. corporations, bloggers vs. newspapers, terrorists vs. nation-states, YouTube directors vs. studios, app-makers vs. entire industries. Millennials don’t need us. That’s why we’re scared of them.

The above section, too, echoes Wolfe, who, in taking on the “New Great Awakening,” wrote:

Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. […] Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century—such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx—lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grinding drudgery.

Stein eventually goes on to implicate himself, undermining the initial argument:

It’s highly possible that I’m a particularly lame 41-year-old, but still, none of these traits are new to millennials; they’ve been around at least since the Reformation, when Martin Luther told Christians they didn’t need the church to talk to God, and became more pronounced at the end of the 18th century in the Romantic period, when artists stopped using their work to celebrate God and started using it to express themselves. […]

In fact, a lot of what counts as typical millennial behavior is how rich kids have always behaved. The Internet has democratized opportunity for many young people, giving them access and information that once belonged mostly to the wealthy.

More than 30 years ago, Wolfe wrote:

The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self … and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!) This had always been an aristocratic luxury, confined throughout most of history to the life of the courts, since only the very wealthiest classes had the free time and the surplus income to dwell upon this sweetest and vainest of pastimes. It smacked so much of vanity, in fact, that the noble folk involved in it always took care to call it quite something else.

Much of the satisfaction well-born people got from what is known historically as the “chivalric tradition” was precisely that: dwelling upon Me and every delicious nuance of my conduct and personality.

Whereas Wolfe’s “Me movements” had “begun in a flood of ecstasy, achieved through LSD and other psychedelics, orgy, dancing (the New Sufi and the Hare Krishna), meditation, and psychic frenzy (the marathon encounter),” Stein runs through the obvious: participation trophies, Kardashians, and the Internet (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook). Wolfe’s storytelling about the goopy meld of sex, religion, and self-obsession still reads as lively, while Stein, covering similar psychological terrain, is already trite. The setup is the same as its always been — What’s with these young people? — but the fun for the reader should be in connecting the dots with scene and character, Wolfe’s specialties, not Stein’s rehashed pop sociology and a hopeful quote from Tom Brokaw.

Wolfe concluded, “They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead — who can presume to say?” Stein writes, in a similar if more sappy tone, “So, yes, we have all that data about narcissism and laziness and entitlement. But a generation’s greatness isn’t determined by data; it’s determined by how they react to the challenges that befall them.” But on generational narcissism, only one article by a self-indulgent writer stands up, and it’s the old one.