When it comes to grasping the big picture of what is doing on in culture, the single-most important book I have read in the last thirty years is Robert Bellah’s famous Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
. (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community
But I have to put next to Bellah’s book the devastatingly insightful Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before
by Jean Twenge. I spend my time reading this in two poses: totally engulfed in what she says and staring into space pondering the implications of her conclusions.
I believe every parent, every youth pastor, every college professor, and every pastor ought to buy this book, read it, and then hold a series of conversations with others about (1) what it says and (2) what we can do to change the course of culture. This book is that important.
It is fashionable for 40 somethings and 50 somethings and 60 somethings and up to 90 somethings to decry the condition of our youth. So, it would be a complete mistake to read this book looking for ammunition to judge the 20somethings and 30somethings. By the way, iGens are 18-35 yr olds. One of Twenge’s observations is that the Boomers, formerly called the Me Generation, produced iGens or Generation Me. What we did is what iGens will do — only they’ll probably ramp it up some and that’s not good.
Twenge could have done some scolding of Boomers and could have done some figuring out what to do about the problems we’ve got, but her approach is to describe and decry. And she does this very, very well … and that’s all we need in order to create a conversation.
Here’s why this book is so signfiicant: Twenge and her associates have done longitudinal studies on tests taken for the last forty or fifty years and she has been able to observe major trends and shifts in such things as self-perceptions. And the results are showing increases in self-importance, leading not only to self-esteem but also narcissism. Here is her major conclusion:
iGens “speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue” (2). But it is also a time of “soaring expectations and crushing realities.”
She also thinks when you were born may have more influence than the family who reared you. (She uses “raised” but I don’t.)
“GenMe is not self-absorbed: we’re self-important” (4). She’s one of them. This is not the same as spoiled or selfish.
One more: “we enjoy unprecedented freedom to pursue what makes us happy” (5).
Can’t resist; she quotes her mom: “In the early 1960s, most people would have said the most important things were being honest, hardworking, industrious, loyal, and caring about others. I can’t even remember thinking about whether I was ‘happy’. That’s not to say we weren’t happy — we just didn’t focus on it.” Then she quotes an iGen: “I just try to do whatever will make me happier, and think of myself first” (11). The two quotes express the central theses of Twenge.
This stuff is alarming. It’s our world. What can we do?