An Army of Narcissists? Inflated Egos Born of Self-Esteem Talk, Professor Contends

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 11, 2006 | Go to article overview
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An Army of Narcissists? Inflated Egos Born of Self-Esteem Talk, Professor Contends


Byline: Cheryl Wetzstein, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A few weeks ago, U.S. champion skier Bode Miller turned in a stunningly poor performance at the Olympics,

with two non-medal finishes, a disqualification and two incomplete races.

Unabashed, he told the Associated Press: "I just did it my way. I'm not a martyr, and I'm not a do-gooder. I just want to go out and rock. And man, I rocked here."

Mr. Miller's exuberant self-assessment makes him "a poster child" for "Generation Me," says San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge.

Americans born after 1970 - including the so-called Generation X and Millennial Generation - have become "an army of little narcissists," says Mrs. Twenge, who explains her views in her new book, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before."

Unlike their parents and grandparents, "GenMes" have "never known a world that put duty before self," she says. Instead, they were raised in a culture obsessed with self-esteem and feel-good mantras such as "Believe in yourself, and you can be anything" and "Never give up on your dreams."

The result is a generation of youths who are tolerant, confident, open-minded, ambitious - and have wildly unreasonable expectations about how they fit into the adult world.

"They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous," Mrs. Twenge says.

But when reality hits, and they don't get the coveted college placement or high-paying job, or they discover the high costs of housing and health care, many members of Generation Me crash emotionally, she says.

Among Americans who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars, between 1 percent and 2 percent experienced a major depressive episode in their lifetime, says Mrs. Twenge, who bases her book on decades of generational data. Suicide was more common among middle-aged people, not young people.

Today, the lifetime rate for major depression is between 15 percent and 20 percent, an increase too large to be explained by improved case reporting, she says. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, while rates have dropped for the middle-aged.

Why should Generation Me feel so much anxiety and pain when it has grown up in relative peace and technological and economic expansion? A big part of the answer is the constant focus on the self, Mrs. Twenge says. "[W]hen we are fiercely independent and self-sufficient, our disappointments loom large because we have nothing else to focus on."

She recommends social changes that support two-parent working families, such as paid parental leave, public preschools, tax deductions for child care, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. school hours.

But her most urgent advice is "ditch the self-esteem movement." Praise based on nothing results in an inflated ego, she says.

Some people think Mrs. Twenge's ideas sound like "stinking thinking."

Despite its critics, self-esteem training and character education "are both alive and kicking," says Sharon Fountain, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE).

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