The me Decade and the Turn to the Right
Respected commentatoss Tom Wolfe, Christopher Lasch, and Lester Thurow, who wrote about the seventies as they were happening, believed that the rights revolution demonstrated what was wrong with the era. People clamoring for their rights were acting in a self-absorbed, hedonistic, narcissistic, selfish, and uncompromising manner. The rights revolution represented a retreat away from the social purpose that marked the liberal postwar era. It was less about improving the whole society and more about one part of America gaining an advantage over another in a slow-growth economy in which one person's victory meant another person's loss. The rights revolution meshed at the personal level with the rush to join self-help and human-potential movements, such things as psychotherapy, existential philosophy, Scientology, and EST, which asked people to expend energy on themselves rather than on one another.1
These respected critics, who proclaimed the seventies “the Me Decade,” a culture of narcissism, and the zero-sum society, were on to something. They correctly picked up on the bleak economic prospects of the seventies and on the fact that baby boomers in their twenties, concerned about finding their way in a difficult job market and beginning their families, turned inward. The result was self-absorption, which implied a lack of social purpose and a disengagement from public affairs.
At the same time, the critics also missed a great deal. What some saw as selfish acts of self-protection were to others altruistic gestures to make a better future for their children. Group conflict, by its very nature, also produced group solidarity and led to an engagement with civic affairs.2