Posted on July 18, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology |
I figured it was time for a sensational headline, and I finally found a topic worthy of one. The opinion section of the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting article this past Sunday entitled “Too much self-esteem spoils your child.” In it, Andrew Lam of New America Media comments on the level of narcissism that exists within Generation Y (also known as the “MySpace Generation”) and provides an intriguing cultural comparison:
Take Jeong-Hyun Lim, 24-year-old business student in Seoul. Popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, his rock rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon inD” has turned him into a global phenomenon. Lim’s dizzying sweep-picking — sounding and muting notes at breakneck speed — has had some viewers calling him a second Jimi Hendrix. His video, uploaded by someone on YouTube has been viewed 24 million times so far.
But Funtwo is self-effacing, a baseball cap covering much of his face. No one knew who he was until Virginia Heffernan wrote about him in the New York Times last August. She called his “anti-showmanship” “distinctly Asian,” adding that “sometimes an element of flat-out abjection even enters into this act, as though the chief reason to play guitar is to be excoriated by others.”
Some in the West with this kind of media spotlight and Internet following would hire an agent and make a CD. But Lim told Heffernan, “I am always thinking that I’m not that good a player and must improve more than now.” In another interview, he rated his playing around 50 or 60 out of 100.
Lim’s modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: “Who is not satisfied with himself will grow.” In a classic 1992 study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in Taiwan, China, Japan and the United States. It showed a yawning gap in self-perception between East and West. Asian students outperformed their American counterparts, but when they were asked to evaluate their performances, American students evaluated themselves significantly higher than those from Asia. “In other words, they combined a lousy performance with a high sense of self-esteem,” noted Nina H. Shokraii, author of “School Choice 2000: What’s Happening in the States,” in an essay called “The Self Esteem Fraud.”
The article points out that a 2006 study found that two-thirds of college students who took a Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation had above average scores, representing a 30% increase since 1982. This growth is linked with the “self-esteem movement” that teaches American children that “I am special.” The result has been “super-sized American egos.”
San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge, author of “,” believes that this self-esteem movement has resulted in the “MySpace Generation.”
Certainly, it would be naive to argue that Web 2.0 services like MySpace are the cause of this problem. The self-esteem movement started long before Web 2.0. But I would argue that Web 2.0 services like MySpace and YouTube have served as a sort of positive feedback loop, fueling the increasing narcissism of America’s youth. After all, these services make it so easy to show off “what you’ve got,” to express your “individualism” and to scream “look at me!” Web 2.0 is literally a narcissist’s wet dream. Before, only the people you knew could be reminded on a constant basis how great you are; now you can now tell the world.
So what does this all mean and why should we care? The United States faces some of the most crucial economic challenges it has ever faced. Countries like India and China are now hubs of innovation and China in particular is on a fast track to become the world’s economic superpower. The amount of wealth being created overseas is staggering and much of that wealth creation is coming from the transfer of our wealth (i.e. foreigners fund a huge portion of our debt and are increasingly acquiring American companies). The dollar is sinking, reflecting declining confidence in the United States economically and politically.
I think narcissism plays a major role in this and I believe that Generation Y is ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. In fact, its philosophies are likely to make the situation worse.
Take, for instance, the impact Generation Y is having, and will continue to have, on American business. A number of articles have been written about Generation Y as it enters the workforce. Fortune published an interesting one that noted:
When it comes to Gen Y’s intangible characteristics, the lexicon is less than flattering. Try “needy,” “entitled.” Despite a consensus that they’re not slackers, there is a suspicion that they’ve avoided that moniker only by creating enough commotion to distract from the fact that they’re really not that into “work.”
Never mind that they often need an entire team - and a couple of cheerleaders - to do anything. For some of them the concept “work ethic” needs rethinking. “I had a conversation with the CFO of a big company in New York,” says Tamara Erickson, co-author of the 2006 book “Workforce Crisis,” “and he said, ‘I can’t find anyone to hire who’s willing to work 60 hours a week. Can you talk to them?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t I start by talking to you? What they’re really telling you is that they’re sorry it takes you so long to get your work done.’”
And though Gen Yers will eventually have to grow up - like all of us, they’ll lose their parents, face layoffs and suffer insane bosses - they are stretching the transition to adulthood well into their 20s. “If we don’t like a job, we quit,” says Jason Ryan Dorsey, the 28-year-old author of 2007’s “My Reality Check Bounced!,” “because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There’s no stigma, and many of us grew up with both parents working, so our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf.” It’s a position borne out by the numbers; 73 percent of Pew’s respondents said they see their parents at least once a week, and half do so daily, a fact that, however sweet, sort of makes you want to download “Rebel Without a Cause.”
With this level of parental involvement, it’s a miracle that Gen Yers can do anything on their own. “It’s difficult to start making decisions when you haven’t been making decisions your whole life,” says Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and president of consulting firm Joining Forces. He points to one of his recent projects at a software development company. His client, which had one health-care plan, was acquired by a bigger firm that offered five more.
“The twentysomething software developers were up in arms about having to choose,” Marks says. “That was their No. 1 issue - not ‘Will I lose my job?’ or ‘Will there be a culture clash?’ but this -because they were just so put off that they were put in what they viewed as a very stressful situation.” One can’t help but wonder how stressed they’d be with no health insurance at all.
But even for the Gen Yers who try in earnest to succeed, Marks says, the way they’ve been raised can still be detrimental: “They’ve been made to feel so special, and that is totally counter to the whole concept of corporations.”
Gen Yers still respond most of all to money. There’s no fooling them about it; they’re so connected that it’s not unusual for them to know what every major company in a given field is offering. And they don’t want to be given short shrift - hence the frightening tales of 22-year-olds making six-figure salary requests for their first jobs. One could chalk that up to their materialism and party-people mentality, but author Erickson has a different take. “They have to get some money flowing because they have a lot of debt to pay,” she says.
No one joins a company hoping to do the same job forever. But these days even your neighborhood bartender or barista aspires to own the place someday. What’s more, the ties that have bound members of this age group to jobs in the past - spouse, kids, mortgage - are today often little more than glimmers in their parents’ eyes. So if getting Gen Yers to join a company is a challenge, getting them to stay is even harder.
Dorsey - who in true Gen Y style dropped out of college to write an earlier book, “Graduate to Your Perfect Job,” without having either graduated or gotten a job - recommends starting small. Business cards are an easy way to make young employees feel valued. Letting them shadow older employees helps, as does inviting them to a management meeting now and then. And marking milestones is major, says Dorsey. No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.
Admittedly, I’ve cherry picked the worst of the article. As a member of Generation Y myself, I don’t think Generation Y is all bad. But the philosophy that is popular with members of Generation Y often consists of:
- An overestimation of your skills and hence an overestimation of your importance to your employer. This is often reflected in the attitude that an employer should inherently know how special you are and therefore you shouldn’t have to prove anything before being given a path for increased responsibility, rapid advancement and a big paycheck. After all, you’ve been told that you’re brilliant your whole life. You were an honors student in high school, nailed the SATs and graduated magna cum laude from a top university. Unfortunately, Thomas J. Stanley, author of “” found that most of the 1,300 millionaires he surveyed for his book were B and C students in college, didn’t attend an Ivy League university and more interestingly, had often been told that they didn’t have what it takes to succeed. Very few credited pure intelligence with their success; they instead credited “being honest and disciplined, getting along with people, having a supportive spouse and working hard.”
- An unwillingness to put in long, hard hours of work. Members of Generation Y love the wealth and material possessions that have typically been the product of hard work, but seem disconnected from the reality that the hard work actually produced these things. A quick note to Generation Y’ers planning to make billions before they turn 35 (especially those in the Silicon Valley): a quick browse through the Forbes list of richest individuals has a lot more old men than it does young men. In fact, one of the things the millionaires Thomas J. Stanley surveyed for his book had in common was a willingness to work harder than the average person.
- No loyalty to anybody other than yourself. One of the best ways to get noticed and to forge strong relationships with people who can assist you is to be willing to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for somebody else (or the company as a whole).
- The expectation that your employer should entertain you. Obviously it’s not advisable to take on a job that you find boring, but it’s not an employer’s obligation to make sure you’re “having a good time.” If you become an accountant, for instance, and find that crunching numbers is less-than-exciting, you made a bad career decision and your employer shouldn’t have to pay for your mistake.
- The belief that when the going gets tough, it’s time to quit. This, of course, stems from the fact that many Generation Y’ers have been provided with everything on a silver platter. Their parents never forced them to deal with challenges and thus they often cower in the fact of adversity.
- The expectation that you can achieve anything and an inability to deal with the cold, hard realities of life. Not everything can be achieved, and while opportunity for material success is great, not everybody is going to be materially successful because a lot of other people are gunning for the top too.
- The belief that idealism trumps pragmatism. Many Generation Y’ers are extremely impractical. They don’t have a realistic grasp as to how the world operates and expect their idealistic notions to be implemented immediately. For instance, with little real-world experience and a sheltered upbringing, what makes any Generation Y’er believe that he or she can tell the CEO of a major multinational corporation how he or she should be running the business? Idealism is not bad, but Generation Y’ers fail to recognize that most changes in entrenched structures are gradual and that you most often have to work through existing hierarchies to effect change.
No matter how you spin it, none of these philosophies borne of the self-esteem movement are good for the United States economy even if Generation Y does have unique “capabilities.” In the global marketplace, the United States faces competition from nations that have risen from second and third-class status because their cultures supported an approach that Generation Y’ers would immediately dismiss.
At the end of the day, many members of Generation Y are ill-equipped to survive in a global marketplace that is highly-competitive and cares little for the individual. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and for Generation Y’ers in the United States who think they are above-average and going to change the world by the age of 30, the news is not promising: of the more than 6 billion people who reside on this planet, many are smarter than you, more mature and most importantly, because of the challenging circumstances they faced growing up, more hungry and willing to put in the hard work required for success. Their values and priorities are different, and they probably didn’t have mommy and daddy around to support them and tell them just how great they are. In many cases, these people don’t simply carry their individual dreams and aspirations on their backs; they often carry the dreams and aspirations of an entire nation on their backs. Call their nations communist, socialist, authoritarian, dictatorships and just downright “backwards.” I’ll call them what they are: our new owners.
In the one minute it takes you to view the photo gallery of a guy on MySpace flexing his muscles in front of his new souped-up Cadillac Escalade (leased, of course) or to watch a girl on YouTube “shaking what her mama gave her” to a Shakira tune, our national debt increased by over $1 million. Much of the money used to finance this debt comes from foreign investors. Web 2.0 may not have created the narcissism beast that I think is contributing to the economic decline of the United States, but it’s certainly feeding it one MySpace profile at a time, one YouTube video at a time.
By the time you finish watching this video, the United States will have added over $2 million to the national debt. That’s money that we, and our children, will pay back one way or the other at some point in the future, most likely sooner than later.
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