Millennials: Are They Narcissists or Survivors?

The Economist has a review of a book called The Road to Character by David Brooks. The book seems to be part of a long tradition of books lamenting the younger generation’s lack of values. Such books have been published for centuries and they always find an audience. I remember one that was a huge best seller when I was a young person, The Book of Virtues by William Bennett.

I will admit I have not read Brooks’ book– I only learned of its existence today. The Economist says it is “not reactionary.” It may not be. My responses here are to the review rather than the book itself.

The review cites these statistics:

American teenagers who believe themselves to be “very important” jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as “I like to look at my body” and “Somebody should write a biography about me”, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago.

On its face, it seems as though young people are a little bit full of themselves. But I would like to question the premise that these responses are the result of narcissism. Rather, I think they should be understood as socially normative responses; The type of replies that they have been taught they should make in order to survive and thrive in the world. Consider this paragraph that contrasts the “Oprah generation” with a hero of an earlier generation:

The ultimate sin, for the Oprah generation, is to be repressed. Nonsense, says Mr Brooks. Dwight Eisenhower spent his life repressing his inner self, and it helped the Allies win the second world war. He “spent the nights staring at the ceiling, racked by insomnia and anxiety, drinking and smoking”. Yet “he put on a false front of confident ease and farm-boy garrulousness” to raise the troops’ morale.

Brooks accepts that Eisenhower’s public pose was different from his inner self.  He was full of anxiety, but he never showed it. I would like to make the case that the supposedly narcissistic young people may also be “putting on a false front of confident ease.” They, too, repress their inner selves. But what do they repress? The things that are most taboo in our culture, of course. Those are lack of ambition, pessimism and not displaying confidence and self-worth.

Some time ago I wrote in this blog: “Our true religion in America is the one that says that success in any venture is possible if you have enough optimism and marketing savvy.  If you fail, therefore, it can only mean you did not have enough of one or the other.”

Let me tell you, if you have not demonstrated ambition, hard work, and selling yourself you will find little sympathy and a lot of shaming if you do not have money and career success.

One of the first things that jumped into my mind as I was reading about these poll results was the Dove beauty campaign that so annoys me. In its latest incarnation it essentially shames women for not expressing enough confidence about their physical appearance. (Questioning the premise of the ad led to one reporter being forced to resign from BuzzFeed.)

Not being confident is presented, day in and day out, as a barrier to success, a personal tragedy and even as a deep moral failing linked with a lack of ambition. The thing about selling yourself is that it can always be said that you did not do enough and therefore it is your fault (and not the fault of the system) that you’re not doing as well as your parents’ generation did. It’s not that the middle class is shrinking, kids, you’re just not marketing yourself enough. Get out there and try harder.

I wrote this a while back in reference to the minimum wage debate, and I think it bears repeating.

…It is not only that we take pride in having a society that gives people the opportunity and tools to do better if they choose.  We make self-improvement a moral imperative and failure to do so an ethical failing worthy of shunning and shaming.  If there is one thing an American is supposed to do, it is to keep pushing and striving to reach a higher level.

The “false front of confidence” has never been more important for making a living. In the 1950s, no one was talking about “personal branding.” There was still an expectation that businesses wanted to hold on to talent. Businesses would pay for training and education. They would nurture people with skills and reward them for loyalty. This is not the world we live in today. Each person is a free agent. Your skills, and just as important your ability to talk up your skills must be portable. “Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials,” screams a headline in Forbes. That means constant job interviews. “I would say my biggest shortcoming is that I am too much of a perfectionist. I will never rest until everything is perfect.”

Workers today know they could be laid off at any time – after all, they saw it happen to their parents – so they plan defensively and essentially consider themselves “free agents.

If that freedom seems an undue privilege, think again. The downside to the freedom they enjoy is financial insecurity worse than any other generation in the past half-century. That’s a sufficient price to pay.

So while Baby Boomers started working with an eye on gaining stability, raising a family, and “settling down,” today’s young workers take none of that for granted.

It is a dog-eat-dog world where income inequality is huge and growing. Those labelled “the best and brightest” get astronomical bonuses and golden parachutes when they fail. The nation where any kid could grow up to be president has become the world where any kid who can raise billions of dollars on the strength of his image can be president. So how do you get to be one of the best and brightest? How do you put yourself in the position of being able to raise billions of dollars?

It is not by being shy about your talents.

Even writers, who have historically been depressive, socially awkward, near hermits now have to prove that they will do well in television interviews and that they have large twitter followings in order to get book contracts.

The Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. No longer do young people have to be accepted by gatekeepers. They can manufacture and sell their product straight to consumers. They can make their own independent films that people can download on line. They can write a book and do print on demand. They don’t have to write for newspapers they can be citizen journalists with their own blog. This is all good, because the big companies consolidated so much that they welcome very few unknown people into their ranks. Random House, David Brooks publisher, focuses on the established and the famous, the people who are going to shift big units.

So let’s return to the Economist’s review:

With the rise in self-regard has come an unprecedented yearning for fame. In a survey in 1976, people ranked being famous 15th out of 16 possible life goals. By 2007, 51% of young people said it was one of their principal ambitions.

Think about that statistic with the state of industry as I just described it in mind.

I will use the example of publishing because it is the field that I know best. The traditional publishing world is now dominated by four huge publishers. They put out books by Justin Beiber, Jessica Alba and Snooki. (And make them best sellers.) Not only is it harder to get a book by a non-celeb published it is harder to make money in the ebook era if you do. (That is, unless you’ve written 50 Shades of Gray, which is apparently now the best selling book of all time in England.) David Brooks is of an older generation (than the Millennials) and was fortunate enough to have built a reputation for himself before newspapers started tanking and publishers started condensing.

So if you are not already famous, or already a best-selling author with one of the biggies, your best bet is either to become famous enough for them to notice you or to publish the book yourself and use the wonders of social media to market it. How do you have any chance of breaking through the din and selling a self-published book? (Most self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies.)  The conventional wisdom is that you have to sell yourself, make people love your winning personality.  If you don’t have the upfront capital to publish a book yourself– there is a high barrier to entry for those without a lot of money– maybe you can do a Kickstarter campaign. Of course most Kickstarter campaigns fail, but yours can succeed if you really go out there and persuade everyone that your idea is brilliant!

Why do so many young people want to be famous? Because it seems to be one of the main gateways into a career these days.

When young people are asked directly “are you wonderful?” they say, “yes.” The real question is: do they answer “yes” because they think they are wonderful or because they are afraid of the consequences of answering any other way?

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