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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Selfish Improvement

Young people today are supposed to be pretty hopeless. We’re self-involved, dependent slackers with no work ethic and no idea of how the world works. It’s an unforgiving assessment of things—but is it a truthful one?

The bleary-eyed late-night Facebook trawl is often a lonely exercise in self-loathing. Blogs are groomed and cultivated like digital bonsai. The compulsion to share the dull minutiae of everyday life via Instagram and Twitter is one a whole lot of smartphone-wielding people seem to share. We are now the curators of immaculate digital personas that we lavish attention on without really understanding why.

At the same time, never before in human history have a generation been so invested in self-betterment. Whether this be the transformation of universities into what is for most people a well-attended finishing school that nebulously qualifies graduates for jobs in tenuously related fields, or the thirsty market for self-help books that promise to answer all of the darkest questions posed by modern life.

One response would be that this is because often, this sort of behaviour is the only immediately apparent way out of what can often appear to be a stark future with bleak prospects.

Another, and this is the one that seems to be picked up on the most, would point to these behaviours as proof that the youth of today are relentlessly self-obsessed. The claim is that young people are a legion of unknowing narcissists, raised to believe in the unrealistic myth that they are special in a way that others aren’t—that they can achieve anything if they would only try hard enough. This may or may not be true, and it is hard to sift out the reality of it all among the sometimes-vitriolic fugue of intergenerational resentment.

This begs the question—is there something about our generation that is uniquely self-involved? Or are we just living in a world that poses challenges that haven’t been tackled before?

Ironically, a lot of this is probably rooted in an important shift in language that began with our parents. Most bizarrely, and perhaps most importantly, we talk about the ‘self’ like it is a tangible thing. The self has its own moods, is tax-deductible and has a holiday home in the Sounds. This language took hold in the late 20th century, and now we swallow it without question. Certain sayings, which actually pose a series of wildly complicated existential questions, are bandied about like they make sense. The imperative to “Be true to yourself!” for instance, implies that you know what the self is. We refer to the ‘self’ like it is another person. This is marketed to by almost everything as well. Even Victoria University’s ‘Know Your Mind’ campaign preys on the idea that we all have untapped potential while managing to be almost total nonsense (seriously, what does it mean?) In her book Generation Me, Jean Twenge notes that the past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in the use of ‘self’ words—I, me, mine—and a corresponding drop in collective words—humanity, community, crowd.

This fixation with the self is typified by the idea of ‘self-help’. This movement isn’t limited to wild-eyed mothers wielding five-year-olds who can recite Hamlet in Aramaic, or dewy-eyed yoga enthusiasts eating, praying and loving their way across the world on package holidays in comfortable shoes.

Marc Wilson, Psychology lecturer at Victoria University, says that, “in the United States, more self-help books are published each year than cookbooks (it wasn’t always this way).” Indeed, the self-help genre is seemingly the only sector of publishing that isn’t withering away. Americans spend upwards of $8 billion on them annually. “Self-help and pop psychology are increasingly popular, and it might even be argued that the focus on positive psychology (focussing on the things that promote happiness) might even contribute to this.”

The self-help industry is a big one. Kathryn Schulz, writing for New York magazine, described it as an “$11 billion dollar industry”. What’s popular right now? Apart from the more expected fare—lose weight if you want to have more sex, et al., among the best sellers on Amazon.com are a cocktail of tomes specifically catering to narcissists. For instance, on the main self-help page, you can find Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life by Linda Martinez-Lewi, which warns that “high-level narcissism can spell devastation for anyone who crosses the narcissist’s path.”

The ‘self-help’ classification isn’t limited to books, though. Zumba classes, 12-step group therapy and a catalogue of helpful (but ultimately complicating) smartphone apps, all appeal to the self-diagnosis of problems. If you buy the right things, you’ll make yourself better. Or, in other words, you might have problems but they aren’t really your fault; if you find the right cosmic panacea for them then you’ll be able to fix them.

Is there an explanation for this? It might be in Wilson’s explanation that “…we are more individualistic (as a society) now than previously. Look around your neighbourhood and watch as the fences between sections keep going up.” So, perhaps the answer is in the way we think about self-improvement. Is it predicated on the secretly held idea that we are actually rather marvellous?

The idea of the self is a seductive one, and what it really means is that we conceive of two selves: the one that is afflicted by the problem (our conscious self), and the self that has the ability to fix it. It gives us the confidence that regardless of how much difficulty we are having with losing weight or exercising or eating right, if we can locate this better version of ourselves we’ll be fine.

In this sense, all self-help is bogus. It functions by providing answers to problems that you probably didn’t have in the first place. You want to lose ten kilograms? Well, you can’t until you forgive your mother!

And this, perhaps, is where self-help and narcissism collide. They encourage self-diagnosis by providing both the symptoms and the prognosis. They appeal to the narcissist’s belief that their failings are not due to their own actions, but because they do not have the correct forms within which to express and impress. I’m OK, You’re OK—the book that stayed on The New York Times] Best Seller list for three years in the early ‘70s, and is largely responsible for the unrelenting torrent of popular psychology released upon a public thirsty for it ever since—does just this, by offering a simple set of steps to producing more out of life without having to really work for it.

But there we have it—the ‘70s. Our parents. These days, it is hard to imagine a 22-year-old reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus on the bus without a red face. The ‘me generation’ enjoyed a brief period of use to describe that generation, but now the children of today are allegedly far worse.

The assertion that ‘millennials’ are uninhibited egotists became the stuff of much debate when Time magazine published a feature titled ‘The Me Generation’. In it, writer Joel Stein used a barrage of data to argue that millennials are stunted, self-interested, and wildly narcissistic. He pointed to statistics about the way young people are living their lives as proof that they are dependent on the hard work of their beatific parents to support themselves.

“More people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80 per cent of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60 per cent did.”

Well, that’s very interesting, but the world of 1992 is quite a different one to the world of 2013. For instance, information from Statistics New Zealand shows that apart from a brief period between 2004 and 2009, New Zealand’s growth in labour productivity has (sometimes by a large margin) outstripped the share in GDP per capita. In the US, the productivity of the economy has grown steadily since 1945, while wages have remained more or less the same since the mid-’70s. This growth in productivity doesn’t come from the herculean efforts of the over-50s alone. People are working harder than ever. It’s just that the benefits of that labour don’t end up in the hands of the people producing it. Criticising young people for living at home, among other things, seems incredibly unfair.

Understanding ‘generational shifts’ is a fixation that is not limited to today. Moral panics arising out of a fear that the children of the age were too selfish are really pretty commonplace. This isn’t the first time that Time magazine has engaged in a little intergenerational scaremongering. Its July cover in 1990 depicted Gen X “twentysomethings” as marriage-dodging, responsibility-shirking losers who would inevitably fail to live up to the grandiose legacy of their baby-boomer parents.

The murky world of intergenerational psychiatry makes this more complicated. It is hard to see how powerfully the experiences of our parents affect us, whether regardless or inclusive of our own experiences. The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are overrepresented in referrals to clinical psychiatrists by a terrifying 300 per cent, and while that is an example of almost useless hyperbole, it does pose the question as to whether there is something in all of us that we borrow from the experiences of those who raised us. For many young people, their parents come from a time unique in history, whether this meant a well-paying job for life or free tertiary education (although this is a blanket assumption). Is it hard to believe that children raised by parents who themselves grew up in a world where the parameters of success were more within reach would in turn want the same thing? It’s not their fault that they look a little silly in the process.

One of the foci of Joel Stein’s article is his claim that his alleged narcissism epidemic is provable. The article’s opening paragraph gleefully screams that “the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s not 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health.” Taken at face value, this is frightening. Narcissistic personality disorder is a scary cocktail of words, suggesting that those afflicted are non-functional cadavers whose only interest is themselves. The science behind this claim, however, is slippery.

In an article produced for the American Psychological Association by Sadie Dingfelder, it is pointed out that there are too many holes in the data surrounding this disorder to be making bold claims about it. A study published in a 2010 edition of Perspectives on Psychological Science measured some of narcissistic personality disorder’s related factors, like egoism, self-esteem, individualism and the importance of social status. 50,000 American high-school students were involved. The result? On paper, the class of 2006 looked much like the class of 1976. The authors of the paper, Brent W. Roberts. Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva, argue that there isn’t any reason to think there are more narcissists now compared to 40 years ago. The gaps, they argue, are between age groups. In other words, while young people appear to be prone to being overly self-involved, by and large, they grow out of it.

In a 2011 paper on age-differentiated narcissism in New Zealand, Wilson and Chris Sibley of the University of Auckland point out that narcissistic personality disorder was, at the time, likely to be removed from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a distinct condition. While this ultimately didn’t happen, it is interesting to note that the disorder offers continued problems for those wanting to define it. The question still remains, is it really a clinical condition, or is it just a personality trait?

Well, uncomfortable as it might be to admit it, narcissism is definitely a thing. While Wilson says that “…there is research to show that young people are typically more self-involved than their parents,” and that, “at the same time, young people today are more self-involved than previous generations of young people,” a more prescient and convincing point is made when he says, paraphrasing Twenge, that, “it’s cute to put your toddler in a ‘Little Princess’ T-shirt, but what are you really telling them?” I remember my high-school History teacher looking at us squarely and saying that he would never tell his infant son that he could “do anything”, because, as far as he was concerned, this would be a cruel untruth. At the time, we thought that this was monstrous. It has to be admitted, however, that good parenting is now synonymous with fostering the possibly unachievable in children.

Whatever the case, the truth about the ‘millennials’, or whatever you’d prefer to call them, is that there is a mythologised ideal of the perfect you. Perhaps your Facebook page is an avatar of that ideal. Drawing a parallel between the seemingly divorced realms of your digital life and the murky world of popular psychology might seem nonsensical, but in many ways, the two things seem interchangeable. They both pander to this strange metaphor we’ve constructed to help us deal with things—a persona that is both the source of and the solution to our problems.

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