Generation Us: Where Joel Stein Went Wrong
In the cover story for the latest issue of TIME Magazine called “The Me Me Me Generation,” Joel Stein offers an altogether tired opinion of Millenials that we’ve all heard before: we’re socially stunted, entitled, whiny, don’t value hard-work, are obsessed with technology to the point of severing any real social connections, and qualify as having narcissistic personality disorder in higher multitudes than any other generation.
On top of that, to show just how informed about us he really is, Stein also produced a video to accompany the article in which he attempts to “live like a Millenial,” which apparently consists of sending approximately 30 texts a day, most of which are “sexts,” banal and unending Gchat conversations and/or status updates, an idolization of Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham, taking “selfies” at every opportunity, checking your cell phone immediately upon waking and a refusal to own a landline.
Oh, where do I start.
While I’m sure it does happen, I don’t know anyone who has ever sent any amount of texts that even nears 30 in one day. I’m still not entirely clear on what sexting even is, let alone ever tried it myself. I hate Taylor Swift, and find Lena Dunham to actually be a little hackneyed and irritating (yes, girls do gross things, too; got it). I only tend to use Gchat when talking to friends who live far away or, shockingly, for work. I know scant few people who update Facebook more than once every few days. Most importantly, I have never, nor will I ever, take a “selfie.”
Granted, he has a point with the phone thing, but a.) we check our phones immediately upon waking because it’s also our alarm clock, and b.) we don’t have landline because… why would we?
But, that’s the frou-frou stuff, anyways. Stein’s indictment of our generation isn’t just built around his bizarre distortions of youth culture, but, as he puts it “I have studies! I have statistics!”
So, you ask with bated breath, what is this damning evidence of how horrible we all are? Well, as you might expect, his evidence has about as much intellectual credence as that Loose Change documentary or a birther convention. Stein writes:
Their development is stunted: 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 percent of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60 percent did.
Spot the problem in that logic?
Apparently, the fact that the economy is so terrible that many of us have had to move in with our parents (and I’m sure any Millenial in that position is absolutely thrilled about that living arrangement) and we’re choosing to wait to get married later is a sign of our immaturity, rather than, say, a little thing called fiscal responsibility? Attempting to save money before having to take out a mortgage with a potential spouse whose credit score will now be forever tied to yours? How puerile of us.
Of course, that’s just my opinion, not data. So here’s some facts: the New York Times recently reported that the nation’s unemployment would sit at 6.5 percent had the lawmakers in Washington chosen to put economic recovery ahead of deficit reduction. Additionally, as hiring for all other age groups picks up, us Millenials, laden with record amounts of debt, have seen post-graduation hiring remain “relatively flat.”
Essentially, Stein looked at some of the data, attributed our low employment rates and our somewhat stalled progression to being “real” adults (with kids and yards and stuff!) to us being feckless, rather than, oh I don’t know, just unable to get a damn job.
Here’s the best part, though: as the Economic Policy Institute found, worker productivity has actually grown phenomenally over the last decade, but compensation has stayed flat, if not actually dropping in comparison to cost-of-living.
Translation? We’re actually working harder than his generation, but for a lot less pay, which in turn has made us the thriftiest generation since World War II. As one Twitter user dryly put it, “Lazy Millennials came of age during a Great Recession because they were too lazy to choose another generation to be born in.”
But his ridiculous take on our economic woes is perhaps just a misunderstanding of the data in front of him. So what about his claims about our general demeanour, namely our likelihood to develop narcisstic personality disorder? Stein writes:
The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.
Well, that is pretty damning. Unfortunately, it’s also complete bunk.
Elspeth Reeve of the Atlantic Wire was kind enough to find something that not only offers another opinion of that data, but flat-out rejects the claims as a complete misinterpretation. In a 2010 paper also published for the National Health Institute, called “It Is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me” look at the same study Stein quotes and find the claims to be correlational, not causal. Brent W. Roberts. Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva wrote:
First, we show that when new data on narcissism are folded into preexisting meta-analytic data, there is no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades. Second, we show, in contrast, that age changes in narcissism are both replicable and comparatively large in comparison to generational changes in narcissism.
….In turn, when older people are told that younger people are getting increasingly narcissistic, they may be prone to agree because they confuse the claim for generational change with the fact that younger people are simply more narcissistic than they are. The confusion leads to an increased likelihood that older individuals will agree with the Generation Me argument despite its lack of empirical support.
Essentially, it’s not that we’re so uniquely narcissistic in relation to other generations, it’s just that (surprise, surprise) all young people are narcissistic, period. An obsession with oneself just comes with the territory, and its something we all grow out of. And just as young people are self-centered, old people are crotchety complainers who love to turn down their noses at us impudent welps, and will latch on to anything that supports that opinion, no matter how ludicrous.
Basically, every generation has been the “me” generation. And every preceding generation just hates ‘em for it.
To the credit of the media as a whole, reaction to Stein’s piece has ranged from tepid skepticism to outright dismissal of his conjectures, especially when it comes to the “hard data” he has so carefully cherry-picked to fit his outlandish hypothesis. The internet, on the other hand, has turned Stein’s attack on Millenials into the new meme of the week.
So with the ridiculousness of Stein’s half-assed claims out of the way, it does raise one observation of my own: had these complaints come from a Baby Boomer, perhaps I would be slightly more understanding. But from a Gen-Xer?
Although the frequent trumpeting over the Baby Boomers accomplishments in civil rights has maybe been trumpeted a little too much, at least we can point to tangible things that they’ve done, and know that the Baby Boomers at least managed to accomplish something. But, it’s harder to swallow coming from Joel Stein, a man so firmly entrenched within Gen-X that he frequently brought his adroit analysis of American culture to I Love the 80′s, which, if you remember, was a show that was essentially just Gen-X patting itself on the back about how awesome Fraggle Rock and Duran Duran was for 10 hours.
Essentially, if there is one generation who can be blamed for a self-aggrandizing, narcissistic obsession with themselves while offering little back to the society they supposedly leech off of, it certainly isn’t us; it’s Gen-X.
When it comes to Millenials, no generation since the Baby Boomers has had such a commitment to bettering the world around them, or such a level of political engagement. We’re a generation of activists that leads the country in volunteerism. We’re the strongest supporters of LGBT rights. In fact, we’re so invested in seeing our country and our world improve that we do a thing that apparently most members of Gen-X never heard of at our age: voting.
Let’s compare that to Gen-X. While they can certainly be thanked for having a marginally better commitment to equal rights than the Baby Boomers, they sure as hell didn’t do much about it. No generation in American history has done so little while complaining so much as Gen-X. The early to mid 90′s were a time of abject navel-gazing, in which Gen-X said much and did little.
We, on the other hand, talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk. As I pointed out in my assessment of the 2012 elections, last November was proof positive of how and why Joel Stein, and many members of the older generations in general, have got us wrong. The reputation of the youth voting bloc to be one of apathy, one that Gen-X created, was shattered by the reaffirmation of what we thought we had already proven back in ’08: yes, we actually care about the world around us, and yes, we actually care about each other, more than your generation ever did. We’re actually trying to do something about the lot we’ve been given instead of crying and complaining about it while listening to Nirvana.
In the end, maybe Joel Stein had the right analysis, just for the wrong generation. Generation Me? Please. We’re Generation Us.