On May 20, 2013, Joel Stein of Time magazine published an article titled "Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation," an attack on the narcissistic tendencies of the millennial generation, a calling out of my generation as "lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow." Stein's analysis of millennials, the generation born from 1980 to 2000, goes beyond a cookie-cutter use of statistics to support his point, but analyzes why we have become the most narcissistic generation ever: "They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they're trying to take over the Establishment but because they're growing up without one."
Stein couldn't label millennials simply the "Me" generation, because that title is taken by our predecessors, the baby boomers. He points to the invention of the concept of self-esteem in the 1970s, and the problem with that is "when people try to boost self-esteem, they accidentally boost narcissism instead." He later quotes researcher Sean Lyons in saying that we are in "a crisis of unmet expectations."
The only thing worse than our narcissism is what arises from it: entitlement. We have less civic engagement and lower political participation than any group, according to Stein. Our narcissism has become our generation's mortal sin.
In a response to the Stein article, Emmett Rensin labeled the millennial generation, instead, the "We Generation" in an August 13, 2013 column in USA Today. Stein labels us the "Me Me Me Generation" when millennial levels of giving to charity and political engagement are on pace to surpass all previous generations, despite an era of crippling youth unemployment and student debt.
Of course, the narcissism that our generation shows is most often on full display on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. But is social media truly a "vanity project" when we spend far more time browsing our Facebook feeds rather than fine-tuning our profiles and posts? Is social media an assertion of independence when we spend far more time reading Tweets of our friends, celebrities, and politicians than tweeting on our own?
According to Rensin, "for a millennial, heaven is other people. Hell is becoming an island, cut off from others by an iPhone left at home." We are not the "Me Me Me" generation, but a "We" generation, one that desires a "pure, interdependent society," an innate incompatibility with isolation.
But Rensin, in this piece, does not defend against the criticisms of the older generations as much as he seeks to understand where the sentiment comes from. "Beneath the mutual recrimination...is something noble: the genuine desire to understand. This is a new crop of Americans, after all. What do their hearts look like?" It's no secret that scrolling our Facebook or Instagram feeds is a lesson in anxiety, a terror that is the "anxiety of seeing everything."
The circumstances of our generation aren't too different from our predecessors. What sets us apart, however, is "how uniquely aware" we are of what everyone else is doing, and particularly how much everyone else is succeeding. "The irony of the 'We generation' is that by giving everybody a voice, everybody has seen just how many voices there are." The fact that we see everything means that "it's impossible to digest them all." Instead, "we just feel the visceral weight of output. We say this is something to be cherished, but we know it is the thing that crushes, too."
The "Me" generation is actually something we strive for. It is no secret that social media is an unhealthy mechanism for comparison - look to a Facebook friend's latest hardship and think "oh, my life isn't that bad" or see your friend's latest accomplishment or job offer and realize your presence is relatively insignificant. "We know it might be nice to have a 'Me Generation," if only we could."
The world is made smaller by our advances in social media and our digital era - and sometimes being so fundamentally aware of what almost everyone is up to makes it claustrophobically overwhelming. Sometimes, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are, for better or worse, arenas of one-upmanship to see whose personal brand is superior to the next, is more popular than the next. The fundamental paradox of the millennial generation is this: how can we stand out when seemingly everyone stands out?
Although a mirage, wouldn't we be better off as a generation of narcissists, one that is self-assured of our independence and self-worth that we wouldn't have this need for comparison? "It might be nice to have a selfish space or blindness to the odds. We might like to be narcissists, if it weren't so hard in a world made small by those damn iPhones." Wouldn't it be nice to have life finally slow down.
Stein misunderstands the millennial generation, but started the conversation on what is in the hearts of millennial generation. The most egregious examples of our "narcissism," from Facebook profile pictures that change every other day to Instagram photos that conveniently staged - what is behind them?
I believe that our "narcissism" is a symptom of pir generation's need to react and rebel in the most quickly moving and anxious age in history. Life moves too fast - only yesterday we were two years younger, and tomorrow we will be five years older. And yet there is so much to do, catch up on, and become. I have 18 tabs open in the writing of this article of things I could check out and read. How many tabs of possibilities do you have open in your life, and what does it say about us that we aren't satisfied with just one?
The "we" generation exists in a condition of fundamental anxiety - because, for better or worse, we largely grow up with unmet expectations of institutions, from our government, economy, press, and even families and local communities that were supposed to be there for us but fell short, time and time again. And I'm not talking about mental health anxiety (which, conveniently, millennials do also have a problem with), but an anxiety knowing and experience, time and time again, things change faster than we'll ever be comfortable with, faster than we'll ever expect, faster than we'll ever be ready for.
And if we strive for narcissism and vanity because they are spaces that won't let us down, defense mechanisms we've donned to condition ourselves to survive, why wouldn't we try to turn to them in times we don't have much else?