Thursday, March 15, 2007
Generation Me by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D.
The full title of this book is Generation Me: Why Today's Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before, which would imply, at least to me, that this book will measure the pros and cons of my generation (Twenge defines Gen Me as everyong under 35). The Ph.D. part after her name implied that too.
A better title for this book is Generation Me: The Narcisisitic Spoiled Brats That Make Reality TV Possible, and Why They Are All Ho-Bags, Have So Many Damn Tattoos and so many cases of ADHD and Believe They Can Be Anything They Want Be to When They Grow Up, by Dr. Twenge; and by Dr. Twenge I mean a writer who sometimes wishes she was part of the boomer generation. (Why is it impossible for me not to either smirk or cringe when I read the word "boomer?")
Twenge spends the first half of the book pointing out why Gen Me is the most selfish, godless, slutty, mannerless and brainless generation yet, then spends the second half of the book feeling sorry for us.
What killed me about this book, over and over again, as I read it, was how Twenge failed to acknowledge the role that the increased visibility and acceptance of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer community contributed to our current generational climate of acceptance. She seems nostalgic for the fact that women no longer feel that having children is compulsory, or even grow up dreaming about their wedding day and getting married. Minorities (by this she means women and people of color) have so many choices today! So many choices that we are stymied and miserable. Some of the college students she talked to admired the institution of arranged marriage, because they were sick of dating, and being lonely, and being single. Poor, poor Gen Me. We are facing a New World, without the road maps to guide us through. Well, I get that. But if you're writing a book centered on how different we are from the boomers, you should at least acknowledge somewhere, (before chapter 7), the part that the GBLTQ community has played in breaking out traditional gender roles. Not only that, but they've helped show Gen Me that there is more than one way to be happy and have a family.
My dislike of Twenge's arguments is not to say that she doesn't have some good points. We do move around a lot more than boomers did, in terms of jobs, cities, even counties. It's more difficult for us to form friendships and relationships. There exists a website - Cuddle Party - for people who don't get enough welcomed human touching and interaction. We don't have real neighbors to speak of, or a sense of community. This last point in particular resonated. If I was out of eggs, or sugar, or flour or whatever, what would I do? I would go to Gristedes.
Speaking of my local Gristedes, Twenge seems to have overlooked (until chapter 7) one of obvious reasons why our generation is less likely to have friendships, or even spark up conversation with our neighbors and those whom we see around our neighborhoods: today's America is much less homogenous than it was during the 50s, 60s, and even 70s. It's hard to form a friendship, or even spark up a conversation when not everyone speaks the same language.
Twenge: on one of the many benefits of the boomer generation: "This may be the key to the low rate of depression among older generations: despite all the deprivation and war they experienced, they could always count on each other. People had strong feelings of community; they knew the same people all their lives; and they married young and stayed married. It may not have been exciting, and it stymied the dreams of many, but it was a stable life that avoided the melancholy that is so common now." --page 116
Twenge: on the chronic loneliness of Gen Me: "It's almost as if we are starving for affection. "There is a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, or easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solid family life," argues one political scientist Robert Lane. To take the analogy a little further, we're malnourished from eating a junk-food diet of instant messages, e-mail, and phone calls, rather than the healthy food of live, in-person interaction." --page 110
I definitely agree with Twenge that we have it harder than previous generations. It is more difficult for Gen Me to afford life, and afford ourselves. We want more. We have higher expectations. We had teachers who were afraid to grade us too harshly, lest it damage our self-esteem. We were told that we could be whatever we wanted to be, do whatever we wanted to do. We believed we would be richer than our parents. I felt a strange sense of satisfaction when I read about how much more expensive our lives are now: "Fixed costs like housing, health insurance, and child care have doubled since the 1970s, while discretionary income has gone down." Yeah, I've like, noticed.
Where are Americans getting enough money to afford themselves? Twenge says it's coming from women's salaries. She quotes Robert Putnam, a social scientist, concluding, "Virtually all of the increase in full-time employment of American women over the last twenty years is attributable to financial pressures, not personal fulfillment." What?! Apparently Twenge agrees with this statement, since she doesn't even comment on this Putnam's old school patriarchal opinion. Twenge sort of redeems herself by calling attention to how the media likes to pretend that the Boomer generation was full of femmenists who married late and put their careers first, and in reaction, GenMe apparently wants to turn back the clock. My girlfriends and I have been baffled by articles like this. Twenge calls this particular 1997 article in Time Magazine unmitigated crap: "[GenMe is] reacting in part to what they perceive as miscues by their older siblings, not to mention their parents, who attacked life with a single-minded career focus and a no-ties-to-hold-you-back attitude - and ended up with no ties at all."
I'm probably not being fair to Twenge. The 7th chapter in this 8 chapter book is titled "The Equality Revolution: Minorites, Women, and Gays and Lesbians," so she does address how these groups have had an impact on our generation. However, I wanted more from this chapter, and I wished that Twenge would have addressed the impact of minorities in the opening chapters, when she was writing about Gen Me's isolation, or Gen Me's dislike of absolutes, and embrace of ideas like "do whatever is right for you." I think the increased power and visibility of minorities is one of the biggest differences between GenMe and the boomer generation. It deserves more attention.
But maybe most of my problem with this book is its structure, and not necessarily its content. Generation Me is published by the Free Press, the same S&S imprint that brought us Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinst Pigs, so maybe I should have expected a book that made my whole world make sense in one section, but made me to throw the book against the wall after reading the next one.
Twenge is tackling a huge and difficult issue in Generation Me. It's probably not something that can be resolved in just one book. The defining features of our generation (whether it ends up being called GenMe, iGen, Generation net, or whatever) will be part of the cultural conversation for years to come. I'll look forward to hearing our generations' reaction to this book. Hopefully that reaction will take the shape of another book that is a bit more thorough and compassionate. Until then, I'm not sorry I spent my time and money on Generation Me, though I wish I would have got a higher discount, and I won't be recommending it to friends.