|Understanding “Generation Me”: An Author Advises the Church|
By Elliott Wright*
Leawood, Kan., August 8, 2007—A popular book that takes issue with the self-esteem movement and its “I am special” ideology became a primer for United Methodist leaders struggling to reach the contemporary young-adult generation.
The book Generation Me and its author, Dr. Jean Twenge, were in the spotlight at the 2007 School of Congregational Development, held in Leawood, Kansas, August 2-7.
Dr. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, told 600 specialists in church development that “today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled—and more miserable than ever before.” That long phrase is the subtitle of her book, published last year by the Free Press.
The situation, she said, presents both opportunities and challenges to churches; opportunities because many of these young adults are lonely and looking for meaning, and challenges because many of them are self-centered, individualistic, and materialistic.
The Rev. Craig Miller, a staff member at the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, said in introducing Twenge that his teenaged daughter called his attention to the book, saying, “Look, Dad, here’s a book about my friends.”
The annual School of Congregational Development is jointly sponsored by the discipleship agency and the General Board of Global Ministries.
Twenge has analyzed more than 50 years of statistical data on the attitudes and behavior of college students. She said that today’s young adults did not teach themselves to be materialistic and narcissistic. “They were taught,” she said, taught by parents, schools, and even churches, to have a strong sense of entitlement. She finds this to be the case regardless of race or even income level.
The 35-year-old psychologist did not dismiss as negative everything about the self-esteem movement, which she traced to the 1960s. It has also resulted in greater openness, tolerance, and a willingness to look at a range of opportunities.
Yet, Twenge said, for great numbers of young adults life is “all about me” and members of the 18-35 age range do not take criticism well, have overly high career expectations and have needed more guidance than they got. In terms of child-rearing, she said, unconditional love is fine, but “unconditional self-esteem and specialness is not okay.”
The result of too much self-esteem, she said, is disappointment when perceived entitlements are not realized, and disappointment produces loneliness, anxiety, and a sense of emptiness.
“There is deep need for connection and spirituality,” Twenge told the church leaders. Many young adults, she said, have few if any religious beliefs, and this itself can be a door of opportunity for churches that can learn to communicate with them.
“Generation Me,” the author said, seeks attention, and as indicators of this fact she cited the popularity of personal websites, such as those found on My Space and You Tube, internet blogs, reality TV, and the pervasive use of iPods. She speculated that the short-term “stardom” of reality-TV celebrities represents the ultimate narcissism.
Twenge said that the current trends in young-adult attitudes and behavior are likely to continue, and that society and the church can expect to see more lonely people with emotional, mental-health, and relationship problems.
A sense of caring and the experience of community could go a long way toward refocusing the talents of “generation Me,” Twenge said, implying that the church has its work cut out for it.
*Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Aug 10, 2007