July 6, 2010

Kids These Days: Empathy, Stereotypes, and the 'Me Generation'

A few people were thoughtful enough to link me to an article on the Psychology Today website entitled "Is the 'Me Generation' Less Empathetic?" I generally hate these sort of articles, as they tend to take a sensationalist, self-satisfied, kids-these-days tone in covering what it usually a made up news story based on a minor study out of an obscure university. As I perused the article though, I realized that my initial judgement was wrong, and that the title of the article does not give justice to the fair thought that author Ray B. Williams puts into exploring generational differences.

In his article, Williams explores the oft-cited stereotype that my generation, Generation Y, is lazy, self-centered, and less empathetic. He pulls quotes from 60 Minutes describing my peers as cynical with fragile egos as a result of childhoods rife with trophies and compliments. He supports these claims with university studies insinuating that we are less empathetic than generations before. Williams also discusses popular theories as to the causes of this so-called epidemic, which call on Facebook, television news, and, of course, violent video games.

This is the point in the article where I usually stop reading, as I can get the "the-kids-are-NOT-alright" trope elsewhere without seeking it out directly. I figured, though, that there was a reason so many people sent me this article, so I kept reading. Turns out, I was right!

In the second half of the article, Williams pulls a double surprise turnaround. First, he turns against all traffic-driving, anti-teen articles that have come before in saying that, perhaps, we shouldn't be so quick to pin unfounded stereotypes on upcoming generations. He writes:
In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article about the "hippies," (Baby Boomers) stating, "to their deeply worried parents throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics." In the 1920's the Dallas Morning News described youth of the day as not caring about people, not "having any sense of shame, honor or duty." These visits to the past may be a wise warning for social scientists to not use scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes of young people.
What a breath of fresh air it is to see an article, written by an adult, even entertain the idea that kids these days have more in common with kids those days than just a rebellious spirit. A trend that has persisted through the ages is that young people are routinely pinned to misconceptions and generalizations that aren't necessarily true. It makes me immensely happy to see a publication as mainstream as Psychology Today go to battle in our defense.

The second move I love that Williams makes is when he proposes the idea that perhaps the issue of empathy deficiency isn't a generational issue at all, but an issue indicative of the era we are living in. He asks:
So is the apparent self-focus, and apparent declining empathy of Gen Y peculiar to this generation or part of a larger general societal trend? Are we witnessing an age of declining empathy?
In bringing up this question, he establishes a sort of cultural accountability that I think is often neglected in discussing "the problem with kids today," and this is where I think Williams hits the metaphorical nail on the head. He asks if this trend is not just teenage, but societal. I think oftentimes, we get so caught up in looking at how a trend is affecting young people, that we neglect to notice if the trend is doing damage to society as a whole.

So to sum, I'd say, yes, some teenagers might be less empathetic. And yes, maybe it's a result of new developments in our culture. But I'd venture to say that adults who live and work in this new-media culture are likely to be empathy-lite as well. In looking at teens as an isolated market segment, we often fail to see the big picture trends. It was nice to see an article do such a great job of pointing this out.

Points of Entry


  1. You only have to take one step back to see the pattern ("kids these days..." in the 1920's and then the '20s generation of kids saying it 40 years later to the new generation of kids).

    ...but since it seems to happen like clockwork every generation, I'm always left wondering by what "our" generation's "kids these days..." moment will be triggered.

    What comes after cell phones, the internet, and social media when we're all 50 years old to make us contemplate about the youth of 30 years from now making us feel the same way? Will we have lost so much perspective in that time?

  2. My biggest question for people who say "kids these days" is didn't your parents say that to? And which generation raised us? Of course we're different then older people, we grew up in completely times; with different tech. I've always seen my ability to use a computer and other tech as an asset; I know how to survive the world as it is now.

    Me and many others I know started college early, we work hard to get ahead. I did it because I wanted a head start into the working world. I'm so proud of my self, because I choose to do what was right for me instead of goofing off, and I worked hard to get my Associates degree at 17 and plan to further pursue my education this fall.

  3. You make such good points in this post & I love this blog! I sometimes read Psychology Today and it's awesome that these ideas are getting out there and people are getting exposed to the thought that maybe the problem doesn't lie directly with teenagers, but with society.

  4. "What is happening to our young
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    Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

    -Plato, 4th century BCE

  5. Also, I find it fascinating that the "Me Generation" label has recently started to be applied to Millennials.
    Until about 2007, the term almost exclusively referred to Baby Boomers, based on the fact that they were the first generation to be indoctrinated as children with the idea self-esteem. All that emphasis on how awesome they were eventually deteriorated into the ubiquitous entitlement and joyless self-indulgence of an entire generation (ie the most-divorced generation in US history).
    So now, Boomers seem to have forgotten that this designation was created to describe THEIR behavior and are writing articles in which they criticize Millennials for being selfish and narcissistic. WTF?

  6. I have a number of issues with the title of the "Me" generation. Unlike the Baby Boomers and Generation X, Generation Y does not seem to have a clear outline of an age range. In my opinion, there is a huge difference in the childhood of someone born in 1990 and 2000. It could even be said that someone born in 1994 has a completely different childhood than someone in 1996 because of the speediness of our world. In the modern era, technological advances are extremely fast paced. In order to stereotype a generation - which I dislike in the first place - we have to narrow it down from the usual 20 years to something more like 10! With so many different outlets to learn information, parenting is no longer as uniform as it once was and neither is teen culture as a whole!

    Also, just to put my teenage input in, I normally just ignore what the media says about my Generation as a whole mainly due to the fact - as people have stated up thread - that, guess what, society has been complaining about the youngest members of society since the dawn of society itself.

  7. Thank you for addressing this! A few years ago as a 20-year-old intern I had to go to a training on overcoming generational differences in the workplace. The entire time the trainer stereotyped my generation as lazy, selfish, bull-headed, and having an inflated sense of entitlement-- all due of course to our embrace of technology. She never seemed to think that perhaps some of the cross-generational workplace tension that sparked said training could be caused or worsened by people stereotyping young people as such.

  8. I was going to post the quote Autumn Smith did, but she beat me to it!

    I have deep issues with ageism. You're always the wrong age. I was almost kicked out of my physics class because my teacher had some sort of beef with younger students. He thought that I wouldn't have the necessary discipline or background knowledge, based loosely on the scant instances when he's handled younger students before. (Now he's made a special rule saying that no younger students are allowed except me. I wish he'd get that his rule just doesn't work.)

    Now, minus that large tangent, I do have to say that it is interesting to find some cultural responsibility in that article. Each generation is the product of the one before.

  9. Got linked to another article on Feministing.com, which reminded me of this post. Here's the link, if you'd like to check it out: http://womensmediacenter.com/blog/2010/09/exclusive-generation-misunderstood/

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