Saturday, July 13, 2013

Me, Me, Me! - Taking Old Problems to New Heights

Joel Stein's essay “The New Greatest Generation: Why Millennials Will Save Us All” first got my attention because it was the feature article of TIME's May 20 issue, entitled, The Me, Me, Me Generation. As the two paradoxical titles imply, Stein attempts a balanced assessment of the problems and promise of the millennial generation in America (and, to a lesser degree, their modernized peers in other countries - which is why I'll be using the pronoun "we").

Stein starts by calling millennials “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow,” and provides lots of data and anecdotes to prove his point. For example,
  • "Narcissistic personality disorder" is nearly thrice as high for 20-somethings than in the generation that's now 65 or older.
  • We are fame-obsessed.
  • We're so self-confident that 60% of us don't think we need a well-thought-out value system, but just need to "feel what's right".
  • We have an unparalleled sense of entitlement.
  • We are stunted, partly because we spend so much time with peers instead of adults.
  • We're so anxious about missing out on something good that 70% of us check our phones every hour.
  • We have a drastically reduced ability to understand other people's point of view, let alone empathize with them.
What made Millennials what we are today? According to Stein, it was the attempt of the baby boomers (also known as the Me Generation) to improve kids' chances of success by raising their self-esteem. But it was “an honest mistake,” says one of Stein's sources. “The early findings showed that, indeed, kids with high self-esteem did better in school and were less likely to be in various kinds of trouble. It's just that we've learned later that self-esteem is a result, not a cause.”

However, Stein asserts that "none of these traits are new to millennials; they've been around at lest since the Reformation, when Martin Luther told Christians they didn't need the church to talk to God, and became more pronounced at the end of the 18th century in the Romantic period, when artists stopped using their work to celebrate God and started using it to express themselves." This is a strong statement with a big hole. It's true that there's nothing new under the sun. Selfishness isn't a generational thing - it's a human thing, dating back to the fall of our first parents. Stein makes the mistake of equating Luther's recovery of the biblical doctrine of individual conscience and personal responsibility as narcissism, but it's not an unexpected misinterpretation.

Now to the second half of the article, where Stein attempts to balance his criticism of millennials by discussing our redeeming qualities (if I may use the term very loosely).
  • We put off making life choices because there are so many options available today, and we want to take the best ones. (Is this really a good thing?)
  • Millennials are not as rebellious and sullen as the teenagers of yester-years.
  • We're nicer, more accepting of differences among individuals (read "less judgmental")
  • We challenge convention and look for new and better ways of doing things.
Are these really redeeming qualities? The answer is more debatable than Stein suggests.

What's Really At Stake?

What do people really need more of? More niceness? This might be good for polite chats, superficial acquaintances, and friendly advice that goes no deeper than "do what feels right," but it cannot deal with the harshness of life and death that everyone in every society has to face (though people living in luxury, isolated from poverty might be able to ignore this fact). Telling a friend who's going through a crisis to do what feels right is actually saying, "I don't know what's good for you, and I don't care to know. Even if I did know, I wouldn't tell you because that would be arrogant of me. You're on your own." But when you really love a person, and you really believe you know what's good for him/her, then you'll toss niceness out the window and say what you think. But if Stein is correct, then my generation is alarmingly incapable of doing just that. "Not only do millennials lack the kind of empathy that allows them to feel concerned for others, but they also have trouble even intellectually understanding others' points of view."

Thankfully, I've been blessed with better examples: a church that loves me enough to push me to be what I can only be by God's enabling grace; friends who are concerned enough about me to confront me when I do something wrong; pastors who, by faith and diligent study of Scripture and a shepherd's heart are willing to show me "the way I should go" with the authority of God's word. God has used these dear people to save me from countless pitfalls. 

And just to belabor the sheer foolishness of the "do what's right for you" mentality, is it so hard to see that this impoverishes the very notion of "right"? Call it convenient. Call it pragmatic. Call it expedient. But please, out of respect for those of us who actually try to have a clearly defined, thoughtful, and systematic worldview, don't misuse the word "right". The notion of right has to accompany the notion of wrong.

Another point where Christians must diverge with Stein is the importance of parenting. Personally, I don't think it's a coincidence or even surprising that the Me, Me, Me Generation (that's us) are the children of the Me Generation. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it," the wise man points out in Proverbs 22:6. That works out negatively, as well as positively. While Stein seems to encourage "peer-enting," God calls for wise, responsible, and loving exercise of authority by parents.

To conclude, Stein's article has a feel of authenticity and optimism, which aren't bad at all. The information he makes available may help us quantify where our generation "is". But I believe his hopefulness for millennials is misplaced, especially since he can offer no solution to the problem of narcissism. The apostle Paul gives a much more sobering assessment of self-worship in his Epistle to the Romans. But he also proposes a much more realistic and ultimately more satisfying solution than sheer optimism.

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