Right now it is very fashionable to worry about the under-30s and how entitled they behave; the complaints about them are legion and growing. Prospective employers tell scary stories about helicopter parents accompanying their 28-year-olds to job interviews while university profs talk about the parents who wait outside their office doors and demand to know the grades of their 20-year-olds. Adult children populate the homes of their parents long after they should be on their own, and in many cases, the parents are quite happy to accommodate them, even if these kids are married and have kids of their own. Books abound about how we have produced an entire cohort of self-involved, pampered, physically and intellectually lazy bores, and educators have been blamed for developing a cult of over-esteem. However, I have a somewhat different label to hang on them. I think it’s more that they have been infantalized, and that, in and of itself, is rather dangerous; many people suffer from narcissism because they were stopped in their emotional development at a very young age. Nevertheless, it’s more likely a form of narcissism on the part of their parents: the parents want the children to be a reflection of themselves and their perfect lives; therefore enormous control over every detail must be exerted.
There’s too much concern over this, however. There is perhaps much more narcissism among the under-30s than there used to be, but I believe that given a chance, many will outgrow this or maybe, recover from it. Remember the “me” generation? The “yuppies”? Remember the “Material Girl”? Madonna? Still material, as far as I can tell, except now she’s collecting kids instead of music awards. Anyhow, I’m dating myself here but that is my generation – the baby boomers – those born between late 1946 and early 1966. A 20-year span. The war years that interrupted the lives of our parents and caused them to want a better life for their offspring literally came true, in a material sense anyway, no pun intended. Driven by consumerism and one-upmanship, we have been characterized as having stepped on anything that got in our way. My generation, the later ones, anyway, make up many of the helicopter parents that we see now. I might very well be wrong, but I tend to see my own generation as having been worse than the under-30s of today. Frankly, the hallmarks of narcissism are much more prevalent among my generation – the grandiosity, the rampant spending and consumerism, the self-absorption and to add to this, the lack of respect, gratitude and humility. We are supposedly the best of the best, and because there are so many of us, we can make a lot of noise and can often get our way. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we throw a narcissistic tantrum, and that applies to our kids, too.
The fact is that many of us raised our kids in environments that while perhaps not narcissistic per se, certainly were driven by narcissistic tendencies, and a lot of us continue to see these kids as extensions of ourselves. Many of these kids then find themselves stuck between being children and being adults; they occupy some sort of childish purgatory where they never really grow up. The only way for them to get out of this netherworld is to fight, which is an affront to us as parents. Our kids are supposed to be perfect! We have taken huge steps and made great efforts to prevent our kids from making any mistakes, no matter how minor. Why, then, are they doing this to me, we cry. Why do they want to leave us? We leave them lost in a vicious circle that’s difficult for them to escape: they want their independence and they also want a good relationship with their parents; that’s hard to achieve if the parents are needy, clingy, controlling hangers-on who, let’s face it, may resort to manipulation to stop their kids from passing into true adulthood.
There’s also the danger, as I mentioned above, that they might become narcissistic themselves or may have to recover from living in an environment that, at a minimum, was emphasizing some of the characteristics of narcissism. If our children see themselves as entitled, then we only have ourselves to blame, never mind the fact that we have saddled them with a difficult, life-long issue.
The words respect, gratitude and humility come up often when people start discussing the under-30s. They lack respect for the work it takes to earn a dollar. Helping out or contributing to others are foreign concepts. All they care about is the latest iPhone and who posted what on Facebook. There’s no gratitude. They don’t know how to say thank-you. If they want something, they expect you to provide it for them, no matter what it costs. They’re pretentious, self-important and full of themselves. They don’t know how to work hard and expect immediate promotions and lots of perks. They believe that they should be able to leave work or take days off whenever they want to. They’re much too good to start at the bottom and work their way up. They don’t know what the word humility means. Actually, this is a very good capsule description of my ex-narcissist, Harry. In light of this, perhaps we should be more concerned about the narcissism of the younger generation than we are.
I have heard these kinds of complaints over and over again, and I have to say that I have seen lots of evidence of it, too. But I also remember the things that were said about my generation, too. It was odd. On the one hand, my parents wanted us to have everything; they spoiled us rotten. On the other, though, the most common complaint about us was that we “had it easy.” There were also these stories about how the weather patterns were much worse then and how they had to endure switchbacks on their way to school, resulting in them having to walk uphill both ways.
But I digress. Mixed message? Yup. And compared to my parents, I certainly did have it easy. At age 16, my mom was in the army and dodging bombs in London. At 22, my dad was trying to escape Dunkirk. The fact is, however, would they have wanted us to experience a war so that we could understand that we had it easy? What kind of logic is that? At times, however, I felt that that’s what the message was. They wanted us to have what they didn’t have, but at the same time there was a great deal of guilt-inducement going on: look at what we have done for you, and all you want to do is grow your hair, get stoned and sit around. The problem is that they wanted us to understand what it cost them to provide this great life for us, but they weren’t very good at expressing that and we were too self-involved to try to get it.
There were lots of people who behaved that way. On the other hand, there were lots of American baby boomers who tried to stop the Vietnam War. All over the world, there were lots of hippies who tried to make love, not war. There were those who had to endure a war themselves. I was too young for any of this, and I otherwise know only a couple of people who participated in these things. They then went on to become rather narcissistic, consumer-driven yuppies. For me and most of my peer group, however, things were rather different. I worked hard. I put myself through school. I joined the army. I started a career that has given me a comfortable living but has not made me wealthy. I have never owned a BMW. For the most part, life has been pretty good. I pay my bills and my taxes and I vote when there’s an election. I’m fortunate enough to have been born in a country that doesn’t have a coup every time there’s an election. In other words, I think that despite the fact that I “had it easy”, I turned out all right, as did most of us. I have even learned to appreciate my parents and what they wanted for us.
Does my generation show some pretty incredible characteristics of narcissism? You bet. Have I at times been egotistical myself? Yes! I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. And because of our size, we do get a lot of attention. But we’re mostly okay, and we have even managed to do some pretty valuable things.
And the under-30s? They will have to deal with the way they have been infantalized and they will have to find their feet and fight. They have a steep learning curve ahead of them. But there are many good things about them, too, and like us, most of them will be fine, and in the end, I doubt that they will be any more narcissistic than any other generation.
So let’s stop complaining about them, shall we?