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Researchers and parents alike are agreeing that today’s adolescents and young adults are more self-absorbed than ever, perhaps accurately named Generation Me. While today’s fifteen-to twenty-five-year olds are the first to grow up with advanced technology and the Internet at their fingertips, it seems that they aren’t using any of these resources to establish a work ethic or any meaningful success. This is baffling to anyone who studied Generation Y in the early 2000s, when most of these young adults were teenagers or even younger. Early studies and portraits of Generation Y had subtitles like “The Next Great Generation,” and assumed that members of this generation would grow up to be productive members of society to an extreme unsurpassed by prior generations. Authors and researchers praised the baby boomer generation for raising such a stellar group of young up-and-comings. We can’t help wondering what happened in the years between. Now the next great generation is in college, consistently putting in less work into productivity, professionalism, and academics while rating themselves as smarter, more academically skilled, and more motivated than their peers.
According to professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge, members of Generation Me are less likely to conserve energy, recycle, or show tangible interest in green issues. At the same time, these young adults are less likely to have career aspirations that involve contributing to society or helping other people. Twenge suggests that the baby boomers who declared Generation Me to be the world’s new set of leaders and civil activists were erroneous. The early portraits of Generation Y cited statistics such as a steep increase in volunteer rates, which was ultimately attributed to the simultaneous increase in high schools requiring volunteer service as a condition of graduation. Just as this generation is more likely to consider itself above average in nearly every area, it is also more likely to express interest in conservation and volunteering without acting on these interests outside of school requirements in high school or fraternity or sorority requirements in college. Research that describes these trends in-depth is included in the books Lost in Transition by Christian Smith and Generation Me by the aforementioned Jean Twenge.
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A recent article in The New Yorker cited a study by anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo examining the mindsets of today’s young adults and their unique combination of narcissism and helplessness. Izquierdo spent time living with a community in Peru, where she accompanied families on everyday chore expeditions to see how their children’s lifestyle differed from that of American children. To her amazement, Izquierdo observed a six-year-old girl who calmly took it upon herself to catch, clean, and cook crustaceans and fish for the family’s dinner, with no expectation of reward or praise. The anthropologist described the girl routinely cleaning the sleeping mats twice a day, stacking resources in the jungle for transport back to the village, and actively seeking out other ways to make herself useful. The girl, Yanira, seemed to be the rule and not the exception. According to Izquierdo, Peruvian children living in the Amazon learn early in life that they are productive members of their community, knowledge that American children are often protected from until their twenties or later.
At the same time that Izquierdo was in the Peruvian Amazon observing children exercise adult-like levels of self-sustenance and responsibility, Elinor Ochs was conducting a similar observational experiment in Los Angeles. In the families that Ochs observed, children and teenagers alike routinely refused to do chores and expected their parents to take care of all their needs. Specific examples included an eight-year-old girl demanding that her father get silverware for her, despite it being in clear reach of her. In another case, a boy struggled to get his feet into shoes that he kicked off without retying hours previously. Instead of untying the shoe, he handed it to his father, who did it for him. After putting his foot into the shoe, he expected his father to re-tie the shoe for him. Unsurprisingly, most American parents describe their children as spoiled, and scenarios like these explain why.
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This behavior might be the result of a generation of parents set on helping their children succeed, to the point where all the extra help becomes counterproductive. Parents may set goals for their children that include getting into the best high school possible, which will ultimately prepare them for college and then a job. To support these goals, parents may withdraw all other responsibilities for their children, and the parents take it upon themselves to continue cooking, cleaning, and contributing to the household alone. When their child reaches an age where it is detrimental to lack knowledge about cooking and running a household, parents get frustrated at teaching these skills because they are harder to pick up at age fifteen than they are at age five or ten. The author of the Izquierdo and Ochs article, Elizabeth Kolbert, recalls asking her own son to take out the garbage. When he left the lid off the cans and bears got into the trash, making a mess, Kolbert declared that she had no time to let her children help around the house and that it made more sense to do it herself.
What Can We Do About It?
This continual cycle of protecting children from responsibility and “saving time” by taking over chores that children should be learning to do is building Generation Me into a group of young adults who don’t know how to take care of themselves, lack ambition, and have grown up believing that their sheltered upbringing means that they are above-average. Clearly, not everyone can be above average, especially in a generation where most members have never learned household responsibility or personal motivation. It seems that the only way to turn around this cycle is to examine the way other cultures bring up their children and gradually confer more responsibility onto ours. Although our culture doesn’t necessitate that a six-year-old knows how to cook and clean fish, teaching her to pick up her own toys, wash the dinner dishes, and tie her own shoes is a start.
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