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Another ‘Me Generation’?

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Baby boomers have long taken the rap for being the most selfish generation of Americans ever, but we finally have some competition.

Our children and grandchildren are coming up fast in our rearview mirrors, and they’re about to leave us in their dust when it comes to narcissism and self-absorption.

I’m not just talking about the little thugs and thugettes who run amok in stores and restaurants while their clueless parents ignore them. I’m talking about at least some of the intelligent, ambitious young adults graduating this spring from American colleges and universities. Too many celebrity commencement speakers are telling them what they’ve heard for years from parents and others:

“You are special. The world revolves around you. The future belongs to you.”

In other words, they’re being sold a bill of goods by their indulgent boomer elders, who should know better by now. The world doesn’t revolve around 20-somethings any more than the sun revolves around the earth. Why are we telling them so? It shortchanges them and cripples the mission of the church, which needs a new generation of selfless servants –- not a new cult of self-worship.

Don’t get me wrong. I know many young adults who are living out a passionate desire to serve God. Some of them are making history right now on some of the toughest mission fields in the world. But they’re swimming against the tide of our times, not flowing with it.

Before you dismiss me as a grumpy boomer, read on.

Recent studies on parenting and child development by Christian researcher George Barna find that the typical worldview of Americans in their early 20s “promotes self-centeredness, the right to happiness and fulfillment, the importance of personal expression in all forms (and) the necessity of tolerating aberrant or immoral points of view; allows for disrespect of other people and use of profanity; and advances forms of generic spirituality that dismiss the validity of the Judeo-Christian faith. Largely propelled by postmodern thought, [this] worldview … does not facilitate respect for life, acceptance of the rule of law or the necessity of hard work, personal sacrifice, paying dues or contributing to the common good.”

I know, I know. Every older generation complains about the behavior of “kids these days.” But the sense of entitlement on display among many young Americans today actually reflects years of conscious indoctrination by parents, teachers and coaches. These authority figures see their main mission not as educating and developing character in the young but as building “self-esteem,” according to Jeffrey Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal.

“Now, as this greatest generation grows up, the culture of praise is reaching deeply into the adult world,” Zaslow writes. “Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly 20-somethings, or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit. Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up…. Certainly, there are benefits to building confidence and showing attention. But some researchers suggest that inappropriate kudos are turning too many adults into narcissistic praise-junkies.”

America’s “praise fixation,” Zaslow warns, “has economic, labor and social ramifications. Adults who were over-praised as children are apt to be narcissistic at work and in personal relationships.”

He cites a multi-university study involving more than 16,000 college students over several decades. They took a standardized “narcissistic personality inventory,” responding to such statements as “I think I am a special person.” The average college student in 2006, according to the study, was 30 percent more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.

Praise and encouragement are wonderful tools as we love our children and guide them into adulthood. Mindless adulation, however, creates as many problems as condemnation. It deceives young people into thinking any effort at all is their best effort. It prevents them from discovering their true abilities, developing their potential or forming discipline and character. It hurts their chances of building loving relationships with others.

Worst of all, it distorts their understanding of God’s world and their role in it.

American-style Christianity already over-emphasizes the personal benefits of faith and neglects its responsibilities: Jesus loves me. He saved me. He blesses me. It’s all about me. The narcissistic “culture of praise,” as Zaslow calls it, only encourages this tendency. What about loving God, serving Him, following Him –- and demonstrating such faith by loving and serving others at home and around the world?

“Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” a 2005 book published by Oxford University Press, explored the inner lives of more than 3,000 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17. The study found that in contrast to the rebellious boomers, today’s teens tend to believe in God, listen to their parents and willingly adopt their parents’ religious views. If parents model a shallow faith with few demands, however, their children imitate them.

Biblical faith is about a very different “culture of praise.” We praise and serve a God who lavishes unconditional love and undeserved grace upon us.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. To comment on this column visit www.CounterCultureBlog.com. Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/28/2824/2824-15298.mp3

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  • Erich Bridges