August 2013

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The Newest “Me, Me” Generation, or a New “Greatest Generation”??

by Peter Bearse


One heard several “millennial” voices during the Diane Rehm show of February 18, 2013. I hope that the limited sample was not typical. For they were voices that seemed to be seeking “entitlement” in two ways;


1.      For their education, as if it would suffice to help save the nation; so their student loans could be largely forgiven; and

2.      For their support of Barack Obama, because without it, he would not have been reelected.


In the age range of 15-35, they were too young to have heard JFK’s famous line “Ask not what you can do for yourselves…” Yet, the relatively high turnout of young folks put Barack back in office, so the millenials can claim to have demonstrated “political power.” Yet, what kind of power? – only that of the vote?


A much larger sample/study, reported that “Millenials are more narcissistic than their elders, and increasingly value “money, image and fame more than inherent principles like self-acceptance, affiliation, and community…Being very well-off financially…(is) consistently “at the top of the list.””[1] And from a front page article in TIME:


           “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for            people in their 20’s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older.”[2] (&) “The media      give substance to…narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage common people to        identify themselves with the stars and hate the herd…”


This is a generation that grew up with Dr. Seuss, who said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.” Words not only to remember but to put to action.


TIME’s writer, Joel Stein, went on to characterize the group as if it were the Z (end of the alphabet) generation -- as “fame-obsessed…convinced of their own greatness… overconfident and self involved…” Let’s hope these tendencies shift as Millenials age.


After crucifying them, however, TIME tried to resurrect them as almost the 2nd coming following the “boomers” -- using such hopeful descriptors as “accepting of differences…earnest and optimistic…embrace(ing) the system…pragmatic idealists…” This schizoid contrast was hyped via lurid, super-sized fonts -- from the cover of the magazine to the inside 1st page of the article. Which is true, the cover page: “The ME ME ME GENERATION;” or the inside lead: “THE NEW GREATEST GENERATION: WHY MILLENIALS WILL SAVE US ALL??”


Noting that Tom Brokaw, author of THE GREATEST GENERATION, “loves Millenials,” Stein made an outrageous leap to hype them as “The New Greatest Generation.” Both Stein and his subjects may want to understand just what it was that made “The Greatest Generation” truly great. They were not only war heroes; they were “heroes of every day life,” exhibiting the kind of courage in building lives and communities that millenials have yet to demonstrate.[3]  


And “the group after millenials is likely to be even more empowered.” Empowered? How so? Given the ways they describe themselves and how they are characterized by the media, “empowered” seems to refer to personal life-prospects. But what about ability to build community?, to help reform the U.S. Congress?, to fight for changes in both public and private sectors so that the American Dream can be renewed for the great American majority, not just for themselves and their celebrities? How can a generation reported to “embrace the system” fight for real, substantial change to fix it, when, as this book and many others have shown: “The system is broke”?


Fortunately for the younger set, there’s at least one role model younger than most -- Sarah Merkle, age 15, whose testimony before the Maryland state legislature vs. a carelessly drawn bill to control guns went viral on the ‘Net. She had already served as Secretary of the Maryland Rifle Club, whose purpose was “to develop honesty, good fellowship, self-discipline, team play and self-reliance” -- good values both to represent and emulate. Fortunately, “any person, at any age, who signed up could get three minutes at the podium…She has become an iconic example of what an American can do…”[4]  


Stein’s article makes only passing reference to relatively “poor” millenials and then stuffs them right into the same self-involved bag. According to another, more scholarly source, he’s mostly right in so doing. The reasons are worth noting. They are way downside of the feelings of entitlement felt by many of their better-situated peers, reflecting the fact that:


“Young working class men and women…are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking support networks.”[5]


These are the “millenials” without college degrees who are still working “food-service and coffee-shop jobs” into their late 20’s, in the context of an unstable and slow-growth economy, and so feeling unable to marry and start families. As a group, they face unusually high rates of unemployment, and they are competing with the elderly for a limited supply of jobs.[6] Nevertheless, they are prone to “overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences.”[7] Thus, Silva reports, many feel “betrayed by the major institutions in their lives”.


The terrible irony here, however, is that they are also betrayed by their belief in an American ideology that is now more myth than reality -- in unalloyed American individualism -- that they can make it on their own. So, they are “quick to blame themselves” for their predicaments, striking attitudes like “I just happened to fail…and no one is going to fix me but me…”, trying to make virtues “out of self-blame, distrust and disconnection…young and isolated.”[8] One young man, age 25, “described isolation as the only safe path…”NO; the only safe path is networking with others, coming to a shared understanding of the roots of the problems they share and then devising a collaborative action plan to come to grips with them.    


Unfortunately, there was no context to the TIME article. Most millenials would “Challenge convention,” but what’s the convention? “They are pro-business” but “they don’t identify with big institutions.” Which big institutions? -- major corporations?, government? “They’re celebrity obsessed” but “have no leaders.” And no organization -- they’re already fragmenting into “micro-generations.” The danger is that they’ll be no more effective, politically, than their boomer parents. This lack of empowerment would not only aggravate “a crisis of unmet expectations” (for most) but also bring the system that nourishes their personal hopes to naught. What happens to the millenials years hence when most of them wake up to find they’re part of the “99%”, not the “1%”?


What now with the future-is-now generation? Far more than other age-groups, America’s “millennial” generation can look forward to lifetimes during which their efforts could make a very substantial difference to the future of their country. What about lifetimes partly devoted to political mobilization -- political work involving far more than just the like-minded and similarly educated -- efforts focused on the truly disadvantaged, just as an earlier generation of young people helped advance the civil rights in the South?, and so…

·        Serving to reduce the built-in structural features of our political economy that, unaddressed, guarantee continued high inequality in America?[9]

·        Building on their substantial educational endowments, transforming both politics and government into learning systems that promote political equality?


After all, the millenials are not only much younger and better educated; they are also more IT/SM adept than others. Thus, they are specially qualified to turn American IT/SM away from its largely superficial and socially inconsequential utilization towards realization of its truly revolutionary social/political potential. They are self-aware of their potential; yet, self awareness is not enough; self-criticality is needed. To start, they need to take the admonition of Clay Shirky to heart: “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology; it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” The behaviors that need to be changed had been identified earlier by the late Christopher Lasch. They are American narcissism, a “Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.”[10]


If all you manage to do is grow up like your parents, in material terms, you’ll provide a consumerist“Millenial Stimulus Plan” as you “grow up” by forming families, spending on autos, housing, furniture, more electronics, and all the other “necessities of modern life that power an (advertised) economy.”[11] Can’t you do more, and better?


So, dear millenials, look deeply into your hearts as Parker Palmer advises.[12] Seek to become servant-leaders, not retreads of the past ‘60’s generation of political failure, confusing “self” with “other.” Notwithstanding rushing hormones, learn to tell your private parts from your public parts and your self-interest from a larger public interest. Recall the old maxim: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Then, even while building careers, but before you seek to build families, build your political skills. Always reach out to make common cause with others different from you and beyond your comfort zones. For example, make a habit of helping with voter registration (VR) and/or get-out-the-vote efforts by knocking on doors in neighborhoods other than your own, especially those less well-endowed than you own. See note #285 on VR, next section.  


Complete your education by reading Saul Alinsky’s REVEILLE FOR RADICALS. Learn what it takes to be a true “Community Organizer”. Then try to put what you’ve learned into practice so that you can continue to learn from experience (always the best teacher). Obama is not your role model. Pick another. He failed as a community organizer.


Your generation can establish a new context -- a public culture that builds on the best of the past [the last, previous and genuine “Greatest Generation”] to create a better future. First, however, you need to confront your own limitations and strive to surmount the contexts that you encounter in your young lives, like the pressures to seek “success” in terms of money, status, possessions and power.Seek instead, like Ghandi, to “be the change that you want to see” [and recall that one of Ghandi’s prime virtues was humility]. Then, the practical steps that you begin to take will fall into place.[13]You can adopt and adapt them as you sally forth to change American politics and government in concert with those more senior.


Without a “concert”, your own efforts may prove to be as fruitless in reforming politics and government as the ‘60’s “culture change.” But in concert with others, you could be key to the progress of a new movement to “Change Congress” or to create a “Peoples’ Congress” as outlined in Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book (referenced below). The younger among you may want to intern in “alternative” or “shadow” congressional offices, as well as activists supporting candidates for Congress who offer new views of what it means to represent and empower “We the People.”


The end of Stein’s article on you is the only part really worth recalling: “a generation’s greatness …is determined by how they react to the challenges that befall them.”[14] The challenges you face are great. They also represent great opportunities. The major ones have been identified elsewhere. [Is it any surprise that they were not mentioned in the TIME article?]. Many are unpredictable. Let me, your parents and your grandparents know how we can help to strengthen your orchestration to save our republic.


               PETER BEARSE, author of WE the PEOPLE: A CONSERVATIVE POPULISM and A NEW AMERICAN ®EVOLUTION: How “We the People” can truly “take back” our government.

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[1]    As reported by Spaeth, Ryu, and Lauren Hansen (2013), Narcissistic, broke & 7 other ways to describe the Millennial generation, in THE WEEK and YAHOO! NEWS (April 18).

[2]   Stein, Joel (2013), The Millenials Moment, TIME (May 20, p.28) The line following is from Christopher Laschs THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM.

[3]   See Bearse (2001), Address on Memorial Day.

[4]   Quotes from the National Rifle Associations magazine, AMERICAS 1st FREEDOM (July, 2013, pp. 34 and 36), article by Frank Minter, Along Came Sarah.

[5]    Silva, Jennifer (2013), The Great Divide: Young and Isolated, NEW YORK TIMES (June 23).

[6]   Hayward, John (2013), The American Workforce Collapses on Top of the Young,REDSTATE (  

[7]   Quoidbch, Jordi, D.T. Gilbert, and T.D. Wilson (2013), The End of History Illusion, SCIENCE (4 January), p. 96.

[8]    Quotes in this paragraph from Silva, Jennifer., article cited above. She has completed a book, forthcoming as COMING UP SHORT: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.

[9]   As extensively documented by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz in his 2012 book, THE PRICE OF INEQUALITY.

[10]   Quoted title of Laschs 1995 book.

[11]    As shown in words and graphs by Thompson, Derek (2013), The Millenial Stimulus Plan, THE ATLANTIC (May), p. 34.

[12]   See his 2011 book HEALING THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY: The Courage to Create a Democracy Worthy of the Human Spirit [and, I would add: worthy of the great experiment that our democratic republic represents}.

[13]    See Chapter 8, the “Manual” of my forthcoming book for all sorts of steps and suggestions: Bearse, Peter (2013), 100% = 99% + 1%: How, Altogether, “We the People” Can Occupy Politics, Change Congress and Renew the American Dream (tentative title: to be released in the fall).

[14]   Stein, work cited, p.34.