Age Is More Than a Number: Viewing Our Students Through Generational Research — Book Reviews of Twenge’s Generation Me and Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic
Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (Free Press 2010).
Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press 2006).
As any good lawyer knows, successful communication depends on knowing your audience. Are today’s law students really more demanding than ever, or are professors becoming part of the old get-off-my-lawn mind set? Are we sending law firms self-absorbed graduates who refuse to sacrifice a social life for a career, or are law firms hiring graduates who are simply more confident in vocalizing the need for a work-life balance? Many of the answers to these types of questions may be found by understanding the character of our students. Jean Twenge’s book, Generation Me (Free Press 2006) and the follow-up book with co-author W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (Free Press 2010) examine the dominate age group of our students – twentysomethings. While the books are not about the character of law students per se, Generation Me is specifically about the character of those who make up a majority of our classrooms. As a disclaimer, I note that I too am(barely) a member of the group Twenge researches and names “GenMe.” As a member, reading Generation Me did more than educate me on my students’ influences and attitudes. It also revealed much about the forces that were likely influences on my personal and professional decisions.
Generation Me is a thoroughly researched book, full of statistical information that tells us what we already know about our students and so much more. It gives insight into the beliefs, biases, and behavior of its subjects and is therefore worth reading for anyone who deals with members of GenMe. One of the observations Twenge highlights is that informality in school and the workplace is the new norm. This finding is backed by studies and illustrated through anecdotes – like the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team wearing flip-flops to the White House (p. 17-18). This is not to say that you have to allow baseball caps in your classroom, but it does give a reference point to professors who encounter students who are surprised when baseball caps are not allowed. Many more findings provide relevant context for our student population. Cheating in school is on the rise (p. 27), as is the use of shocking language (p. 40), and grade inflation (p. 62). In decline is the use of titles, calling a boss “Linda,” for instance, rather than “Mrs. Smith” (p. 29) and the belief that there is one right way to do things (p. 26). This last finding may explain why there is resistance when teaching students to “think like a lawyer.”
Generation Me makes wide brush strokes about its members but backs its findings with research. Much of the book’s allure comes from these detailed statistical findings. It does not provide a light cultural observation – there is no “kids these days” aspect to it. Rather, Generation Me outlines specific data that walks the reader through thirty years of cultural changes and how those changes affected people who grew up in this timeframe. Particularly enlightening to educators is Twenge’s demonstration of the affect of the self-esteem curriculum (p. 53). Self-esteem, once an “obscure academic term,” has not produced its desired outcome. Teaching self-esteem, the theory went, would increase student performance. Actually teaching self-esteem, however, has not produced increased ability, only increased self-esteem. Data collected from students born in the 1980s shows a sharp uptick in self-esteem. The average kid in the 90s, smack in the middle of GenMe, had higher self esteem than 73% of kids in 1979 (p. 53). This increase in self-esteem is attributed to self-esteem curriculum and cultural messages that tell students they are, regardless of their actions, lovable, great, and important (pp.53-60). The message was inundated into the culture in the 90s and as a result, we have young adults who were raised to find value in themselves rather than in what they provide. The statistics show that these students tend to find value in their performance simply because they provided it and not because the performance itself has intrinsic worth (pp. 62-65). GenMe received a message that feeling good about yourself is more important than good performance (pp. 56-57).
The finding that blind encouragement of self-esteem is harmful to students is supported throughout the book with data and comparisons. One comparison comes from a cross cultural study which found that Asian students have lower self-esteem than Americans but when Asian students learn they scored poorly on a task, they desire to continue working on that task until their score improves. American students preferred to give up that task and move to another one – one that inevitably may preserve their self-esteem but will not improve their skill (pp. 67-68). This result mirrors the author’s findings that GenMe members tend to please themselves first and if a task is too difficult to be pleasing, it can be ignored.
The studies referenced in the book reveal that this unconditional validation is consistent throughout the country. No preschooler is safe from the I AM SPECIAL bulletin board and much of the book’s message is that if our educational systems continue that message through college, that preschooler is more likely to be a college student with self-confidence that significantly outpaces ability. Educational coping to increased self-esteem without increased performance, according to Twenge, produces not only grade inflation but also students who many educators say cannot take criticism (pp. 64-65). The book’s big reveal about self-esteem, however, is what many law school professors already know: high self-esteem does not produce high grades. Hard work produces high grades. To educators, this finding should shed light onto the fact that it is more beneficial for our students to know that they need perseverance to succeed. An emphasis on students’ ability to actually accomplish, rather than to try to accomplish, is most beneficial to students. The data reveals that it is the self-control required for hard work, not self-esteem, which is the greatest indicator of success (pp. 65-67). Encouraging students to embrace the self-control necessary to succeed is of greater worth than encouraging students regardless.
Generation Me also delves into the downside of the focus on self and notes that with an ever increasing emphasis on the individual, we now have a student population that has an increased rate of depression, anxiety and loneliness (pp. 105-107). Older members of GenMe, graduating law students included, are now being faced with the reality of a rough job market. These students are currently trying to reconcile the message they have always heard – you can have it all – with the reality of a tight job market. Because I received my JD the last time no one was hiring, discussing career options with my current students can easily take on a been-there-done-that tone. Having this discussion understanding the context of my students’ disappointments, frustrations, and expectations lets me avoid that tone and facilitates a more productive conversation.
In Twenge’s final chapter, Applying Our Knowledge, she walks the reader through different scenarios for people dealing with GenMe. Because GenMe was raised on extensive praise, they work even harder if they are praised and appreciated (p. 217). This observation is helpful to educators as it enables us to better understand the powerful and positive impact praise has on our students. The act of acknowledging a student’s thorough analysis or thanking a student for the correct answer will go much farther than we may realize in motivating like behavior from much of our audience.
Generation Me also includes culturally interesting observations about GenMe, generally about marriage, parenthood and social issues. While these do not necessarily translate into classroom relevance, understanding how culture affected GenMe and how GenMe now affects culture may assist a baffled professor in understanding why anyone would think answering a cell phone in class is acceptable behavior.
A reoccurring theme in Generation Me is narcissism, which Twenge then devotes an entire book to in The Narcissism Epidemic (Twenge, Campbell, Free Press 2010). The Narcissism Epidemic, unlike Generation Me, is more anecdotal than research based. It is therefore, an interesting but less educational read. In general, The Narcissism Epidemic identifies narcissism characteristics and their increase, discusses its detrimental influence on both the narcissist and society and debunks myths, including that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem (p. 24). According to the authors, it turns out that “deep down inside narcissists think they’re awesome.” (p. 27). Also unlike Generation Me, The Narcissism Epidemic, provides a piece at the end of each chapter offering a treatment for the epidemic. Unfortunately, many of the treatments are unobtainable (any ideas on how to decrease the level of celebrity and media narcissism?). The suggested treatments, while thought provoking, provide more guidance to readers for their personal, rather than professional, lives.
According to the authors, it is important to understand the narcissism epidemic because its long term consequences are destructive to society. For professors, the information and guidance given in Generation Me may be more easily applicable to a classroom setting and the information provided in The Narcissism Epidemic more, ironically, academic.
Heather Garretson is an associate professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She clerked for Judge Stephan of the Nebraska State Supreme Court then Judge Fenner in the Western District of Missouri. She was a litigator in Kansas City, MO in both private practice and as a Special Assistant United States Attorney.