The Age of Self-Importance

Like seriously, give me what I want.

Jasmine closes her eyes, takes a breath, and begins belting out Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” in front of three judges. Jasmine had spent 12 hours out in the cold waiting for her chance at becoming an overnight success, but the judges tell her this will be the end of the road. Her dreams shattered, she sulks away in disbelief.

This story is not unique to Jasmine, she is among the 100,000 who try out for American Idol every year. These kids all believe that they are destined to have their name in shining lights, but it is not until an awakening like Jasmine’s that dreams of fame become nothing but a dim memory.

Jasmine is a member of Generation Y — a generation who earned not only a birth from their mothers, but a second birth on the internet. Each of their identities has been designed so that the world can be constantly apprised to every minute detail of their lives, as if anyone cared. They believe everyone wants to hear what they think, do, and see at any given moment, so their stream of consciousness is on display in Facebook and Twitter and you can find their video responses to Kanye West’s new video on YouTube. They have become masters of self-promotion, even before they developed a sense-of-self.

Generation Y members — also known as Generation Me, millennials, and echoboomers — were born between 1982 and 2002, and are seen by many as over self-entitled whiners who believe they deserve at least a B for showing up to class, and a trophy for simply participating in events. Hara Estroff Marano, editor of Psychology Today, calls them “a nation of wimps.”

In the previous generation, celebrities were famous for actually doing things. The names that made the paper were Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, Bruce Springsteen, songwriter, and many others who built something valuable from the ground up. Today, with shows like, Survivor, no-talent celebrities like Paris Hilton, and opportunists like the Balloon Boy parents, viewers learn to associate fame with people who do absolutely nothing of value.

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Mike is a 20 year old “man” who spends his time playing poker on the internet. He is subscribed to 13 different get-rich-quick blogs and he believes he will make his first million by 25. Mike is no different than most other guys his age. Just like Jasmine, they represent the entitlement generation. A generation that was told they could have it all. They were told to expect big things, because they deserved it. Their parents told them so. As did their teachers. As did the media.

Meals are microwavable, blogs are books, music is free, and software is customized to their needs. Even relationships are only a click away. Big breasts, Asian, teen, it’s up to them and their mouse. With all this at their fingertips, they believe they have the control, whatever they want is theirs. So what will happen when they inevitably find out they have so very little?

Jasmine and Mike will soon be graduating college and they believe — no, they know — they will “find a job that’s not just a job, but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment,” as Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Professor of Psychology at Clark University puts it in his book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.

But Jasmine and Mike will soon enter into a world where they will quickly learn that they are not the center of the universe, that they are not entitled to all they thought they were promised, and that they are not as important as they were told. They will walk into job interviews expecting big salaries and an office overlooking the city. But what is more likely, is that they will move back in with their parents while they spend a year trying to find a job that isn’t much more than an internship. These same kids, who were too good to work at Starbucks a year ago, will be fighting for pennies in a down economy, struggling to understand how they can be so under-appreciated.

Even the financial crisis we find ourselves in is partially a result of the overvaluing of self-worth among people today. Research psychologists, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, detail in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, a growing rise in clinical narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) among Americans in their 20s. In fact, one in 16 Americans have experienced the symptoms at some time in their life. In an interview with US News and World Report, Twenge noted, “Narcissism contributed to the economic crisis. Many people had narcissistic overconfidence [when they said], ‘Yeah, I can afford that million-dollar house,’ and lenders said, ‘Sure, I know you’ll pay off that loan.'” Overconfidence is making it increasingly difficult to distinguish dreams from reality, and the results are catastrophic.

In 2009, a study found that the top three career aspirations of children were to be a sportsman, a popstar, or an actor. So what, you say? Kids have always wanted fame and fortune. This is actually not true. The study compared the results to the ambitions of pre-teens from 25 years ago as well. During that generation, the top three career aspirations were teaching, banking/finance, and medicine.

There is a survey that has been asking kids since the 1950s, “Am I important?” Back in 1950, 12% of teenagers answered “yes.” Today, that number is 80%. And of course they feel that way. After all, the recent development of the commercial tween market has shown that the children are the actually the consumers, not the parents. Tweens dictate, and over-indulgent, baby boomer parents, follow orders. And as our kids get louder, fatter, and more demanding, so do their egos, sense of entitlement, and sense of importance.

So, where are the parents, their supposed role models? If you thought “me, me, me” social networking was just an infatuation with youth, think again. It turns out that the over-25 crowd is the fastest-growing demographic of Facebook users, and people over 35 make up more than half of MySpace’s 110 million users. Parents have fallen for this “reality” of the world as well. While magazines like Newsweek and Time have seen their circulation decline, magazines like People and Us Weekly have been on the rise. It is all about the frivolous details of peoples lives — not what they do of worth — but what they wear, what they buy, who they know. Celebrity voyeurism.

If parents are too preoccupied with Perez Hilton’s latest post, then who is going to teach our children the counter-lessons of celebrity culture: that fame should not be born of self-humiliation, and that self-respect is NOT earned by 15 minutes of empty self-esteem. Once the culture bomb does its final damage on these youth and the personal post-traumatic-stress-disorder passes, they will have to learn to pick up the pieces of their sorry selves, and build something of value.

Michael Kimmel is a sociologist and author who has written a book, Guyland, devoted to discussing the male sense of entitlement. Kimmel describes how rage takes control once a person feels their entitlement is threatened. Kimmel gives an example of a group who are consistently stripped of their entitlement: bullies. He points to research by William Coleman, who is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Coleman says that bullies are a prime example of a privileged group in school, but once they leave this arena, they become shocked at how much they overestimated their prestige. And this overestimation typically leads to substance abuse and violent crime.

Generation Y’s focus on self has brought collateral damage on others as well. Another recent survey found that empathy among students is nowhere the figure it used to be. In fact, researchers found that the ability to empathize has dropped almost 40% since 1980, with the biggest drop occuring after 2000.

Our society is overly selfish, and like Bengel’s wide receiver, Terrell Owens, once said at a press conference, he is fine with that. We are inconsiderate. A bunch of assholes and douchebags, as we so like to call each other.

We have inflated our expectations. The media and society in general offered us false dreams. They said we could be stars. Among the 500 TV stations, we thought there was surely a place for us. But we are not as important as we thought we were. Tyler Durden said it best, “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, you are the same organic decaying matter as everything else.”

The only question is, what now?

It starts with not updating our Facebook status at dinner. It starts with reading a news story rather than Lohan’s latest tweet. It starts with asking someone how their day is going. And it ends when…well a recovering Generation Y’er can dream, right?

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