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Generation Me : Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before

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Edition:
Reprint
ISBN13:

9780743276986

ISBN10:
0743276981
Format:
Paperback
Pub. Date:
3/6/2007
Publisher(s):
Free Press
List Price: $15.99

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Summary

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D.,is a widely published associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her research has appeared inTime, USA Today, The New York Times,andThe Washington Post,and she has been featured onTodayandDatelineand National Public Radio'sAll Things Considered.She holds degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. Dr. Twenge lives with her husband in San Diego, California.

Author Biography

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is a widely published associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
You Don't Need Their Approval: The Decline of Social Rulesp. 17
An Army of One: Mep. 44
You Can Be Anything You Want to Bep. 72
The Age of Anxiety (and Depression, and Loneliness): Generation Stressedp. 104
Yeah, Right: The Belief That There's No Point in Tryingp. 137
Sex: Generation Prude Meets Generation Crudep. 159
The Equality Revolution: Minorities, Women, and Gays and Lesbiansp. 180
Applying Our Knowledge: The Future of Business and the Future of the Youngp. 212
Appendixp. 243
Notesp. 248
Acknowledgmentsp. 274
Indexp. 279
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpts

Introduction

Linda was born in 1952 in a small town in the Midwest. After she graduated from high school in 1970, she moved to the city and enrolled in secretarial school. It was a great time to be young: Free Love was in, and everybody smoked, drank, and had a good time. Linda and her friends joined a feminist consciousness-raising group, danced at the discos, and explored their inner lives at est seminars and through meditation. The new pursuit of self-fulfillment led Tom Wolfe to label the 1970s the "Me Decade," and by extension the young people of the time the "Me Generation."

Compared to today's young people, they were posers.

Linda's Baby Boomer generation grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, taught by stern, gray-suit-wearing teachers and raised by parents who didn't take any lip and thought thatFather Knows Best.Most of the Boomers were well into adolescence or adulthood by the time the focus on the self became trendy in the 1970s. And when Linda and her friends sought self-knowledge, they took the ironic step of doing so en masse -- for all their railing against conformity, Boomers did just about everything in groups, from protests to seminars to yoga. Their youthful exploration also covered a very brief period: the average first-time bride in the early 1970s had not yet celebrated her 21st birthday.

Today's under-35 young people are the real Me Generation, or, as I call them, Generation Me. Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self. Linda's youngest child, Jessica, was born in 1985. When Jessica was a toddler, Whitney Houston's No. 1 hit song declared that "The Greatest Love of All" was loving yourself. Jessica's elementary school teachers believed that their most important job was helping Jessica feel good about herself. Jessica scribbled in a coloring book called We Are All Special, got a sticker on her worksheet just for filling it out, and did a sixth-grade project called "All About Me." When she wondered how to act on her first date, her mother told her, "Just be yourself." Eventually, Jessica got her lower lip pierced and obtained a large tattoo on her lower back because, she said, she wanted to express herself. She dreams of being a model or a singer. She does not expect to marry until she is in her late twenties, and neither she nor her older sisters have any children yet. "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else," she says. This is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me.

If you're wondering what all of this means for the future, you are not alone. Reflecting on her role as a parent of this new generation,San Francisco Chroniclecolumnist Joan Ryan wrote: "We're told we will produce a generation of coddled, center-of-the-universe adults who will expect the world to be as delighted with them as we are. And even as we laugh at the knock-knock jokes and exclaim over the refrigerator drawings, we secretly fear the same thing."

Everyone belongs to a generation. Some people embrace it like a warm, familiar blanket, while others prefer not to be lumped in with their age mates. Yet like it or not, when you were born dictates the culture you will experience. This includes the highs and lows of pop culture, as well as world events, social trends, economic realities, behavioral norms, and ways of seeing the world. The society that molds you when you are young stays with you the rest of your life.

Today's young people are experiencing that society right now, and they speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities. Joan Chiaramonte, head of the Roper Youth Report, says that for young people "the gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater." If you would like to start an argument, claim that young people today have it (a) easy, or (b) tough. Be forewarned: you might need referees before it's all over.

I have researched generational differences for thirteen years, since I was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate working on my B.A. thesis. When I began, most of what had been written about generations was based on an amalgam of personal experience and educated guesses: it speculated about possible differences, but had little proof they actually existed. I read book after book that said things such as young people now are more likely to come from divorced homes, so they are more anxious and cynical (but were they really?). And, people born after 1982 entered a more child-centered society, so they would be more group-oriented (but was that really true?). It was all very interesting, but all very vague and nonscientific. I kept thinking, "Where's your proof? Has anyone ever found the real differences among the generations, instead of just guessing?"

The next year, I entered a Ph.D. program in personality psychology at the University of Michigan. I soon learned that academic psychologists measure personality traits and attitudes with carefully designed and validated questionnaires. Best of all, many of those questionnaires had been used thousands of times since they were first written in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and most people who filled them out were college students and schoolchildren. That meant I could compare scores on these measures and see exactly how young people's personalities and attitudes had changed over the generations. To my surprise, no one had ever done this before.

This book presents, for the first time, the results of twelve studies on generational differences, based on data from 1.3 million young Americans. Many of the studies find thatwhenyou were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you. Or, in the words of a prescient Arab proverb, "Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers." When you finish this book, you'll be ready for an argument about which generation has it easy or tough and why -- you might even want to start it. At the very least, if you're part of Generation Me, you can use this book to bean that annoying guy who says that people your age are lazy and shiftless. Who says books can't be useful?

This book focuses on the current generation of young people, born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, whom I call Generation Me. Right now in the 2000s, this group ranges from elementary school kids to thirty-something adults. Although thirty years is a longer-than-average span for a generation, it nicely captures the group of people who grew up in an era when focusing on yourself was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. A member of this generation myself, I was born in 1971. Like most of us who came along after the Baby Boom, I'm too young to remember Vietnam, Woodstock, or Watergate. During the summer of 1980, when every tree held a yellow ribbon for the Iran hostages, my main activity was running when I heard the chimes of the ice cream truck. Since I'm at the leading edge of this group, however, I'm also too old to have pierced anything except my ears or to have ever owned a Justin Timberlake poster. But when I talk about Generation Me, I'm also talking about myself.

Why the label Generation Me? Since GenMe'ers were born, we've been taught to put ourselves first. Unlike the Baby Boomers, GenMe didn't have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that our own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion, and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made us the mostwantedgeneration of children in American history. Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom: why talk about it? It's just the way things are. This blasé attitude is very different from the Boomer focus on introspection and self-absorption: GenMe is not self-absorbed; we're self-important. We take it for granted that we're independent, special individuals, so we don't really need to think about it.

This is not the same as saying that young people are spoiled. That would imply that we always got what we wanted. Although some parents are indeed too indulgent, young people today must overcome many difficult challenges that their elders never had to face. While families could once achieve middle-class status on the earnings of one high school-educated person, it now takes two college-educated earners to achieve the same standard of living. Many teens feel that the world demands perfection in everything, and some are cracking under the pressure. Many people reaching their twenties find that their jobs do not provide the fulfillment and excitement they had anticipated, and that their salary isn't enough to afford even a small house. There's an acronym that describes how this growing self-reliance can be stressful: YO-YO (You're On Your Own).

I am also not saying that this generation is selfish. For one thing, youth volunteering has risen in the last decade. As long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals, GenMe finds fulfillment in helping others. We want to make a difference. But we want to do it in our own way. GenMe also believes that people should follow their dreams and not be held back by societal expectations. Taking a job in a new city far from one's family, for example, isn't selfish, but it does put the individual first. The same is true for a girl who wants to join a boys' sports team or a college student who wants to become an actor when his parents want him to be a doctor. Not only are these actions and desires not considered selfish today (although they may have been in past generations), but they're playing as inspirational movies at the local theater. These aspirations are also being touted by politicians, even conservative ones -- such opportunities are what George W. Bush is talking about when he says that "the fire of freedom" should be spread around the world.

This is the good part of the trend -- we enjoy unprecedented freedom to pursue what makes us happy. But our high expectations, combined with an increasingly competitive world, have led to a darker flip side, where we blame other people for our problems and sink into anxiety and depression. Perhaps because of the focus on the self, sexual behavior has also changed radically: these days, parents worry not just about high school sex but about junior high school sex.

All of this, and we don't even have a name. People born in the late 1960s to the 1970s are often labeled "Generation X," but they have not been reexamined since being named in the early 1990s, long before their primary identity veered from slackers to Internet millionaires. It's just not clear that the GenX label fits now that flannel shirts are out. One advertising executive called the early 1990s depiction of this generation as bored cynics "the most expensive marketing mistake in history." Some descriptions (and birth years) of GenX overlap with what I call Generation Me, but it's clear that the GenX description is incomplete and often misguided. And the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s -- today's children, teenagers, and people in their early twenties -- has no name at all. Some marketers have used "GenY," which simply parrots the GenX label and thus probably won't last long: who wants to be named after the people older than you? Some have called young people the "Net Generation," as this is the first generation to grow up with the Internet, but this label has not caught on (and being the first to experience something doesn't mean much; the Boomers were the first "TV Generation," but later generations have clearly trumped them in their attachment to the boob tube). "Millennials," a somewhat better name, has also yet to stick, and of course that whole millennium thing is so 1999. But combine this label with the Net Generation idea, and you can name this generation after a version of Windows: the Millennium Edition. The convenient abbreviation? ME.

A neat twist on the Generation Me label -- and in the same computer-oriented vein -- is iGeneration. The first letter is nicely packed with meaning: it could stand for Internet (as it does in iMac and iPod) or for the first person singular that stands for the individual. Its pronunciation also appropriately suggests vision, either the things inside young people's heads that are usually glued to the computer or the TV, or the vision of young people in shaping a new world. It's an appropriate name for a generation raised with on-demand "iMedia" like TiVo, the Internet, and the ever-present iPod.

I don't really expect the Generation Me label to replace the GenX, GenY, and Millennial labels, though I'd welcome it if it did (iGeneration or iGen might have a better shot). The GenX label has been with us since the early 1990s and is fairly well established, so those of us born between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s are probably stuck with it -- though we'd love to shake that slacker stereotype. Those born after 1980 do not yet have a coherent generational identity or name, but this should arrive sometime in the next ten years. What it will be is anybody's guess. Generation Me is a description as well as a label, a way of capturing our most distinctive trait -- the freedom and individualism we take for granted. After the relatively unified mass of the Baby Boomers, the rest of us can only hope to be understood; we might not be precisely defined.

My perspective on today's young generation differs from that of Neil Howe and William Strauss, who argue in their 2000 book,Millennials Rising,that those born since 1982 will usher in a return to duty, civic responsibility, and teamwork. Their book is subtitledThe Next Great Generationand contends that today's young people will resemble the generation who won World War II. I agree that in an all-encompassing crisis today's young people would likely rise to the occasion -- people usually do what needs to be done. But I see no evidence that today's young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Instead, as you'll see in the following pages, young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves. This is not an attitude conducive to following social rules or favoring the group's needs over the individual's. When the United States entered the war in Iraq, new enlistments in the military went down, not up; this generation is no more inclined than Boomers were to get killed in a foreign war. Even the subtitleThe Next Great Generationdisplays the hubris fed to the young by their adoring elders. When the World War II generation was growing up during the 1920s, no one was calling them the Greatest Generation and telling them they were the best kids ever. That label was not even applied to them until 2001, more than fifty years after their accomplishments during the 1940s.

Strauss and Howe also argue that today's young people are optimistic. This is true for children and adolescents, who have absorbed the cheerful aphorisms so common today (Chapter 3 of this book, for example, is titled "You Can Be Anything You Want to Be"). Yet this optimism often fades -- or even smashes to pieces -- once Generation Me hits the reality of adulthood. If you are a Baby Boomer or older, you might remember the 1970 bookFuture Shock,which argued that the accelerating pace of cultural change left many people feeling overwhelmed. Today's young people, born after this book was published, take these changes for granted and thus do not face this problem. Instead, we face a different kind of collision: Adulthood Shock. Our childhoods of constant praise, self-esteem boosting, and unrealistic expectations did not prepare us for an increasingly competitive workplace and the economic squeeze created by sky-high housing prices and rapidly accelerating health care costs. After a childhood of buoyancy, GenMe is working harder to get less.

This book focuses on changes among young Americans -- and on trends that have arrived at different times, or not at all, in many other cultures. However, many of the changes here can be generalized to other nations, particularly other Western nations such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Germany. These cultures have also experienced the movement toward focusing on the needs of the self, as well as the dark flip side of increased depression and anxiety. Developing countries might well be next. Like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, American individualism is spreading to all corners of the globe. If current trends continue in developing countries, Generation Me boomlets might soon be arriving around the world. The more exposure kids get to American culture, the more they will rebel against the family-first, group-oriented ethos of many cultures around the world.

This generation is not only the future: we are now. The accelerated pace of recent technological and cultural change makes it more important than ever to keep up with generational trends. A profound shift in generational dynamics is occurring right now in the 2000s. Baby Boomers, usually defined as people born between 1946 and 1964, have dominated our culture since they were born, because of their large numbers. But this won't last forever: the first Boomers turned 60 in January 2006. Though they are loath to admit it, Boomers have already lost their grip on the marketers and advertisers of the world. As early as June 2000, Time magazine announced the "Twilight of the Boomers." Business and marketing have already moved on to GenMe, which, as of 2005, completely dominated the lucrative 18-to-35 age group as well as the teen and tween age brackets. These are the consumers everyone wants to reach, and it's time to understand them.

And I do mean understand, not change. In the final chapter, I provide some advice on how to combat the more negative aspects of current generational trends, but I am not suggesting that we return to the supposedly ideal days of the 1950s (which, of course, were ideal only for some people). Nor am I suggesting that these trends are this generation's "fault." Instead, young people today should be seen as products of their culture -- a culture that teaches them the primacy of the individual at virtually every step, and a culture that was firmly in place before they were born. Asking young people today to adopt the personality and attitudes of a previous time is like asking an adult American to instantly become Chinese. Morris Massey, for years a popular speaker on generations, put it this way: "The gut-level value systems are, in fact, dramatically different between the generations....The focus should not be so much on how to change other people to conform to our standards, our values. Rather, we must learn how to accept and understand other people in their own right, acknowledging the validity of their values, their behavior." As Massey points out and research supports, our value systems are set in childhood and don't change much thereafter. Massey's favorite question is "Where were you when you were ten?" Put another way, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

I'm not trying to stereotype the generations. The studies I discuss here show what people from certain generations are like on average. Many of these studies show very strong, consistent change, but of course there will always be exceptions to the rule. Some members of the World War II generation lost their virginity at 15, and some members of GenMe waited until they were 30 to have sex. Yet at the same time, there is no denying that sexual activity now begins, on average, sooner than it did fifty years ago (particularly among young women). The same is true for psychological states: some older people are depressed just as some younger people are, but there is some very convincing evidence that depression and anxiety are markedly more prevalent among younger generations. These shifts in averages are important. Marketing studies, for example, find that generational styles influence purchasing decisions as much or more than sex, income, and education.

My empirical research on change over time in personality and attitudes provides the backbone to this book: it shapes the chapter topics and provides the basis for how GenMe really differs from previous generations. This makes the book unique among those that discuss generations, because it summarizes psychological data -- and a very large amount -- collected at various times. I haven't surveyed the generations as they are now, with Boomers middle-aged and GenMe in youth and rising adulthood. Instead, I've found data on what Boomers were like when they were young in the 1960s and 1970s and compared it to data on young people from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. This is an enormous benefit, as I can be confident that the changes aren't due to age or to people misremembering what they were like when they were young (how many parents have fudged a detail or two about their own teenage years?). I've provided more details about this method in the next section and in the Appendix.

I have also gathered a large amount of supplemental data from various sources. For example, the Higher Education Research Institute has conducted a nationwide survey of over 300,000 American college freshmen every year since the late 1960s. TheStatistical Abstract of the United Statesis a gold mine of statistics going back decades (I often joke that it is my favorite book: what it lacks in plot it more than makes up for in information). Many other surveys, polls, research studies, and books reveal the true feelings of today's young people. I have tried to bring to life a wide range of research on generational differences in personality, attitudes, and behavior -- my own research and others', and from both academic and popular sources.

I have supplemented this numerical data with more qualitative opinions from a number of sources. Over two hundred of my students at San Diego State University shared their stories through written essays. This was a very diverse group, including students of every ethnicity and background, ranging from first-generation college students to upper-middle-class kids. Another fifty young people from around the country contributed stories and thoughts through my website, www.genera tionme.org. I have also drawn on my own stories and those of my friends and family, most from Texas and the Midwest, where I lived before moving to California in 2001. In all cases, I have changed names and, in some instances, identifying details, and stated ages reflect the person's age at the time of the quote.

I also include ample references to popular culture, including television, movies, music, and magazines, without which a book on young people today would not be complete. This is where the culture lives and breathes, especially for a generation that has always enjoyed cable TV with one hundred channels. And our pop culture refers constantly to the self and individuality. My husband got used to my folding down pages in magazines and seeing me suddenly rush for a pen while watching TV. I was astounded at how often I heard the word "self" from so many different sources. I had never really noticed it before, as most of us haven't: like fish swimming in the ocean, we don't notice the water because it is all around us and has always been there.

Even the most innocuous TV comments now catch my attention. During a recent episode of her eponymous talk show, Ellen Degeneres said that the most important thing is "how you feel and being happy." It's a statement most young people take for granted. Dan Atkins, 17, says inGrowing Up Digital,"my basic philosophy toward life is: do whatever makes you happy." But when I asked my mother (born in 1943) about this, she said, "In the early 1960s, most people would have said the most important things were being honest, hardworking, industrious, loyal, and caring about others. I can't even remember thinking about whether I was 'happy.' That's not to say we weren't happy -- we just didn't focus on it." We do now. Here's Mario, a recent college graduate quoted in the bookQuarterlife Crisis:"I just try to do whatever will make me happier, and think of myself first." Welcome to Generation Me.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

The idea for this book began when I was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Chicago in 1992, working on my B.A. thesis. Unfortunately, and unknown to me at the time, my thesis was a rather undistinguished project that would ultimately be rejected by four journals and never published. However, an intriguing tangent of this work led to the thirteen years of research and twelve publications in prestigious scientific journals that form the basis of this book.

One of the questionnaires I used in my ill-fated B.A. project was the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, which measures personality traits associated with one sex or the other. For example, "assertive" and "acts like a leader" are items on the "masculine" scale, and "compassionate" and "yielding" are items on the "feminine" scale. I had always been fascinated by how gender shapes our personalities, and still had a copy of the scale I'd received nine years before at a Texas Tech University program designed to show middle school students what college was like (the program bore the clumsy name "Shake Hands with Your Future," and, now that I've been to college, I think it would have been more accurate if it had included beer).

For my B.A. thesis, I gave this questionnaire and one about appearance choices to 150 college students, mostly by hijacking people everywhere I went. People filled out questionnaires at loud parties, during particularly boring classes, and between bites of barely tolerable food in the dining hall. Several questionnaires bore water stains from being penciled in at a swim meet. Most people were willing to help, although as word got around, the occasional potential victim would duck around a corner if I appeared carrying pencils.

I went about analyzing the data on my ultimately doomed project, looking for correlations between all kinds of things like hair length, earrings, and -- yes -- that test of gender-related personality traits. That's when I noticed something interesting: about 50% of the women in my sample scored as "masculine" on the test, meaning that they had endorsed significantly more of the stereotypically masculine traits (like "assertive") than the feminine items. When the test was written in 1973, only about 20% of women scored that way. This was completely tangential to the main question of my amateurish thesis, but interesting nevertheless.

I immediately thought that this might be a difference between generations -- being a woman in 1973 was surely quite different from being one in 1992. On the other hand, my sample was far from random and consisted of students at the University of Chicago, a group not known for its normalcy: the school is intensely intellectual and proud of its asocial nerdiness. In his popular syndicated column, "The Straight Dope," Cecil Adams once wrote that U of C undergraduates, like insects that eat book paste, developed their "intellectual predilections as the consequence of an unhappy sex life." So what if he was a biased Northwestern grad -- he was basically right. So I didn't think much of it. Besides, I had a B.A. thesis to write, and it was going to change the world! (Insert ironic eye-rolling here.)

By the next fall, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, collecting more data on my gender role project. This time, participants from an undergraduate class filled out questionnaires in a large classroom over a few evenings. The generational difference popped out again: more than half of the women in the sample had high scores on the scale of stereotypically masculine personality traits. I couldn't write it off to campus this time -- the Michigan undergraduates were distressingly normal -- and these differences were even more interesting than the main results of my thesis (did you know that college women, on average, own fifteen pairs of shoes, compared to five for men?).

But what did I have? Two recent samples to compare to the original one in 1973. What had happened in between those years? Were my samples just a fluke? Fortunately, this scale had been used by a large number of people over twenty years, so the data had to be out there. One spring day in 1994, I decided I just had to find out if women really did embrace more stereotypically masculine traits now, and I developed the method I ultimately used for all of the studies in this book. (As for the results of the "masculine" traits study, you'll find them in Chapter 7.)

The method is really pretty simple, though it's a tremendous amount of work. I begin by searching computer databases for journal articles, master's theses, and dissertations that used a particular scale. I keep only those that used a normal population of a specific age -- usually college students or children. Then I search to find them at the library or in full text databases online, since only the entire article or thesis will have what I'm looking for: the average score of the sample on the questionnaire. Once I find all of the data, I can then graph those scores by the year the data were collected, showing me how scores changed over a range of years -- not just from one year to another, but across the entire time period. Because the samples are roughly the same age (say, college students), this shows how young people differ from one generation to the next. No one had ever done this type of analysis before, so I started from scratch developing a way to find and analyze the data.

I did most of these searches in the labyrinthine stacks of the graduate library at the University of Michigan, a building so vast and confusing that red and yellow lines are painted on the stone floor to help people find the exits. The university had added on to the library in 1970, smushing two buildings of different styles and floor heights together with limited access between the two. The older building ended up with floors like "4A" (reminiscent of the magical seventh-and-a-half floor inBeing John Malkovich)connected by narrow, apparently randomly placed staircases. The tall shelves filled with books created a nerdy form of a Halloween cornfield maze. I would often sit looking through journals only to see some poor soul walk past me, double back again, and then stand under the dim lights with a look of utter confusion on his or her face. During those years, I probably helped more people escape from the Michigan library than anyone else. I imagined these rescued students stumbling gratefully into the thin winter sunlight, relieved that they weren't going to wander around the library for hours until someone finally found them, weak and dehydrated, on floor 1A between HM and HQ.

During these projects, I probably pulled half a million journals off the shelves. ("I hope you're not allergic to dust," my dissertation adviser quipped.) When I left one section of the library to move to another, I would leave behind several teetering stacks of colorfully bound journals, each about four feet tall. I felt sorry for the work-study students who had to reshelve my looming piles of discarded books, many of which were twenty or thirty years old. They must have thought someone left them as a joke, or that a book monster was loose in the library, pulling down old journals from the rusty shelves to create random stacks in scattered carrels. But there were perks as well. One of my favorite finds was an advertisement in a 1920s journal that announced a contest with a $20,000 prize, an enormous sum in those days. The money would go to anyone who proved he or she could perform telekinesis (moving an object with only the force of your mind). I was amused to see that one of the judges for the contest was Harry Houdini. A few issues later came the unsurprising conclusion: no one won the prize.

I also used the Interlibrary Loan Department to obtain endless dissertations and master's theses, another great source of data. I requested so many that the staff began to grimace when I walked up to the desk. I couldn't get every thesis that way, but I soon found out that the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has a copy of every American doctoral dissertation on microfiche. I made many trips there, usually staying with friends in Baltimore, where I slept under a comforter that, despite my friends' best efforts, was their cat's favorite alternative litterbox. Fortunately, the data I got during the day and the great conversations with my friends in the evenings more than made up for it -- what's a little cat piss when you're finding out how generations really differ?

The dissertations were a study of change in themselves. The earliest, from the 1940s and 1950s, were on transparently thin, onion-skin paper, with blurred typewriter print -- there were no photocopiers, so documents had to be typed on carbon paper, with the copies made as the typing was done. Apparently, the library copy was never the original, and the type blurred as the typewriter keys struck through several layers of paper and carbon. Who knew? Certainly not a child of the computer age like me.

A little later, after copiers became more common, dissertations were still typewritten but clearer. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost every male student thanked his wife for typing his dissertation. I could just see those poor women, tired from a day in the secretarial pool, coming home to struggle through their husbands' scribbled sentences. By the late 1970s and 1980s, dissertations almost always appeared in the then-ubiquitous, straight-serif font of the IBM electric typewriter. Slowly, computer fonts began to appear; someone had bought one of the first Apple Macintoshes, and would get overly creative using more than one font in a document. By the 1990s, almost every dissertation was in Times New Roman. No one thanked his wife for typing his dissertation anymore, and many of the dissertations were written by the wives themselves, who were now getting their own Ph.D.'s. The modern age had arrived.

After years of doing library searches, I overloaded on the tedium. Fortunately, by then I had wonderful and enthusiastic graduate students to help. But I still feel a misty wave of nostalgia when I remember the library stacks I frequented in just about every place I lived and visited, including Iowa, Michigan, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and California. Every time I went to the library, it felt like a treasure hunt: somewhere amid those dusty books was the answer, and all I had to do was find it. I imagined the numbers I sought flying off the candlelight-yellow pages, swirling into the air between the metal shelves of the stacks, drawing a picture of change across the generations. (What can I say? I was an overeager graduate student.) Even as the years passed and I started new projects, I knew that those dusty books I mined contained a rich vein of information from which to reassemble the remarkable story of past and future generations. This book tells that story.

Copyright © 2006 by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D.



Excerpted from Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean M. Twenge
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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