Are Millennials Cursed?

The jury is still out on whether the generation is narcissistic and disconnected.

Jeremy Rifkin

New data is encouraging, but comes with a caveat; the Internet may be seriously eroding the ability of the Millennial Generation to communicate intelligently among themselves.

For years critics have feared that while the Internet connected more people in networks, the new social affiliations would be less intimate and more superficial than those garnered in traditional face-to-face social discourse. But contrary to the idea that spending time in cyberspace further isolates individuals in a technologically mediated world, studies show just the opposite to be the case, at least for a majority of people.

New data is encouraging, but comes with a caveat; the Internet may be seriously eroding the ability of the Millennial Generation to communicate intelligently among themselves.

Katelyn McKenna, a New York University psychology professor, found that the more people express facets of the self on the Internet that they cannot or do not express in other areas of life, the more likely they are to form strong attachments to those they meet on the Internet.”

Yet, the same communications technology revolution that is paving the way toward global consciousness has a dark side that could derail the journey, sidetracking the Internet generation into a dead-end corridor of rampant narcissism, endless voyeurism and overwhelming ennui.

The Internet has the power to inflate and amplify each person’s desire for recognition. For the narcissistically predisposed, the opportunity to exhibit themselves is as seductive as is the inclination of the voyeuristic to watch. In a commercial world that increasingly plays off both narcissistic and voyeuristic tendencies, the Internet becomes an unmatched medium to commodify (and then market) every aspect and stage of life.

The rap on today’s Millennial Generation (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed and overindulged. They are told they are special and believe that to be the case. Reality TV shows capture the deep yearning among the younger generation to be discovered” and become famous, hopefully overnight. Even if they are denied a role” on reality TV, there are countless other more easily accessible media outlets on the Internet, like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and Flickr.

But the drive for fame reflects a new sense of existential aloneness and a desperate need to be recognized. The desire for fame is often driven by a fear of mortality and the need to gain a fleeting sense of immortality or at least to know that one’s existence is duly noted, recognized and celebrated by millions of others.

Some psychologists and educators believe that a contributing factor to the fame fetish is the self-esteem movement that spread across the country in the 80s and 90s and became deeply embedded in child-raising practices and, even more important, in school curricula. The problem is that if people are led to believe they are special and more important than other people, they become less tolerant of others, less willing to brook criticism, less able to manage failures and less able to express empathy to others.

Have we raised a generation of unadulterated narcissists who care only about themselves? The evidence is mixed.

The Millennials are the first generation to have grown up entirely with the Internet and to be fully embedded in social networking. The distributed nature of the new communications technology and the collaborative relationships it spawns are increasingly reflected in the collective psyche of the generation.

Millennials are disposed to give the opinion of each member of a group equal weight, to work collaboratively, and to seek group consensus. Having grown up on the Internet, they are less likely to accept the word of experts and more likely to believe in the combined wisdom of crowds.

They are far more concerned about the planetary environment and especially climate change, and eager to support sustainable as opposed to unregulated growth. They are also more supportive of a larger role by government than older generations. A PBS program in 2007 reported that 80 percent of Millennials had participated in some kind of community or societal improvement program” in the past year.

This new data is encouraging, but it comes with a disconcerting caveat; although the connectivity made possible by the Internet is bringing the Millennial Generation together in a global cosmopolitan embrace, the same technology may be seriously eroding the ability of the current generation to communicate intelligently among themselves.

Surveys over the past 10 years show an alarming trend amongst the young growing up in front of the screen. Vocabulary is plummeting and, along with it, reading proficiency and the ability to communicate effectively, all of which has far-reaching implications for the ability of people to empathize with one another. According to Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor, electronic media differ from conventional print media like newspapers and adult books in the number of rare” words commonly encountered. Rare words are those words that do not rank in the top 10,000 in terms of frequency of usage.” For example, the average newspaper contains 68.3 rare words per 1,000. By contrast, prime-time adult television shows contain only 22.7 rare words per thousand words uttered.

In every previous communication revolution in history, from oral to script to print, vocabulary increased, giving people a richer reservoir of metaphors and language constructions to build on. More extensive vocabulary allows people to create more complex thoughts and, by so doing, expand the empathic domain, for the obvious reason that people can better express their innermost feelings, intentions and expectations to one another.

We face yet another paradox of the present moment in history: the new Internet connectivity provides the human race with boundless knowledge and channels of communication, but the nature of the medium and how it is used might dramatically lessen the ability of human beings to express themselves in ways that advance common understandings, shared meanings, and empathic connections.

The situation at present is anything but clear. But the likely reality is that a younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mindset, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

The long-term economic downturn facing the global economy as the Second Industrial Revolution moves toward a sunset will probably weaken the narcissist impulse, as personal and collective survival looms ever larger and individual illusions of grandeur amid global chaos come to be regarded as delusional, even comic. A collective narcissism could, however, just as easily be transformed into a virulent xenophobia, with political diatribes aimed at characterizing minorities and other cultures and nationalities as inferior and less than human. It’s happened before.

Troubled times could also lead to an extension of empathic consciousness– we’re all in this together”– as we heighten our sensitivity to each other’s common plight.

Much will depend on our ability to speed along a new Third Industrial Revolution that brings out our collaborative nature, is motivated by a sense of the common good, and is expressed through a new dream of quality of life and planetary sustainability. 

This essay was adapted from The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis by Jeremy Rifkin (Tarcher Penguin).

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Jeremy Rifkin, the founder and president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, is the author of 18 books.
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