Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kids These Days: Empathy, Stereotypes, and the 'Me Generation'

This post cross posted from my new project, Teenagerie.com!

A few people were thoughtful enough to link me to an article on the Psychology Today website entitled "Is the 'Me Generation' Less Empathetic?" I generally hate these sort of articles, as they tend to take a sensationalist, self-satisfied, kids-these-days tone in covering what it usually a made up news story based on a minor study out of an obscure university. As I perused the article though, I realized that my initial judgement was wrong, and that the title of the article does not give justice to the fair thought that author Ray B. Williams puts into exploring generational differences.

In his article, Williams explores the oft-cited stereotype that my generation, Generation Y, is lazy, self-centered, and less empathetic. He pulls quotes from 60 Minutes describing my peers as cynical with fragile egos as a result of childhoods rife with trophies and compliments. He supports these claims with university studies insinuating that we are less empathetic than generations before. Williams also discusses popular theories as to the causes of this so-called epidemic, which call on Facebook, television news, and, of course, violent video games.

This is the point in the article where I usually stop reading, as I can get the "the-kids-are-NOT-alright" trope elsewhere without seeking it out directly. I figured, though, that there was a reason so many people sent me this article, so I kept reading. Turns out, I was right!

In the second half of the article, Williams pulls a double surprise turnaround. First, he turns against all traffic-driving, anti-teen articles that have come before in saying that, perhaps, we shouldn't be so quick to pin unfounded stereotypes on upcoming generations. He writes:
In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article about the "hippies," (Baby Boomers) stating, "to their deeply worried parents throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics." In the 1920's the Dallas Morning News described youth of the day as not caring about people, not "having any sense of shame, honor or duty." These visits to the past may be a wise warning for social scientists to not use scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes of young people.
What a breath of fresh air it is to see an article, written by an adult, even entertain the idea that kids these days have more in common with kids those days than just a rebellious spirit. A trend that has persisted through the ages is that young people are routinely pinned to misconceptions and generalizations that aren't necessarily true. It makes me immensely happy to see a publication as mainstream as Psychology Today go to battle in our defense.

The second move I love that Williams makes is when he proposes the idea that perhaps the issue of empathy deficiency isn't a generational issue at all, but an issue indicative of the era we are living in. He asks:
So is the apparent self-focus, and apparent declining empathy of Gen Y peculiar to this generation or part of a larger general societal trend? Are we witnessing an age of declining empathy?
In bringing up this question, he establishes a sort of cultural accountability that I think is often neglected in discussing "the problem with kids today," and this is where I think Williams hits the metaphorical nail on the head. He asks if this trend is not just teenage, but societal. I think oftentimes, we get so caught up in looking at how a trend is affecting young people, that we neglect to notice if the trend is doing damage to society as a whole.

So to sum, I'd say, yes, some teenagers might be less empathetic. And yes, maybe it's a result of new developments in our culture. But I'd venture to say that adults who live and work in this new-media culture are likely to be empathy-lite as well. In looking at teens as an isolated market segment, we often fail to see the big picture trends. It was nice to see an article do such a great job of pointing this out.

Points of Entry
This post cross posted from my new project, Teenagerie.com!


  1. I haven't read this article, but perhaps it isn't even a societal trend, but just a case of all teenagers, no matter what era they grow up in, don't learn empathy until later in life? Perhaps the people judging Gen Y (which I am a part of, admittedly) have forgotten that self-preservative period when they were a teenager, and empathy could have dire consequences for your social standing?
    Just a thought or two.

  2. I agree with Lizzle that a lack of empathy is something that all teenagers experience; it's just part of that transition period where (not to be mean) you tend to be self-absorbed (i.e. absorbed with trying to figure out yourself and life). Most people grow out of that as they mature and are more able to empathize with others. I also agree that a lack of empathy is something that's more of a societal issue as a whole, affecting all generations.

    These kinds of generational stereotypes annoy me also - I'm a member of Gen Y and I am not (nor is anyone else I know) one of the coddled, self-centred brats many out there like to paint us as. There are brats in every generation, in every country and culture, and there have been since the dawn of time. This is nothing new.

  3. See, Kim and Lizzle, I don't think there is ANYTHING that "all teenagers" experience. I mean, when you say "all teenagers," what do you mean? Do you mean all teenagers in the U.S? All teenagers in developed countries? All teenagers in the world? Because I guarantee you, the experience of, say, a teenager living in the village of Veinte de Enero on the Amazon River isn't going to have much in common--other than maybe age--with a teenager living in the United States. And a teenager living in a small town in the U.S. probably won't have much in common with a teenager living in New York City.

    Your assumption about teenagers bothers me in part because I was an incredibly empathetic teenager. I was always ready to listen to the problems of others, couldn't do enough to help someone in need (even if that person couldn't pay me back), was quick to forgive wrongs done to me, just genuinely LOVED people for the sake of our shared identity as human beings. You know when that changed? When I realized that such a high level of empathy really just opened the door for a lot of people to use me while draining energy I could be spending on the few people who really matter--myself included.

    So I deeply resent both of these assumptions: that teenagers are all lacking in empathy, and that a lack of empathy is necessarily the problem with "kids today."

    One of my roommates volunteers at the local sexual assault center, being woken up during all hours of the night to accompany distraught strangers to the hospital when she has a class to get to at 9 the next morning. I know teenagers and twenty-somethings (still Gen-Yers) who run themselves ragged worrying and caring about everyone around them, while completely forgetting that they have to take care of themselves. My brother just graduated high school. His first act? To get a job and take on his younger brother and sister's cell phone bills so they can keep having them even though his mother can't afford to pay for them anymore.

    And I know plenty of perfectly healthy, able adults who don't give two shits about anyone but themselves...and some of them don't even bother to do THAT. So excuse me if I sound angry or indignant, Kim and Lizzle, but I kind of am.

  4. "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed by wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

    -- Plato, 2,400 years ago.

  5. Good job anonymous - my mind always jumps to that whenever I hear all these terrible things about our generation.

  6. "I generally hate these sort of articles, as they tend to take a sensationalist, self-satisfied, kids-these-days tone in covering what it usually a made up news story based on a minor study out of an obscure university."

    Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. I feel this way whenever I read such articles, but you articulated it better than I've ever been able to.

    I noticed that college professors tended to be this way too. A bit of a condescending, head-shaking, "kids these days" attitude.

  7. All of the "kids these days" perceptions are no different than generalizations made about any group. You see one or two people of a certain peer group act any way, and suddenly those traits are applicable to everyone in that peer group.

    I work with kids in the 12-18 age group, and I've met plenty of teenagers who are self-absorbed, entitled and spoiled. I've met just as many who are generous, funny and self-aware. And still more whose personalities get lost under immense pressures - balancing school, work and helping to raise nieces, nephews, siblings or their own children all at once.

    Individuals are complex and it takes time to get to know them. We label because it's faster. We categorize to make life simpler. That doesn't mean that it works. Especially when people act differently in groups than they would as individuals.

  8. Well the "kids these days" sure as hell know more about our current world and current technologies than those old-farts do.

  9. It's the usual "the kids suck" rant. I think it's about 840,000 years old, maybe older. Ask an austrolopethecine. Don't take it too seriously.

    BTW That Teenagers From Outer Space movie is on archive.org, and it is hilarious. The special effects alone are amazing, and I mean that in the pejorative sense. Relevance to your blog: Where did the heroine get that dress? Does she really wear it every day? Given the special effects budget of this movie, where did the producers get that dress?

  10. I didn't realize we would be considered the same generation. I graduated HS in 2000, and at the time was ranting over articles saying the exact same thing. Gen Y is cooperative! Gen Y has fragile self-esteem! Gen Y expects reward without work! Gen Y is selfish! Gen Y is tolerant! Et cetera. The empathy thing is only a hook for the story.

    *BTW, I got here via Tiger Beatdown. Hi. |=)

  11. I agree with Raisin Girl's first paragraph, in the sense that you can't make generalizations about "teens". The very notion of a "teen" is unique to a lot of societies, and non-existent in others.

    I don't agree with the rest of what she said though, that's confusing selflessness and empathy. Having empathy can be a justification for becoming a doormat, but they aren't one-in-the-same. Empathy is more about reading and understanding people's emotions rather than catering to them.

  12. The kids of the sixties have raised your generation. I think it is funny that you expect a generation like theirs to raise a bunch of angels.

    Sounds like you enjoy reading things that you agree with and have a wall built up against what you don't. That, and you sure don't make a good argument. Grow up.

  13. You're generation is not rebellious. Its kind of annoying that you are even commenting on this whole teenage thing. I mean in 10 years you will look back and see how silly it was for you to overanalyze and be "deep" about something as trivial as being a teenager. It's old hat that all teenagers act the same way. It just got really trendy in the late 90's (when I was a teenager) to wax philosophical and think that everything is deeper than it is while a teen. I bet you define others by their taste in music too. This too shall pass.

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