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!