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Twenge's critique of self-esteem

'Why today's young Americans are more assertive, confident, entitled - and more miserable than ever before'.

The research behind Generation Me
Jean Twenge is currently an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her book, Generation Me, published in 2006 is the result of 13 years of unique research into generational differences. When she was a young psychology researcher, Twenge realised that from the 1950s on psychology students and more serious researchers, had undertaken a myriad of research projects into the attitudes and personality traits of school children and college students. Many of them had used exactly the same questionnaires as measurement tools. What Twenge did was locate all these thousands of studies and put them together into a meta-analysis, with data from 1.3m young Americans. Her goal was to assess shifts over time. The book is the outcome of 12 different research projects she has been involved in along the way. 

Generational shifts 
Twenge argues that her book corroborates an ancient Arab proverb which says: 'Men resemble their times more than they resemble their fathers.'  In other words, her research shows that there have been huge shifts in the attitudes and personalities of young people in the USA over the last few decades. 

Twenge is not the first researcher to talk about generational shifts in attitudes. Ideas of this type are the mainstay of market research. But her work is unique because it is based on detailed psychological data from the 1950s on. From her research Twenge describes two generations. The first comprises the baby boomers who were born between 1946, at the close of the Second World War, and the late 1960s. This older generation has been the subject of much prior analysis. The second generation she describes include the people born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This later generation therefore includes those currently at school, right up to those in their mid 30s. She calls this group Generation Me. So what are the key differences between these two generations? 

Baby boomer philosophy
The baby boomer generation were brought up by people who had lived through a world war and whose values were about honour and duty. In other words, their parents' lives were governed by rules, formality and politeness. It was also a world dominated by God and the state and where other people mattered much more than the individual. Come the 1960s when many baby boomers went to college they rebelled against this value system. They questioned authority. Many wanted to change the world and became radicalised and involved in political action. Much of their new thinking was done in groups e.g. consciousness-raising. As this generation aged and lost its belief in politics many channelled their thinking into the new age and psychological growth which they saw as a quest for self-discovery and fulfilment. Twenge argues that what characterises baby boomer thinking is its emphasis on 'meaning', spirituality and personal growth. Although their focus changed many never lost the interest in changing the world or the emphasis on groups and society. She also argues that many young people find baby boomer thinking incredibly abstract and 'moralistic'.

The emphasis on personal growth was clearly to the fore in baby boomers' parenting style. As birth control was widespread, the vast majority of children born to baby boomers were wanted. Twenge argues that this generation then brought their children up to forget about duty, or politeness or social approval and concentrate instead on being themselves. As parents they repeatedly told their children that they were special and the most important people in the world. Thanks to the influence of the self-esteem movement, baby boomers' children had these ideas reinforced at schools throughout America. 

Although baby boomers had started out with strong political views, they were also individualistic and focussed on 'the self''. However, according to Twenge this did not run deep in their personalities. 'Those who adopted the ways of the self as young adults', she writes, speak the language with an accent.' Not so their offspring - Generation Me: 'the self is their native tongue'. Unlike their parents who talked about 'journeys' of self-discovery - 'the culture of the self is our hometown, writes Twenge as she was born during this era. She goes on:

We don't have to join groups or talk of journeys, because we're already there. We don't need to 'polish' the self - because we take for granted that it's already shiny. We don't need to look inward; we already know what we will find. Since we were small children, we were taught to put ourselves first. That's just the way the world works - why dwell on it. Let's go to the mall

The rise of 'the self' is perfectly mapped out in the data Twenge analysed. As part of her research, she examined almost 70,000 college students' responses to the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale. What she discovered is that by the mid 1990s, 'the average GenMe college man had higher self-esteem than 86% of college men in 1968. The figure for women was 71%. Similar trends have been shown in children's attitudes to themselves. Twenge argues that what is mysterious about their high self-esteem figures is that the late 1980s and 90s were not very child friendly and divorce rates were high - something which often affects how children feel about themselves. 

Twenge argues that the self-esteem figures rose over this period not just because of baby boomers' parenting style but because they were systematically subjected to self-esteem building exercises in school. The various techniques and approaches used have been outlined elsewhere in this section. Twenge argues that this has had profound implications for the personalities, attitudes and skills of Generation Me. 

Academic standards
In line with some other critics Twenge points out that during the time that self-esteem building exercises were common in school, the academic performance of young Americans dropped considerably in relation to other countries. She also says that 'grade inflation has reached record highs'. For example 18% of American young people starting out in college in 1968 reported they had earned an average A in high school. The figure in 2004 had soared to 48%. Further evidence supports Twenge's claim that self-esteem has risen while academic standards have not. For example, one survey of the mathematical skills of students in 1989 in 8 countries showed that American pupils came bottom of the class. However, when they were asked to rate their mathematical ability they topped the league. The opposite was true for Korean students. 

In his book dedicated to critique the self-help movement in the USA - Sham - Steve Salerno, documents some of the country's poor academic performance:

In 1889 the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released the results of its Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), involving twelfth graders from twenty-three nations. In combined math and scientific literacy, the United States placed fourth from the bottom, ahead of only LIthuania, Cyprus and South Africa, those historic hotbeds of scientific innovation. In advanced math, the United States outpaced only Austria. In physics, American kids finished dead last.

A number of books have developed this theme that self-esteem, and feeling good, have been cultivated at the expense of academic achievement. Maureen Stout, an educational psychologist, has written a book called The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of American Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem. She maintains that schools have deliberately lowered expectations to  avoid damaging student's self-esteem and that school staff commonly believe that the emotional development of the child is more important than the young person's intellectual development. The outcome of these, and other activities undertaken in the name of building self-esteem, is that increasingly young people in the USA do not have the skills or attitudes needed to do well in higher education. Dr Mark H. Shapiro, a former physics professor and social commentator, writes of this problem: 'Those of us who teach at the university level have become increasingly frustrated by students who feel that their ignorance is just as good as our knowledge.'  He also writes that have been 'rankled' when colleagues from the education faculty exhort them to become more 'student-centered' when they thought the whole point of university education was that it should be 'idea-centered'. 

The rise in narcissism and entitlement 
As Twenge points out, psychologists agree that narcissism is not a positive personality trait. Narcissists are overly focussed on themselves, find it difficult to empathise with others, often manipulate others to achieve their goals and can be very hostile, if not downright aggressive, if they do not get the respect they think they are due. As a result of these traits narcissists often find it difficult to sustain relationships with others. Lillian G. Katz who works at the University of Illinois Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative believes that some school self-esteem programmes encourage an excessive focus on the self and may have unwanted effects. 'As commendable as it is for children to have high self-esteem, many of the practices advocated in pursuit of this goal may instead inadvertently develop narcissism in the form of excessive preoccupation with oneself,' writes Katz. 

Twenge has indeed found in her research that narcissism is much more common now than in past generations. Only 12% of teenagers in the early 1950s agreed with the statement 'I am an important person' but by the late 1980s this had risen to 80%. Other psychologists have also found a rise in narcissistic personality traits. 

Twenge links the rise of narcissism with the growing sense of 'entitlement' among Generation Me. She says this can take the form of students 'demanding' better grades, irrespective of the effort they have put in, or  speeding drivers and road rage which has become increasingly a feature of contemporary society.  

The everyday culture which surrounds GenMe also supports a narcissistic focus on the self. This can be seen in the lyrics of songs like Whitney Houston's classic 'The Greatest Love of All' which turns out to be for yourself. It can also be seen in the countless magazine articles and pop psychology books on relationships which often promote the idea that loving yourself and being your own best friend is more important than forming relationships. In fact if you feel too attached to others it will be labelled 'co-dependency'. All of this turns on its head the psychological research which repeatedly shows that the most important thing for happiness is not self-love but good stable relationships. 

Unrealistic ambitions
Twenge presents evidence to show that GenMe have much higher ambitions for themselves than previous generations and that it is not difficult to understand why: they grew up repeatedly being told they could become whatever they wanted to and to believe in themselves and 'follow their dream'.  These expectations are to earn some kind of advanced academic award and to make a lot of money. No doubt as a result of the mass media, many want to have careers in acting, sport, music, media etc even though they often have little talent or aptitude for such pursuits. Twenge repeatedly points out that the problem for these young people is that they have big dreams for themselves of success and money at a time when competition for jobs and access to higher education has never been tougher. 

Depression, anxiety and loneliness
Twenge, like Seligman, presents evidence on the rise of depression in the USA, particularly in young people. But she goes further than this and looks at the incidence of anxiety. She analysed data on over 40,000 college students and 12,000 children who completed anxiety measures between the 1950s and 1990s. As she says herself, the results are stunning: 

Anxiety increased so much that the average college student in the 1990s was more anxious that 85% of students in the 1950s and 71% of students in the 1970s. The trend for children was even more striking: Children as young as 9 years old were markedly more anxious than kids had been in the 1950s. The change was so large that 'normal' schoolchildren in the 1980s reported higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. This may help explain why the suicide rate for children under 14 has doubled in the past twenty-five years. 

Another startling finding from Twenge's research is that 'when' you are born now has more influence on your anxiety level than your family background. In other words, young people from stable, loving families are more vulnerable and more at risk from anxiety because of the times in which they live. 

Like Seligman, Twenge argues that one of the reasons why depression and mental health problems have increased is that the pre-occupation with 'the self' means that when life is challenging or disappointing young people cannot put it in perspective. But she believes that it is also because young people are much more lonely and isolated than before. Research indicates that four times more Americans nowadays describe themselves as 'lonely' as compared with those in 1957. Twenge believes that for young people this loneliness often results from the collapse of dating, later marriage and a high divorce rate. The frequent moves demanded by modern business can compound the problem. Echoing the famous line from Janis Joplin's song 'freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose', Twenge argues that young people pay dearly for their values of independence, freedom and putting themselves first. She writes: 'I often feel that many of us are one breakup, or one move away from depression - our roots are not deep enough, our support system too shallow.'  

In one of the most perceptive passages in the book, Twenge writes:

One of the strangest things about modern life is the expectation that we will stand alone, negotiating breakups, moves, divorces, and all manner of heartbreak that previous generations were careful to avoid. This may be the key to the low rate of depression among older generations: despite all the deprivation and war they experienced, they could always count on each other.

Cynicism and feelings of control
One of the most significant findings of Twenge's research is that young people increasingly believe that they are not masters of their own fate. An important concept in psychology is 'locus of control'. A significant difference between people is whether they believe they are in control of their own lives and have an 'internal' locus of control or whether they think their lives are determined by others or by fate - an 'external' locus of control. Research illustrates convincingly that people who believe in the power of external forces are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety and to get stressed easily. They are less likely to work hard (what's the point?) and so do less well educationally. They are also more likely to blame others for problems and to claim to be victims. Feeling powerless they are also more likely to be cynical about politics and see little point in becoming involved in collective action. 

Twenge believes that one of the most significant features of her research is that it shows an extremely large shift from internal to external locus of control in young people in the USA. Indeed her research shows that 'external control beliefs increased about 50% between the 1960s and the 2000s.'  

The links between feelings of powerlessness and self-esteem
Twenge argues that the emphasis on the self, and self-esteem in particular, is mainly responsible for the increase in external locus of control. This is how she explains this apparent paradox: 

Suppose that you're a student and you fail a test. If you acknowledge that you were lazy about studying - or just plain stupid - your self-esteem with suffer. If you can blame the teacher's unfair test, however, you can slide through the experience still feeling good about yourself. We say that bad things aren't our fault in an effort to preserve our self-confidence. 

In other words, if you continually tell young people that they can achieve anything in life if they just believe in themselves and want it badly enough then failure can be so difficult to bear, and so much a poor reflection on the self, that it is often better for them to believe life has treated them unfairly than to accept the truth of their own shortcomings. 

Applicability of Twenge's research
Jean Twenge's research is on changes in young people's attitudes in the USA. However, given the influence of the mass media and the rise of individualism and materialism round the globe, much of what she describes is also relevant outside America, albeit in a somewhat diluted form. 

The Australian writer Richard Eckersley, whose views you can listen to in the Well-being section of these Positive Psychology Resources, eloquently links the conclusions of Twenge's research to general changes in the culture of western societies. In Well and Good he writes: 

We can glimpse in these psychological changes how individualism came to represent not authentic autonomy, but self-centredness: the satisfaction of personal wants, a preoccupation with entitlements, the abrogation of responsibilities and a withering of collective effort. Broadly speaking, it would seem that cultural trends like individualism and materialism have shifted the focus of our lives from the internal to the external, the intrinsic to the extrinsic, the subjective to the objective, so creating an 'empty' or 'separate' self: socially and historically disconnected, discontented, insecure; pursuing constant gratification and external affirmation; prone to addiction, obsession and excess; with much of this disguised by a show of self-confidence and gregariousness. 

Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006 

 
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