How Generation Me Works

Generation Me is generally defined by its focus on individualism and belief in itself.
Generation Me is generally defined by its focus on individualism and belief in itself.
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Generations can be hard to define. We tend to combine huge groups of people into arbitrary categories based on the decades in which they were born and the presumably shared set of cultural traits that shaped their lives and experiences. Some generations are easier to pin down than others: Americans who fought in World War II (or who sacrificed and worked on the home front) are widely known as the Greatest Generation. The children born in the economic prosperity of that war's aftermath are called the Baby Boomers. Their children comprise Generation X, born in the 60s and 70s, who grew up in the 80s.

Who comes after Gen X? These people were born in the 1980s through the beginning of the millennium, and they're often called Generation Y or the Millennials. There doesn't seem to be a defining cultural characteristic that binds them together, however. With the possible exception of 9/11, no unifying, singular, generation-defining world event took place for them. Even the name "Generation Y" suggests this: They have no identity other than the fact that they came after Generation X.

Sociologists who study generational patterns have suggested that they do have a defining characteristic, however. They're not defined by a war or a depression. Instead, they're defined by a set of cultural attitudes that causes them to place tremendous emphasis on the rights and the power of the individual. Self-sacrifice for the greater good isn't their first impulse. Instead, they want to be seen as individuals with the freedom to make their own life decisions, unconstrained by societal concerns or traditions. They reject arbitrary authority and believe they have limitless potential, yet they feel stifled and cynical because the world doesn't always work they way they expect it to. Some call them selfish, others simply self-centered. As a result, they've taken on a new name: Generation Me.

At least that's what some sociologists say. Others are pretty sure that at least some of the negative attitudes of Generation Me are simply recycled feelings of antipathy toward a younger generation that show up again and again through history.

What makes Generation Me the way it is? Are these kids truly consumed by a focus on their own personal feelings, wants and dreams, or are they merely getting a rough treatment from an older generation always ready to look down on "kids these days?"

Characteristics of Generation Me

Not every generational researcher agrees on the definition of Generation Me. Most commonly, Generation Me is simply another name for Generation Y, which includes everyone born between the early 1980s and the turn of the century. However, some sociologists extend Generation Me back into the 70s to include a portion of Generation X, because many of the cultural factors that created Generation Me were taking effect at that time. Also, note that the term "the Me Generation" is sometimes applied to Baby Boomers to contrast them with the self-sacrificing Greatest Generation that came before them. If that sounds awfully similar to the way we describe Generation Me, then it may be true that the older generation always thinks the younger one is self-serving and spoiled. To make things more confusing, sometimes "the Me Generation" and "Generation Me" are used interchangeably.

On the other hand, if you've met a lot of Generation Me people, or happen to be one, it's hard to deny an element of truth in the Gen Me identity.

What traits are associated with Generation Me?

  • They reject tradition. From wearing informal clothes to work to sexual orientation, Generation Me is less interested in how it's been done in the past, and more interested in what works best for them.
  • They believe in themselves. Members of Generation Me not only want to be wealthy and famous, they feel they deserve it.
  • They went to college, and some of them stayed there. Generation Me had the importance of higher education drilled into them from an early age, so a large proportion of them went to college, and quite a few continued to grad school and other lengthy educational programs.
  • They're unfiltered. A member of Generation Me is more likely to tell you exactly what he or she thinks of you, and is also likely to share every detail of his or her life with you, whether you're interested or not.
  • They appear to shun hard work. There's a sense of entitlement that says, "I deserve a great job with a good salary, but I'm not sacrificing my personal life to do it, and I won't be subservient to my boss either."
  • They want to be seen as individuals. Whether they're getting tattoos and piercings, wearing unusual clothing or hairstyles, or constantly seeking novel forms of entertainment, Gen Me members put a lot of effort into standing out from the crowd.

Those traits present a simplified view of Generation Me. Of course, not every member possesses all of those traits. While some research has shown such traits to be valid, other research contradicts the view of Generation Me as being any more self-centered than any other young generation. Data shows that each generation throughout the 20th century was seen as being foolish and averse to hard work by the preceding generation. Furthermore, other studies reveal that Generation Me has a greater tendency than prior generations to do charity work or have long-term goals other than material prosperity.

What factors made these self-centered attitudes so prevalent in an entire generation? We'll talk about that next.

Creating a Generation

Generation Me may be all about the self, but it wasn't created in a vacuum.
Generation Me may be all about the self, but it wasn't created in a vacuum.
Simon Winnall/Getty Images

Generation Me is a product of a massive, pervasive shift in cultural attitudes that took place in the U.S. between the end of World War II and the year 2000. Earlier eras, particular the 1950s, are often characterized as conformist. Culture was somewhat monolithic -- everyone watched the same TV shows and listened to the same music. It was more important to fit into society, wear proper clothing and be obedient to authority figures [source: Williams].

This attitude shifted drastically in the 1960s. The social upheaval characterized by the hippie movement, free love, psychedelic drugs, rock music and "dropping out" of society was the result of a divide between the previous generation's values and the younger generation's desire to focus on individualism rather than conformity. Why this happened could be the subject of an entire book -- suffice to say it happened for a variety of complex reasons and had a major impact on the attitudes of the Baby Boomer generation. Potential reasons for the growth of the counterculture include backlash toward the rigid conformity of the 1950s, greater sexual freedom due to the advent of birth control pill, responses to the perceived injustices of American involvement in the Vietnam War and growth of the civil rights movement and student activism on college campuses.

Even though the Boomers had discovered within themselves a new spirit of individualism, they had grown up in that earlier era, when conformity and obedience were paramount. They embraced individualism, but it wasn't part of the fabric of their childhoods. Their children are a different story, however.

Generation Me grew up in a world that had already established the primacy of the individual as a basic fact. From birth, they were bombarded with the idea that they were special, important, unique and excellent. Where schools had previously taught obedience, they now taught self-esteem. The future was described as holding limitless possibilities, where each child could succeed and achieve wonderful things.

Ironically, Generation Me managed to develop a deep cynicism, despite all the praise and prizes. For one thing, its members saw how hard their own parents had worked without seeing riches and fame, so to them it looked as though working hard was a sucker's bet with no guarantee of a payout. At the same time, they left college to find a crumbling economy that didn't always offer the dream job at the dream salary.

Another possible factor in the creation of Generation Me is the splintering of culture itself. There are hundreds of TV channels, dozens of films released every week, thousands of musicians producing music divided into ever smaller sub-genres. There's very little group identity because there's so much culture to choose from. It's ever easier to feel like an individual. The Internet only exacerbates the issue by fostering a democratization of ideas and making it possible to achieve worldwide fame (if fleeting).

If the change in attitude brought on by the Baby Boomers created Generation Me, what will Generation Me's children be like in10 or 20 years?

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  • Halpern, Jake. "The New Me Generation." Boston Globe, Sept. 30, 2007. (Accessed May 30, 2011.)
  • Twenge, Jean. Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press, March 6, 2007.
  • Williams, Ray. "Is The 'Me Generation' Less Empathetic?" Psychology Today, June 6, 2010. (Accessed May 30, 2011.)