The Narcissism Myth

02/03/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

College students would rather get a self-esteem boost, from a good grade or a compliment, than eat their favorite food or have sex. This is according to a new study, and the conclusion one can extract is apparently clear: Young people today are super into themselves.

Narcissism has been our generational diagnosis for some time, a complex born of inflated grades, helicopter moms, and overscheduled childhoods. In this grim job market, we return to our trophy-stocked bedrooms, biding our time with unpaid internships until a fulfilling, creative and socially conscious career lands in our laps.

The self-obsession of today's youth seems to be a self-evident fact of our culture, requiring no more evidence than the faces of young people, basking for hours a day in the sickly glow of smartphones and Macbooks, uploading an endless stream of "candid" and "coy" pics.

The New York Times Magazine cover story last year "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" topped the website's charts for weeks, sent passive aggressively no doubt from many parents to their drifter kids, and consumed ravenously by the 20-somethings who are, of course, tickled by anything in which we headline.

This charge has become so true that it formed the basis of David Brooks' column last week, responding to Obama's call for civility. "Children are raised amid a chorus of applause," he said. With egos artificially fortified by participation medals and Omega-3 fish oil, people have "lost a sense of their own sinfulness." Entitled punks are the new American majority, Brooks claims, in slightly different words. We are righteous in our beliefs and tantrum when denied. Our political culture is uncivil, because it was raised that way.

When our brattishness is extrapolated to anywhere in the region of the Tucson tragedy, perhaps it's time to unpack our basic premise.

The definition of narcissism is to excessively love or admire oneself, at the expense of others. Narcissists, for example, are bad boyfriends. But if anything, young people today are obsessed with their relationships. That's what social media is all about, says Mark Zuckerberg, and I'm inclined to think he's three quarters right.

Some over-share for the pure thrill of display, but most people carefully craft their output to win the kudos of friends and followers. We don't hurl our bursting egos into the Internet, but build our self-esteem through likes, re-tweets, views and comments.

We aren't so much narcissistic as needy.

And acutely self-aware. That is what hours of online profile sculpting has truly given us - a hyper-sense of our own self-hood, which isn't the same as self-esteem. There is usually, in fact, a negative correlation. Do you feel better about yourself the longer you stare in the mirror?

No. You notice weird bumps and asymmetries and your body becomes a scientific specimen and how could anyone find you sexually attractive? you are a bag o' flesh and stomach out stomach in stomach out and you should probably put yours pants on and do something productive now.

Young people today don't vlog out of self-love, but in pursuit of affirmation. We didn't grow up "amid a chorus of applause," but with intense parental pressure, as competition for college spots soared. We didn't get the message that we surpassed all expectations, but that expectations surpassed our human limits.

Getting chauffeured to karate and drilled in piano arpeggios may be privilege, but it isn't coddling. Amy Chua's children can testify to that.

Gen Y certainly begs for attention online, but not, necessarily, because we think we deserve it. The ephemeral flashes of recognition fulfill, for a moment, our deeply instilled drive to achieve.

Our society is becoming more superficial, as Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue in their book The Narcissism Epidemic. But that's just what happens when the average person is exposed to 3000 ads a day telling him or her to need things. He or she starts wanting things he or she doesn't need.

But as for Generation Y in particular? Yes, we're schlepping towards adulthood, living with mom and dad at the age they got married, and dabbling post-college as an "assistant producer" for a "stipend." But the same thing has been happening around the world, and much more severely too, in countries like Spain, Italy and Japan. That's what happens when kids marry at 27 instead of 21, and stable, lifetime employment becomes a wistful mirage.

But America, with its by-the-bootstraps Protestant work ethic, finds it much harder than other countries to accept this shift. Kids today aren't adapting to new structural realities, but simply a generation of narcissists, raiding the parents' fridge and tweeting the whimsical minutiae of their wayward existence. It's much easier to blame Facebook for these changes than the post-Fordist economy.

So college students today get their headiest high from a self-esteem fix. This doesn't mean they're all ego addicts. A lot of young people may just be driven and self-aware, preferring a good grade to a quickie and fried chicken bucket.

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