Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Culture of Self-Esteem

Twenge and her co-author focus on the relentless indoctrination of Americans with self-esteem. They talk about children singing songs about their uniqueness and specialness in school, and how little girls are encouraged to view themselves as princesses. All this emphasis on specialness causes the kids to feel that they are, indeed, superior to others, and they grow up with a strong sense of narcissism.

This might explain the motivations behind the CEOs who ran their companies into the ground, leaving a jobless and 401K-free workforce while they walked off with millions. It also explained why people in the financial sector bilked thousands and shook up the economy while, once again, walking away with millions. They viewed themselves as special and others as worthless.

Americans are encourage to job-hop. If you are not planning on staying long in a job, you might view your co-workers as temporary acquaintances and useful contacts rather than as a community of like-minded individuals. As organizations become less pyramid-shaped and more diamond-shaped, the competition for the positions at the top of the diamond becomes more fierce because there are fewer top positions. This causes greater competition and more fragmentation among employees.

At the same time, the lifestyles of these who view themselves special are emphasized by the media. In a pre-fragmented American society, people had local role models in their community. However, with frequent moving, Americans no longer have established roots in their local communities. As such, the media provides them with an example of how to live, with an emphasis on extreme consumerism.

Several years ago, PBS ran a series called Pioneer House where several families had to live a pioneer life out west. During the course of a summer, the children in the several pioneer families were called upon to help their families literally survive in the wilderness. One boy, from a wealthy family in the non-Pioneer world, was extremely inventive and came up with novel solutions to his family's problems. A girl had an unusual rapport with animals, which helped with the cows and hens. The children's skills were utilized by the community so that its members would survive but not given overly great emphasis by the parents. After the series ended, its makers went back and interviewed the families. The inventive little boy was interviewed in his family's lavish house. He commented that he missed being a pioneer since he had never been bored, always had something to do, and his family had become quite close. Now that he was back in 20th century America, he filled his empty hours with TV and video games. This lends validity to Chris Maisano's comment.

The decline of the middle class may be feeling the emphasis on specialness and the rise of narcissism. Previous generations knew that they would live as comfortably as their parents, if not better. Now salaries are buying less and less. Young adults graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt which will takes years to pay off. They may never own their own home or be debt-free or have the guarantee of a relatively worry-free retirement. Narcissism could be a way to avoid the uncertainty of their future.

1 comment:

Richard F. said...

I think it may be pushing it to completely attribute the activity of Wall Street CEOs to narcissism -- it would be interesting to know if anyone has done any specific studies of that type of personality. I wonder if the "alpha male" / stereotypical competitive male is more of the model for the modern business executive. One might also link Wall Street's creativity in financial engineering to the type of pioneering creativity exhibited by the boy in the reality show. Maybe we could attribute it to an excess of or misdirected creativity, intended for survival's sake. (Survival meaning being able to afford a multi-million dollar duplex on Central Park West)