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The Dumbest Generation?

In 2005, Thomas de Zengotita, a professor at New York University and a contributing editor at Harper’s, published a book called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. In its pages he exposed, with the eviscerating precision of a cultural neurosurgeon, the morass of ego-massaging media in which all members of postmodern society are helplessly absorbed. And in Gen Y, this state of “mediated” narcissism has reached an all-time high. Alone and adrift in what de Zengotita calls our “psychic saunas” of superficial sensory stimulation, members of my generation lock and load our custom iTunes playlists, craft our Facebook profiles to self-satisfied perfection, and, armed with our gleefully ironic irreverence, bravely venture forth into life within glossy, opaque bubbles that reflect ourselves back to ourselves and safely protect us from jarring intrusions from the greater world beyond.

Bauerlein calls us the Dumbest Generation, but I think that we are really the most sophisticatedly narcissistic generation. Next to our depth of self-obsession, the boomers’ narcissism, with all its weirdly idealistic naivete, can’t even compare. And our older Gen-X friends and siblings, with their strange existential angst and cynicism, are clearly living in semitransparent bubbles that permit them to still react to a real world beyond themselves. But Gen-Y narcissism trumps it all. Liberated utterly from the chains of history, with our attention glued to a world of pure virtuality, we seem to be floating freely–within millions of bubbles of self-reflecting opacity–into the stratosphere of the twenty-first century.

Obviously, de Zengotita’s diagnosis of my generation isn’t something to be optimistic about, which is why, in the end, I could only shake my head at Friedman’s unbridled praise. When he published a follow-up column called “Generation Q” later last year, Friedman toned it down significantly, expressing concern that the “Quiet Americans” were too quiet, too detached and lost in cyberspace to have any kind of serious influence on the real world. His suggested solution to this problem, however, was for Gen Y to go back, to follow in the footsteps of the boomers’ sixties revolution and take to the streets, march on Washington, and so on. Many of my peers, in fact, have attempted this, aspiring toward boomeresque idealism or raging against the machine and mimicking Gen-X cynicism. But it always seems strangely unconvincing, a put-on performance of sorts, and I think–in line with de Zengotita–that this is because Gen Y can’t be deeply, genuinely engaged with the state of the real world when we’re cruising a thousand feet above it in our custom pimped-out mePods.

And yet there are human souls sitting behind those digital consoles, authentic and innocent beings looking out through those defensively ironic eyes. We are more than our narcissistic conditioning, as thick as it may be. When Friedman looks at Gen Y and says that he is “impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be,” I do think that the optimism and idealism he sees in us are, at some level, real. The way we rallied around the Obama flag this year, excitedly chanting Yes we can,” is proof enough of that. But I mean it when I say that our brand of narcissism is sophisticated, and I know that our ability to appear more engaged with the world than we really are runs deep.

I don’t doubt the authenticity of Gen Y’s idealism and inspiration. Yet I do worry that as long as it remains circumscribed by the spheres of our narcissism, its real potential will never be revealed. The question is: Do we have what it takes to burst our bubbles? Can we finally get over ourselves and start participating in life so fully, so unreservedly, that we remove any doubt as to where we really stand?

Yes. I think we can.

Tom Huston is an editor at EnlightenNext, a founding member of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, and a student of Andrew Cohen’s teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment.

Read more: Family, News & Issues, Spirit

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43 comments

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5:05AM PDT on Oct 15, 2012

I don't belive the Y generation is the dumbest. They don't have to think about things so much since the older generations have done it for them!

12:08PM PST on Feb 5, 2011

This is one bad example. I think that my generation (I'm 19) is good and bad just like any other. Technology can be used for good or it can take control of your life. I'm using a computer screen right now to use this site. I have a blackberry that I use to keep my life organized so that I can have more time to enjoy the beautiful world I live in. The one truly remarkable thing about my generation is the dawning of true equality. We truly don't judge, unless you judge us first. We don't see race, or religion, or sexuality but individuals. We don't begrudgingly put up with the parts of society we don't agree with because we don't see another option like the gen Xers, we just say no. We don't let ourselves be pushed around. Generation Y is the first generation (overall, no such thing as a blanket statement) to have true integrity.

7:51AM PST on Dec 8, 2009

To Larry B.
The klast 8 years, The 9/12 and teabaggers movement and the curent economic crises indicate that the current generation did not turn out alright.
~;.^}>

8:33PM PST on Dec 7, 2009

This sounds like a "kids these days" rant. The fact of the matter is that every young generation has their critics from the previous generations. However, time after time, the kids seem to turn out alright.

8:38PM PST on Nov 20, 2009

The dumbest generation? It's possible.
However, I strongly discourage judging. Not everyone of this generation is so ignorant and selfish and just plain stupid.
Also, some of our environment has a lot of influence right now. Though I am not using our culture as an excuse, just an explanation.

12:59AM PST on Nov 13, 2009

Really nice article ha . Ya i believe that new generation is not so much responsible and aware about what they are doing . Really thanks for this post.

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8:35PM PST on Nov 10, 2009

Great article, though I have to say that I had neither impression of Gen Y-ers. Very eye-opening.

I just tend to treat people as people regardless of age. Some are really, really dumb, some are very smart, some are out there fighting the good fight, and some live in bubbles.

Social analysis like this fascinates me, though. Well done!

5:48PM PST on Nov 10, 2009

pardon my edit on the grammar.

5:47PM PST on Nov 10, 2009

one of the comments made my day because someone thought they might be 3x older than me. That would put them as having been born in the 19th century. :)

I don't think that everyone younger or older is better or than me. That said, if you think Paris (or any place you've gone to for the first time) is simply "ok", that's pretty sad.

9:32AM PST on Nov 10, 2009

Ironic that in the Information Age, so many seem to be ill-informed. Part of the learning process is the imposition of discipline. The Old School taught Latin and Greek for a reason. The cell phone may be the 'weapon' that destroys us all: the distraction while driving, texting and the possibility of harmful radiation, may be the form it takes. I have but one thing to say to all those cell phone users: SHUT UP! Get that thing out of your ear and join the living!

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