How did narcissism get so “popular”? (part one of two)

old_boomers

When I was compiling my lists of songs about narcissism, it didn’t pass my notice how few songs there were prior to the 1980s that focused on it. Oh sure, there have always been a few here and there (Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain” immediately comes to mind) and there were always those “you/he/she done me wrong” love songs, but songs specifically about narcissism were pretty rare.

I think the reason for this is because it wasn’t until the 1980s that narcissism became so dominant in western (especially American) culture that it became a new virtue–something to aspire to if you wanted to be financially and professionally successful. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that narcissism became recognized as a real problem and websites, blogs and forums about narcissistic abuse began to spring up all over the Internet.

But I think the problem really started long before that, back in the post-WWII days when the Baby Boomers started being born. Of course there are exceptions, but as a generation, the Boomer generation was raised to be grandiose, entitled and lack a collective sense of empathy for others. As the Boomers aged, their collective sense of entitlement bled over into everything they touched–politics, business, and the culture at large. Today this narcissism affects all living generations, but generations older than the Boomers generally frowned on it.

1950s.

boomer_girl

After our WWII victory, America became very hubristic. We had become a superpower to be reckoned with the world over, and American life never seemed better. Life was very different than it had been even a decade earlier, and most newlyweds now had TVs, new kitchens with modern appliances that made a wife’s job much easier and left her more time to spend with her children, and often two cars. Employment was high and jobs paid well compared to the cost of living at the time. Young husbands were able to afford to buy tract homes and new cars on the GI bill, and could afford to support a wife and children. Of course, these were very conformist times too, and “keeping up with the Joneses” was a thing.

Enter the victory babies born in this national mood of optimism following the war: the Baby Boomers. Raised according to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s indulgent philosophy of “feeding on demand” and “Johnny will clean up his room when he feels like cleaning up his room,” Boomer infants and toddlers were pampered, indulged, and trained to be entitled. They were given anything they wanted and discipline tended to be light and consist of trying to “reason” with children. There was an endless array of new toys and snacks marketed to children, and mothers were made to feel like bad parents if they refused to comply with what advertisers told them to buy. The kids caught onto this attitude of entitlement, and if Sally got the new Barbie doll or Eric got the new battery operated toy truck, then Debbie and Paul had to have them too. The culture at the time was child-centered. It was a given that a child’s needs and wants always came before the parents’ and children were constantly told how “special” they were.

As they entered school, young Boomers’ attitude of entitlement and specialness carried over into the classroom. As a generation, they expected to be treated as little gods and goddesses, just as their parents had treated them.

1960s.

hippies

As the Boomers entered their teens, they began to rebel against the parents who had showered attention and material comforts on them. I believe this rebellion was due to a collective fear of engulfment by overindulgent parents. They were attempting to break away by reacting against the very lifestyle that had given them so much. Of course not every child had overindulgent parents, but teenagers always try to emulate what’s popular or cool. Rebelling against “the Establishment” or the Vietnam War (which also represented the values of their parents) became hip and cool. Adolescent Boomers, having been raised to believe they were unique and special (and most of those middle class and above were able to attend college and were often the first in their family to be able to do so) embraced causes that were anathema to the values of “the old fogies” and at first, really believed their causes were superior to those of their parents. They tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They experimented with marijuana and LSD. They dressed in hippie clothing and wore their hair long, which horrified “The Establishment.” They listened to rock music, the louder and harder and more offensive to the older generation, the better. They protested the war, attended “love ins” and participated in campus sit-ins, and eventually riots. Young Boomers believed their values were exactly what the world needed, but their attitude was based on entitlement rather than realism. They were idealists who believed the world could be changed by smoking pot and listening to the right sort of music.

Due to the sheer size of the Boomer generation, anything they did got a lot of national attention. Besides the many disapproving and negative news stories about the Vietnam protests, communal living, and recreational drug use, others were also beginning to emulate them. The next-older generation (The Silents), who had been largely ignored as they came of age, tried to seem younger by emulating the Boomers in their dress, tastes, and general lifestyle. The Boomers were never short on collective narcissistic supply (both negative and positive), and this continued to feed their attention-getting behavior.

Parents wondered where they had gone wrong, and why the children they had raised so lovingly had turned so rebellious and so insistent on “doing their own thing.” They wondered why this new generation seemed to hate them so much.

By the end of the 1960s, the “hippie lifestyle,” like everything else the Boomers would ever start, had become a lucrative market. But by the time The Establishment caught on, the Boomers were beginning to move on to other things, including embracing what they had rejected.

The power was still in the hands of the older generation of course, so narcissism had not yet become a noticeable part of the culture (although hubris and conformity definitely still was). By the 1970s, the first signs of a growing narcissistic culture would begin to make themselves felt.

1970s.

disco_ball

Boomers, now entering their 20s, had by now largely abandoned their earlier hippie incarnation for a more subdued “back to the land” movement, in which they opted for whole foods, fresh air, and healthy living. Others began to infiltrate the job market, often with degrees in esoteric subjects. Having children was something to be avoided, as Boomers wanted to prolong their adolescence or make a mark on the world. The Pill and newly legal abortion made all this possible. Around the same time, women began to demand equal rights in society and the workplace. The 70s wave of feminism was very anti-child and pro-career. If you preferred to marry and raise children, you were looked upon as a throwback to the 1950s.

Around the same time, various forms of non-traditional, humanist psychotherapies (EST, Esalen, etc.), grassroots religions, and cults became popular. Collectively known as “the human potential movement,” self-improvement and self-development became a priority for Boomers. Putting your own needs before those of others was not only normal, it was considered healthy. New York Magazine dubbed the 1970s “The Me Decade” for this reason. Couples opted to cohabitate rather than marry(because it was easier to break a commitment), and divorce was becoming very common. Children raised during this time (Generation X) found themselves ignored, treated as second class citizens, or sometimes even abandoned by their self-involved Boomer parents who seemed to put their own needs ahead of theirs.

Around the middle of the 1970s, a new kind of music (disco) became associated with materialism, hedonism, and over the top sexuality. By now, Boomers had done a 180 from their emergence during the 1960s as hippies, and now embraced the crass materialism they had once rejected. They were ready for a President who would encourage their pursuit of luxury and material success.

At the same time, fundamentalist Christianity, which had been “rediscovered” by some Boomers as an outgrowth of the Jesus movement of the 1960s, was becoming increasingly popular, and the new conservatism was using it as a way to attract newly saved Christian voters.

The new narcissism wasn’t lost on Christopher Lasch, who published his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” in 1979.

1980s.

yuppies

Ronald Reagan popularized trickle-down (or “supply side” economics), which basically meant allowing people to pay less taxes and keep more of what they earned. This played right into the hands of financially successful, entitled Boomers, who didn’t want to share their newfound wealth. The hippies had become the Yuppies–young urban professionals who had to “dress for success,” live to impress, and have the best of everything. Clothing wasn’t acceptable unless it had a designer’s logo on it. Housewares weren’t acceptable unless they were handmade in Outer Mongolia by native women. Food wasn’t acceptable unless it was “nouvelle cuisine.”

Having the perfect body was a priority, and Boomers started going to the gym or even personal trainers to tone and sculpt their bodies, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession. Boomers, mostly in their 30s by now, were finally deciding to have families, but children themselves became a status symbol, and getting your child into the “right” preschool or having the “right” designer clothing, or the “right” dance instructor became all-important. It was common for Boomer parents to watch other people’s children closely, to find out what they needed to do to “one up” each other as parents.

In 1987, a popular movie called “Wall Street” was released, in which its most famous quip, “greed is good,” became a national meme. While it was intended as a joke at first, “greed is good” quickly became a new philosophy of life, in which greed was not only good but became a virtue. Greed may have been one of the seven deadly sins, but even Christians made an exception for it, and we even had a Christian president who encouraged as much of it as possible. After all, it was the American way and America was a Christian nation, right?

Please continue reading Part Two of this article. 

*****

For further reading, see my articles:
1. Are Millennials Really the Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?
2. Why is Narcissism so Hot These Days?

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18 thoughts on “How did narcissism get so “popular”? (part one of two)

  1. WOW! Quite an ambitious undertaking! May I quibble a bit? Of course, I may. You wouldn’t have it any other way. “Demand feeding?” This term makes me see red because I remember a toxic movement by a nazi called Ezzo who wrote a book called “Babywise.” http://dallas.citymomsblog.com/my-biggest-parenting-regret-babywise/ for a taste of what this disgusting movement meant. I liken it to Tough Love, Reaganism and well, isn’t that enough? I wasn’t a boomer. I spent my teen years in the 50’s. My generation was the first to be self-consciously teenagers. Of course, I had to join the Beatniks. When the hippie counterculture came along, I was right there with it. However, I must take exception to your characterization of the anti-war movement as rebellion. Many in that movement were dead serious. The seeds sowed in that movement has borne fruit in the awareness of imperialism, white and male supremacy and the evil beginnings of our very country. Genocide of Native Americans and slavery of blacks was a hard pill to get down. That our culture molders were able to raise generations who were sound asleep to the evils of these things shows how sorely new insights were needed. I wasn’t active in this movement and can only marvel at it looking back. I was one of the back-to-the-land folks. And the hippies I knew were not at all against having children. They doted on babies. The more the merrier. I was also one of those who joined a cult. Mine was one of the more benign ones, Divine Light Mission, or more easily recognized by the term “the fat 12-year-old-guru.” I was very serious about every step I took. It was far more than rebellion. I went to India with 3,000 other western devotes. I was later part of the punk rock generation. Each new movement seemed to be a corrective for the flaws of the previous one. The hippies seemed so marvelous. The fact that they were building a COUNTERculture was awesome. We thought we were replacing the old culture with a sustainable new one. I also found time to get into feminism and join a consciousness raising group.

    About Reagan: I think he attracted more voters from the working classes who were disgusted by all these new vibrations emanating from the middle class youth. These were the Archie Bunker voters. And a bit FEH to them. Of course, the developing of America from the 50’s through the ’80’s was extremely complex. Yes, there was a lot of narcissism in all of it. We were in awe of how wonderful we were. Nobody had ever been so awesome before in all of history. But we were also serious about “taking a sad song and making it better.” A lot of innovations have proven themselves positive and sustainable. Look at veganism, yoga, spirituality (as opposed to religion) and a real effort at egalitarianism. Look at the Occupy movement which has been ruthlessly gunned down. The Establishment isn’t following Spock any more.

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    • all good points. You were actually part of the Silent generation then, if you were old enough to be a Beatnik (which were sort of the 1950s precursors to the hippies).
      As a kid, I worshipped hippies! I agree with you that their ideals were genuine. But I still think there was a collective fear of engulfment that caused them to rebel more than earlier generations (as well as living in an afflient culture that allowed for that sort of thing).
      I was too young to be a hippie, but I wanted to be one lol! I did join the punk rock movement back in the late 70s though–and living in NY at the time, I was lucky enough to be in the right place too. I spent weekends haunting the East Village, the clubs and CBGBs. I got to meet some of the big names at the time, before they got big.
      I also agree a lot of positive things came out of all these movements from the 60s and 70s.

      The new feminism is a lot better than the type of feminism we had in the 1970s which tended to make victims out of children (that’s why so many Generation Xers have narcissistic parents but of course narcissism isn’t confined to Boomers) –the new feminism includes both women and children.
      Yes, hippie moms were into babies, but that all changed in the 70s and suddenly having kids wasn’t fashionable (which isn’t really a problem in and of itself). But in the 1960s, we were still living in a very sexist society, and even hippie moms stayed home and cleaned and cooked, while the males did other things. And of course they had to be available for sex whenever the guy (or sometimes, guys) wanted it.

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      • What was the matter with hippies the punks had to correct? For me it was the perfectionism. Everyone was trying to be an ideal person. There was no room for hang ups. I loved the picture of Sid Vicious wearing the button that said, “I’m a mess.” Punk made it o.k. to be a “mess.” You didn’t have to be perfect. You could be a work in progress. This freed us to be creative. Hippies, themselves, were work of art. They, themselves, and their culture was their greatest creation. But perfection can be a straight jacket.

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        • I think the main problem wth the hippies was they were perceived as being sellouts. There was nothing wrong with their 60s ideals per se (even if they weren’t very realistic), but they replaced those ideals with the opposite values (materialism, capitalism, greed) by the early 1980s.
          I agree with you about punk. Punk was more of an attitude and included a lot of nihilism and a cynical, who cares attitude.

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  2. Do you remember Yuppie Flu from the 80s?They called it MS or somesuch. A kind of listlessness suffered by a a lot of professional people. I had it/have it. I knew it was my personality that was behind it!

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  3. So far what you described, still exist. Our children are still spoiled & growing up feeling entitled. Probably more so now than ever.

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  4. Another good book is “The Narcissism Epidemic”. Awesome read about our culture, child raising, & how technology plays a part in it also.

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