How Steve Bannon is exploiting a perfectly valid theory of history to create war and chaos.

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Like his hippie predecessors, Steve Bannon wants to take down the Establishment — only this time from the far right. (credit: Huffington Post)

One day back in 1997, while I was a stay at home mom and my kids were both in school, I felt bored, so I decided to visit the library and find something interesting to read.   The book that caught my eye and I decided to check out was called The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny, written by two political sociologists named William Strauss and Neil Howe.   Little did I know how this book would change my entire view of history and in many ways, change my life.   The predictions Strauss and Howe made 20 years ago were spot on — almost all of them have become reality.   I can honestly say I’m a believer and have been for a long time.    Their theory seems to make a lot of sense and the predictions made in their book are uncannily accurate.

Many people dismiss The Fourth Turning as bunk or even hocus-pocus.  Some people regard it as not much better than  superstition — on par with the worst conspiracy theories, astrology, reading tea leaves, or Nostradamus prophecies.    But Strauss and Howe’s theory that history runs in cycles that keep repeating themselves are based on sound research and their own and others’ observations of history over hundreds of years, since well before the founding of America.   In their view, history is not linear — it seems to repeat itself in varying forms approximately every 80 -100 years, with each cycle containing four distinct turnings — lasting about 20-25 years each– and in which four distinctly different generational archetypes (themselves created by child rearing methods in fashion during the turnings each generation was born in) both foment and affect each of the turnings –and how the generations themselves are affected by the turnings.

Before I get to the main point of this article — which is about Trump’s right hand man Steve Bannon and the ways he is misusing and even abusing Strauss and Howe’s theory of history –let me spend some time describing how the theory works for those who may never heard of it.   A few months ago,  I wrote an earlier article that focused more on Millennials’ role during the crisis we’re now facing (we are in a 4th turning right now and reaching its climax).   From that article, I’m going to copy and paste the part that gives an overview of how the theory works so I don’t have to write that part again from scratch.

Generational and Turning Theory:  a four-part repeating cycle of history. 

Turnings throughout American History.

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We are currently in the Millennial Cycle, the fourth cycle since the Revolutionary War.  We have been in this cycle since V-Day at the end of WW2, in 1946 — more than 70 years ago. We are reaching the end of the Millennial cycle, and about to begin a new one, once the fourth turning we are in is resolved.  But things are going to get a lot worse before they begin to improve.  It’s not necessarily going to be Armageddon; it’s just what happens in 4th turnings.

The last 4th turning (which was actually the final turning of the “Great Society” historical cycle) started suddenly in 1929, with the financial crash on Wall Street that plunged us into the Great Depression.  In 1942, America entered WW2.  We came out victorious in that war with newfound prosperity and confidence and we were now a world power to be reckoned with.  Full of optimism and confidence, we entered the first turning of the Millennial cycle — the booming (but conformist) postwar years of the 1950s and early 60s.   Lots of victory babies (Baby Boomers) were born, who were very much indulged, and the first turning of this current cycle saw shining new suburbs, brand new scientific discoveries, and a brand new, modern infrastructure where kids and families felt safe.

Approximately 8o years before the Great Depression/WW2 was the Civil War, and 80 or so years before that was the American Revolution.   It goes even farther back than this, but I won’t go into detail about those cycles here, since we weren’t fully “American” yet.

One example from earlier times was the Renaissance, actually a first turning that occurred after The Black Plague (a 4th turning) that set civilization back into motion for a variety of reasons.  Prior to the Plague were a thousand years of dark ages (more commonly known as medieval times, which lasted from the 400’s to the early 1500’s).  Dark ages are eras when time seems to stand still and turnings do not occur.  Generations don’t follow the archetypes we’re familiar with — they don’t change much over time because there are no historical turnings.   One generation pretty much follows the same life pattern as their parents, grandparents, and ancestors, and most progress comes to a screeching halt.   People live very difficult and short lives, eeking out an existence as best they can.   The middle ages were the result of a disastrous 4th turning — the Fall of Rome.   It could happen that if this turning ends badly, we could be thrust into a new dark age, but it’s not likely.   The Protestant Reformation was the Awakening (second turning) of the same cycle the Renaissance (or the Plague) began.    There were other cycles after this that led up to the Revolutionary War and the founding of America, but I’m not as familiar with those.

We are about halfway or more than halfway through the current crisis (which as yet, has no official name).  It started (depending on who you ask) with either 9/11 in 2001 or the housing crisis of 2008 (most followers of the theory believe 2008 was the real start date of the current 4th turning — which means we’re only about halfway through).

4 Generational Archetypes.

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A Boomer at different life stages criticizes (from left to right) “square” GI/Silent parents; “hypocritical” fellow Boomer Yuppies; “materialistic” Gen Xers; and finally looks to her Millennial kids as future saviors. (credit: Millennials Rising, 2000).

The four generational archetypes are Prophets, Nomads, Artists, and Heroes.     The most recent Prophet generation are the Boomers, born during the prosperous postwar years  (their predecessors were the Missionaries born during the Gilded Age).  Prophets are born in a First Turning (a time of prosperity and conformity) and tend to become narcissistic and moralistic as they age.

The current Nomads are the Gen-Xers (who correspond with the Lost Generation), who are born during a Second Turning (the most recent was the Consciousness Revolution, which took place in the ’60s and ’70s).   They grow up feeling neglected and unworthy and as a result become apathetic to world issues and lack trust in their leaders.  As children with self involved Silent and Boomer parents they were often left to fend for themselves from a young age.  They have collective low self esteem.  Think back to the Lost Generation, the last Nomad archetype before them.   Those were the orphaned kids, young toughs, Chicago mobsters, and the poor newsboys who roamed the streets during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Artists are the Silent Generation (the oldest generation still alive but are dying off fast), They are always born during a Crisis, or a Fourth Turning (the new Artists are still being born now).   The current Crisis began either in 2001 with 9/11, or 2008 with the housing crisis (the jury is still out on the start date).  They are overprotected as children (today’s helicopter parenting) and strictly disciplined. They grow up to be peacemakers and believers in checks and balances.  We have never had a Silent president, but they have provided reason, empathy, and logic, and worked behind the scenes to keep us from going to dangerous extremes — until now.

Heroes are born during a Third Turning (the most recent one being the Culture Wars of the ’80s and ’90s), when individualism is high but institutions built during the First Turning are beginning to unravel.   The last generation of Heroes were the GI Generation, also fondly known as The Greatest Generation, who are remembered as our WWII heroes and the builders of the prosperous America of the midcentury.    Almost all of them have died off by now.  They have been replaced by the Millennials.

This may sound like hocus-pocus, but it’s not.   The overall character of each of the four generational archetypes is influenced by the turnings in which they were raised and came of age in, and the parenting styles of that particular turning.   In turn, the generational character combined with the life stages they happen to be occupying at a given time (what S&H calls “generational constellations”) both foments and influences each of the four turnings themselves.

Thus,

Prophets, born in a time of prosperity, conformity, and increasingly indulgent parenting, become self confident but by adolescence, they begin to rebel against the stultifying conformity, and set off an Awakening (Second Turning).  During young adulthood, they are experimental idealists.   As they rise to power during midlife, they have become vocal, highly opinionated, and passionate about whatever values they have adopted, leading us into a Third Turning (culture wars mentality).  They tend to be judgmental and engage in black and white thinking, convinced that only their way is the right one.  Prophets’ parents are usually Heroes or Artists.

Nomads, born in a time of questioning traditional values and changing social mores, are often neglected by their self involved parents who seem more interested in their own personal growth instead of them.  In reaction, they become self sufficient early on (latchkey kids), but become cynical and reach adulthood with collective low self-esteem.  They tend to distrust the system, which they regard as having failed them and of all generations, they are both the most conservative and least likely to be politically involved.  They care more about pragmatism and “just getting things done” than about values and ideals.   Their parents are usually Artists or Prophets.

Heroes, born in a time of institutional failure but increasing choices and the beginning of the cultural polarization of a nation,  are increasingly protected by their stressed-out parents (who perceive the world as more dangerous), and are encouraged to achieve great things but also tend to be micro-managed and overly controlled.   As they rise into adulthood, they realize the things promised them are not going to materialize, and take matters into their own hands to change the system to one that will work for them.  Their parents tend to be Prophets or Nomads.

Artists, born during a national Crisis, are overprotected (“helicopter parenting”) and strictly disciplined.    They are the children most likely to be told to be quiet, stay out of the way and not bother the adults, who are trying to deal with a dangerous world.   Artists tend to be obedient conformists until midlife, when they finally begin to rebel, often spurred on by the Prophets born right after them.   But caught between two more powerful archetypes (Prophets and Heroes), they tend to never take one side or the other, and learn to be sensitive peacemakers instead, concerned with checks and balances, and “reasonable”and “fair” policies that don’t make waves. They attempt to bring people together.  Their parents are Nomads and Heroes.

It’s interesting to note that no Artist has become President during the Millennial Cycle (the 80-year historical period we are currently still in), but Bernie Sanders, a textbook example of the Artist archetype, came awfully close.

It’s also interesting that a Crisis forms just as peacemaking Artists are at their lowest point of influence–when they are in early childhood and very old age.  In other turnings, their peacemaking and diplomatic character keeps us from heading into a real crisis, so nothing really gets out of control, no matter how bad a situation potentially is.  It all gets handled somehow, and America remains intact.  Not so in a fourth turning, when Artist diplomacy is almost completely missing and things become chaotic and there seem to be barely any checks and balances left to keep warring factions from doing real and permanent damage.

I’ve posted this video before, but it’s a very easy to understand overview of how generational and turning theory works.  There’s nothing woowoo about it. It’s based on sound historical observations that repeat over time.

The 4 Turnings.

The four turnings are approximately 20 – 25 year time periods encompassing a particular national mood, which is shaped by the generational attitudes and the age brackets they happen to be in at the time.   Whatever generation happens to be in their prime adult years (midlife) and in the most important leadership roles, tends to set the overall tone for the turning in question.

Thus,

A First Turning, with Heroes in midlife (and Artists as their helpmates), is concerned with institutional building, scientific advancement, prosperity for all, family life, and indulgent parenting.   Children are highly valued and given pretty much whatever they want. Remember, their parents just came out of the worst time in history and never want their children to have to experience what they had to.   There is a narrowing of the gap between the richest and the poorest.  Individualism is not encouraged; it’s a time of conformity. Sex roles seem to be at their least ambiguous.  A first turning tends to be unconcerned with matters of a religious or spiritual nature, idealistic values, or social change.  Building bigger and better institutions, a government that works for (instead of against) the people, and scientific discovery seem to be priorities. The last First Turning we experienced were the prosperous post-war years (“Pax Americana”), until Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.   We are due to enter a new First Turning within 5-15 years, or whenever (and if) the current Crisis is resolved.  The Gilded Age, with its indulged Missionary children, was the earlier analogue to Pax Americana.   The romantic myths we still have of Christmases of “olden times,” with Santa Claus and sleigh rides for well bundled rosy cheeked children and their loving families arose during that earlier first turning.  The Nutcracker story is a great example of what life was like for the indulged Missionary children of the Gilded Age.

A Second Turning, with peacemaking Artists in midlife (and idealistic Prophets in rising adulthood and adolescence), is a time of great social upheaval and a greater focus on matters of a religious, spiritual, or social nature.   Less value is placed on institution building, bureaucracy, and scientific advancement in favor of things of a more esoteric nature, such as discovering altered state of consciousness (through drugs, meditation or other means), civil or womens’ rights, and rebelling against the “establishment.”   There is a great deal of experimentation with different lifestyle choices, but children born during this time tend to be dismissed as burdensome to self-development.  The most recent Second Turning was the Consciousness Revolution, which started with the first campus protests and the civil rights movement, and ended with either Reagan’s election in 1980 or his “Morning in America” speech when he was re-elected in 1984.  The earlier analogue to the most recent Consciousness Revolution was the Romantic movement back in the 1880s and 1890s.  Women’s suffrage, communal “back to nature” living (think of Walden),  campus protests(!), and lots of religious groups (including modern Christian charismatic groups and fundamentalism as well as “the social gospel”) sprang up during this time.

A Third Turning, with impassioned and judgmental Prophets in midlife (but with Artist checks and balances still in place and disaffected Nomads just trying to get by), is in some ways a continuation of a Second Turning, except that the pendulum begins to swing back to greater social conservatism and more law and order.  The left and right tends to become polarized, with both sides thinking only they are right and setting off ugly culture wars.  Institutions, which still thrived in the Second Turning (though they may have stopped being built) begin to atrophy and unravel.   Distrust abounds, especially toward government, which seems to take a backseat to shallow entertainment and “bread and circuses.”  Escapism into shallow entertainment continues into the Fourth Turning (the reality shows that have been popular since the ’90s are the modern equivalent of the circus freak shows, vaudeville acts, and dance marathons of the 1920s and 1930s.)  Sex roles are at their most ambiguous during this time,  and the gap between the wealthy and less wealthy widens.   The most recent Third Turning started with Reagan’s presidency in the early 1980s and ended sometime in the first decade of the new millennium (the most likely dates are 2001 or 2008).   The last Third Turning before the most recent one is characterized by the excesses and opulence of the 1920s, the worship of money and material wealth, the jazz age (considered rebellious music at the time and the Lost incarnation of rap and hip hop, a musical form that was later incorporated into the Big Band music of the GI Generation, much as hip hop has been incorporated into Millennial EDM and dance pop), and the brazen “bad behavior,” political apathy, and disrespect shown by Lost young adults toward their Missionary elders.

 A Fourth Turning, with now-pragmatic, non-nonsense Nomads in midlife (and Prophets in high level leadership roles as early elders) is a national crisis, with no Artists to keep things in check. No matter what the Crisis itself is, things tend to go awry and quickly go out of control.   Children are overprotected in this newly dangerous world, and adults just try to get by as best they can, but have little trust in their government or the people who run it.  But it’s also during the Crisis that the seeds are sown for the new cycle that will begin in the First Turning: renewed community spirit and people in crisis helping each other.  This could be seen during the Great Depression and WWII.   What worries me is that so little of that is seen during this Crisis so far.  But maybe it’s still too early.

On crises that don’t end well.

If a Crisis ends very badly, it could spell the end of or the fracturing of that particular society, or even–in a very bad case scenario–the end of modernity or even civilization as we know it.    If a Crisis ends well, it will lead to a First Turning and a brand new historical cycle (we are currently in the Millennial Cycle, and have been since 1946).     If the Millennials are thwarted in their efforts to rebuild society to one that will work for them (and for everyone), we could fall into a Dark Age or a banana-republic-like dystopia with an accompanying loss of progress, or even of modernity.  In the very worst case scenario (should humanity survive), we could even revert to barbarism and the complete loss of technological and scientific progress.

Who is Steve Bannon and what does he know? 

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Steven Bannon is Trump’s chief strategizer and adviser.  He seems to have so much influence over Trump’s decisions that people have jokingly (or not so jokingly) referred to him as President Bannon.   I’m sure this doesn’t sit well with Trump, but I’m not going to discuss Trump’s narcissism; we already know all about that.

Steve Bannon is a filmmaker, businessman and far-right (now known as alt-right) activist who has no political experience.  However, he is intelligent and has read Strauss and Howe’s books and considers The Fourth Turning his bible.   He is also a white supremacist and heads up the alt-right, neo-Nazi news website, Breitbart News.   Breitbart News is populated by neo-Nazis and people affiliated with the KKK.   For all I know, Bannon might himself be a member of the KKK; I know many of the Trump administration’s supporters are.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, Bannon made a film called Generation Zero.    Given the fact it’s really subtle propaganda for the far right, it’s actually a well made film, and is palatable enough (no racist slurs) that I could see how it might have been used to win gullible or ignorant people over to his side.  While the film addresses the excesses and abuses of Wall Street in the film (so you almost think he might sympathize with the Occupy protesters even though it’s really more Tea Party), he also seems to blame the entire financial crisis on the narcissism and excesses of the hippies of the 1960s, who morphed into these greedy Wall Street bankers.  Like all propaganda, there are grains of truth here, but they are intended to disguise a far right agenda that is far from benign (which I will get to later).  I recommend watching the film, especially because of its detailed discussion about the four turnings and Strauss and Howe generational theory (which is a valid theory in my opinion), but please be mindful of the hidden alt-right message here.

Bannon is not only a white supremacist and outspoken member of the alt-right, he is also a great admirer of Vladimir Lenin, a Russian Communist dictator from the early 20th century.  It’s jarring how this administration seems to regard certain dictatorial Russian leaders (such as Putin) as mentors at best, and possibly even as heroes.  But I digress.   In one of his most damning statements to the press, Bannon said,

“I’m a Leninist.  Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.  I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” — Steve Bannon for The Daily Beast, 2013.

There is also a video of him being interviewed on Fox and Friends in 2014, in which he says something along these same lines, but I’m not able to find the video now.    Perhaps it’s been removed.    In that interview (which I did see so I’ll paraphrase), Bannon said that the only way to enact change was to create mass rioting and chaos.   

How Bannon is using historical turning theory for his own dystopian agenda.

Bannon appears to be using fourth turning theory for purposes of destroying our democracy and, knowing we are at such a vulnerable point in history and bloodshed is more likely than not (there is always bloodshed in any fourth turning), he seems dead set on using what he knows to instigate mass unrest, suffering, strife and upheaval by enacting outrageous policies that enrage the left and any people of reason (the way I see it, the Left are now the real conservatives, who don’t want to lose what little democracy and freedom we have left).   He seems to want America to become a permanent hellish dystopia run by authoritarian rulers who allow no freedoms to the people and no mercy shown to anyone who isn’t white and Christian.

An article appeared on The Huffington Post the other day, which I will link here.   It goes into more detail about Bannon and the Trump administration’s real intentions and it’s disturbing reading.

Steven Bannon Believes the Apocalypse is Coming and War is Inevitable.

This article deeply disturbed me for a number of reasons.  Bannon seems to be cherry-picking S&H’s theory, using it for his own evil ends, and in the process totally discrediting a perfectly good theory of history that until now, was almost unknown.     William Strauss died several years ago, and I’m sure would be turning in his grave if he knew the ways his theory is being used and may soon be associated with the alt-right and extreme racism, even though it was never intended to be used that way.   Bannon completely leaves out the fact that, in any fourth turning, there is also (toward the end) an increase in a sense of community, with people helping each other, and this renewed sense of community helps sow the seeds for the first turning to come (if the crisis ends well).   Fourth turnings are always bad, but they don’t have to be completely devastating, and they do have their good points such as strengthening community spirit and fomenting a desire for families to stay together and protect each other.  I also think it’s incredibly immoral of Bannon to “stir the pot” and actually attempt to instigate chaos and bloodshed that is bound to happen on its own anyway.

My comment under this post:

To be fair, there is validity in 4th turning theory. I read S&H’s book in 1997 (also their excellent “Generations’); these 80-100 year cycles are pretty obvious, and S&H nailed the timing of the 4T — many years ahead of time. So it all seems pretty valid. You have to read the book with an open mind and not through Bannon’s dark filter. That being said, I completely disagree with Bannon’s racist, authoritarian politics and I also do not believe this is a war of Judeo-Christianity against Islam. It’s a war alright, but it’s a civil war between those on the far right (like Bannon), who want to see a new authoritarian, xenophobic regime with all our freedoms removed, and those who (like me) want to see a more European style social democracy that puts the people first. There’s no telling how things will resolve and what sort of first turning will result in a few more years (or ten more years, if you go by the 2008 start date). Bannon’s vision of a new America is hell to me, and I think, to most. I do agree it may not end well, and at the very least, many will die and our physical borders may be altered. I also think that Bannon mis-using 4T theory to his own ends to create global chaos is evil beyond belief.”  

I’m not giving up hope for a better future. 

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Credit: Norman Rockwell (member of the Lost generation) — “The Golden Rule” (1961)

In spite of the country feeling like it’s cracking up like a bar of Turkish taffy, I’m not giving up hope.  Perhaps this unfortunate presidency is actually the wake up call we all need for change to actually happen.  Already, there are new movements getting under way that show no signs of stopping.  The new and growing Indivisible movement seems to be the Left’s answer to the Tea Party, and seems better organized with clearer goals than Occupy was.   Demonstrations are taking place in every major city and are spreading to the suburbs.  There’s a huge one going on in Raleigh here this very weekend (I wish I was there!).   I think people are finally waking up to what is happening.  To quote the movie Network, they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!  The sheep have become tigers.

Here is another comment I wrote on a Facebook group about 4T theory. It describes what I would like to see happen in the future and how this crisis might be resolved, if things go well:

If the 4T began in 2001, it has only a few years left. We have reached the peak of the crisis, and it’s a wake up call to a lot of people. It will get worse, but is not unresolvable. We will have 4 years of hell under this president (or whoever replaces him, such as Pence) and quite possibly, California and other states (perhaps the entire west coast) will secede. All this will happen very quickly. For a short time it will be absolute hell. I don’t have to describe that — I think we can all see what sort of hell it will be. In 2020, Sanders runs again (he says he will) and this time, Millennials who sat out this election (and are all of voting age by then) go to the polls in droves — and Bernie wins (I simply cannot see Trump winning over Bernie after all the damage he will do and is already doing). Also, more of the Boomer generation will have passed on and will have less influence than they do now. Millennials, now reaching midlife, rail behind Sanders (or whoever rises to power to replace him, since he is quite elderly even now) and begin to enter the political sphere and have some influence. The New Silents [the kids being born now who are entering their preteen years or early teens] will be their helpmates, as S&H predicted. They begins to rebuild society with the help of those of us older generations who want the same). This brings us into the 1T. But instead of celebrating victory, this time, the first few years will be about recovering from trauma and helping each other recover. It will be about reconstruction more than victory, so perhaps Millennials won’t become as hubristic as GIs were. The infrastructure will be repaired and rebuilt, and for the first time, we will have socialized healthcare, in addition to some modern version of those things we are about to lose (Medicare, social security, good public schools, etc.). If the 4T began in 2008 and not 2001, it’s going to take longer. Things could get much worse and we could be destroyed completely. So I hope we’re nearing the end of it. I also don’t see us being as much of a world power as we were the last time around, we will have learned humility. That’s actually a good thing.  We need to put an end to our lack of humility, narcissism and greed, once and for all, and relearn empathy and community spirit, even if it means our borders are smaller and we have less power in the world.    

Neil Howe Interview: Inside Bannon’s Brain

After writing this post, I just came across this video.  It’s an interview with Neil Howe, one of The Fourth Turning‘s authors, setting the record straight about his theory.  (Sorry, I am not able to embed this video).

https://app.hedgeye.com/insights/57111-inside-bannon-s-brain-live-q-a-with-the-fourth-turning-author-neil?single_item=true

*****

Further reading:

Millennials are our only real hope for change. 

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Nervous about the election?

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You’re not alone, as this chart shows.   Older people (Silent Generation) are the most stressed out (probably because they are the most vulnerable group of people), followed by young adult Millennials, a generation that has been hobbled by an economic system that has prevented them from being able to get a foothold in the door of full adulthood (no, they are NOT entitled–they just want what previous generations had that has been denied to them).  Gen-Xers are the least stressed out, but they have always been somewhat disaffected and of all the living generations, tend to be the least involved in politics and the least likely to vote.  They tend to focus most of their attention on personal or local matters as opposed to national ones.   But even almost half of them are on tenterhooks about the election along with everyone else.

Other countries are nervous about this election too.  Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz talks about that in this article and video.   I think of all the elections in the history of this nation, none has been as nerve-wracking as this one.   Given the mood of the country right now, no matter who wins, I could see massive rioting breaking out in urban areas should it be a close election.

I really wish I could just leave should the worst happen.   If Trump wins, I could see people leaving the country en masse, especially progressives with enough means to do so and young Millennials who aren’t afraid of taking risks.   It would be the first time in history that people wanted to get out of America.  Should something like that happen,  we’d be left with a nation full of wealthy white conservatives and the most vulnerable impoverished people, with no one in between as a buffer.  That would bring us even closer to third-world status than we already are.     I could see mass unrest/rioting or even a civil war breaking out all too easily, and a police state being set up to control the hordes of angry, rioting people.    I could see a Hunger Games-type situation in our future.   We are definitely in a fourth turning.    Think the housing crisis of 2008 was bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet.  It’s not gonna be pretty.

I wonder if another wealthy country (like Canada?) would intervene in that case, the way we always seem to be getting involved in other countries who need outside assistance.  I heard a rumor that Canada has set aside areas for refugees to settle should Trump win, which would not require a passport.   I have no idea if this is true or not.    Even Mexico  (which hardly qualifies as first world) looks like a viable option for those who want to escape.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to vomit on election night from the stress.   I’ve never been this nervous about any election.

How narcissism got to be a thing.

This article was originally posted on October 7 and 11, 2015 in two parts. It has been updated and merged.

narcissist_nation

Disclaimer:  It was pointed out to me that this post may seem overly critical or stereotyping of Baby Boomers.   I’m aware that the selfishness and lack of empathy we see today extends across ALL generations.  Also, many Boomers were never narcissistic and some were, in fact, abused or neglected, especially toward the end of that generation (which I myself am a part of).   But it is a fact that on a societal level, this was an especially indulged generation that led to an overall entitled mindset, even if many individuals never fit that trend.  As far as the neglectful parenting so rampant during the 1970s that is described, most of these parents were actually Silents, not Boomers (Boomers were more likely to indulge their Millennial children). 

*****

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.

Ripeness for the rise of a culture of narcissism.

I need to add that America was ripe for the rise of a culture of narcissism long before the hubris created by our WW II victory and our subsequent rise to the most powerful nation on earth and the arrival of what some believe was the most indulged generation of children, the Baby Boomers.

As a nation, we have always adhered to principles of “rugged individualism” and the “Protestant work ethic.” We have always eschewed communitarian values at the expense of individual achievement. But in the past, we were nicer to each other. People were expected to at least get involved in their communities when neighbors were in need and to show some grudging respect for those with less. Today, not so much. People were generally less about themselves and more about building strong families and communities. Even in the 1920s, another era of hedonism, greed, and other holdover values of the Gilded Age, these values had less hold on the population than they have today. That’s why during the Great Depression, someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt could rise to power and his New Deal (which allowed a prosperous decade like the 1950s to happen) was able to be implemented, though it certainly had its critics. Today, I doubt anything like the New Deal would be voted in by the majority of people, which is tragic.

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.

All that being said, I don’t believe on demand feeding in itself leads to feelings of entitlement; in fact it does just the opposite:  In an infant who hasn’t yet learned to separate themselves from the mother, such “indulgence” nurtures a child with high self esteem (NOT the same as narcissism) who is capable of healthy attachments to others. The problem is when the child continues to be indulged when older (spoiling), and many little Boomers boys and girls were, though certainly not all.

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.*

* I’ve amended my attitude toward Boomer idealism some since I wrote this post. Idealism in itself isn’t a bad thing, and some of the youth movements of the ’60s had wonderful intentions–surely there’s nothing wrong with peace and love, and the anti-war, women’s, and civil rights movements (the latter which had actually started in the late 1950s with the Silents) all had their positive points and changed society for the better in many ways. The most disturbing thing about early Boomer idealism was its shallowness–the way it was so quickly abandoned when they entered full adulthood and as a generation they were able to move so quickly from “make love not war” to its polar opposite, “greed is good.”

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. But the true victims of all this self-discovery were the children.

“Non-parenting” in the 1970s.

Children raised during this time (Generation X and tail-end Boomers) found themselves pretty much ignored, treated as second class citizens, or sometimes even abandoned by their self-involved Silent Generation or Boomer parents, who seemed to put their own needs ahead of theirs. This was a generation full of latchkey kids and kids prematurely taking care of themselves and their siblings while Mom attended to more interesting and “fulfilling” things.

To be fair, it wasn’t all the parents’ fault. The new “me” culture and the women’s movement, which gave women more options that just being mothers and housewives, gave them permission to turn their kids into second class citizens. Second-wave feminism especially (though this movement was probably for the most part a good thing) literally threw out the baby (Gen-X kids) with the bathwater in the 1970s. In spite of then-recent discoveries made by psychologists in the field of early attachment, women–including mothers–were encouraged to put their own needs first. I remember some “child-care” book my mother was reading that I thumbed through that actually advised mothers to not be “slaves” to their children–this attitude extended even to babies! Kids were considered to be small, demanding tyrants who hobbled women’s needs for independence and fulfillment in the outside world, rather than vulnerable little people who happen to have many needs. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were found that disorders caused by emotional neglect and failed early attachment (C-PTSD and personality disorders) are especially high among Generation X and “Joneser” (born 1955-1965)adults. Given the ages of most narc-abuse victims on the web, I suspect this is the case. These were the scapegoated kids of an increasingly dysfunctional society.

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.

We were all enthralled by TV shows about fabulously wealthy people. Dallas, Dynasty, and its imitators became wildly popular and its stars became icons to imitate and aspire to. With the exception of emsemble shows like Cheers (a show about bartenders) or Taxi (a show about taxi drivers), there were hardly any popular TV shows about the poor or working class or anyone else of humble means. In the 1980s, you would not be able to tune into a new Little House on the Prairie, Sanford and Son, or The Honeymooners, except in reruns.  Teenagers in shows were more likely to be privileged prep-schoolers than inner city toughs like those in Welcome Back, Kotter.   Situation comedies no longer focused on middle or working class people, but on the comfortably upper middle class. Even the cops on police shows were somehow (and unrealistically) fabulously wealthy and always dressed for success.   The rich (or at least aspiring to be rich like the characters in thirtysomething) just seemed more interesting…and worthy of our time.

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?

In summary, during the 1980s, narcissism came out of the closet, with the election of a president who encouraged greed, materialism, and entitlements for the wealthy. At the same time, empathy, neighborliness, and general goodwill toward others seemed to become almost quaint, a naive relic of the past. The juggernaut was the new “greed is good” philosophy, normalized by a popular film. Narcissism was no longer something to be hidden; now it was almost something to aspire to.

1990s.

cast_friends

The greed worshipping culture begun in the 1980s continued during the 1990s, as Boomers rose to power and we elected our first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Under Clinton, the economy boomed, and a new breed of Yuppies, the Dot Com entrepreneurs (who were mostly Generation X), rode on the coattails of the newly born Internet, and they made money hand over fist until they went bust several years later. But people still went shopping and the culture at large was becoming increasingly exhibitionistic, obnoxious, and in-your-face (reality shows were born during this time), while corporations grew bigger and more unwieldy (unlimited growth, like a cancer, was encouraged, and smaller companies merged into megacorporations the size of small governments). Meanwhile, government institutions built in the more sedate and community-oriented 1950s and 1960s began to splinter and crumble. The government, especially the part of the government that tried to help its less fortunate citizens and attempted to even the playing field through fair taxation, became The Enemy.

But a backlash was beginning to silently bubble under all the glitz and bling of the ’90s. Back in 1983, a psychiatrist turned born-again Christian named M. Scott Peck published his groundbreaking book, “People of the Lie.” Here, for the first time, was a self help psychology book that focused on “evil”–specifically, people who were evil. The traits described in the book are exactly those of malignant narcissism. The book resonated with many, particularly with Gen-Xers and later born Boomers (Generation Jones), who had been raised by narcissistic parents. In some cases, especially for younger Boomers and early Gen-Xers, these kids had been betrayed by initially doting Silent generation parents who suddenly, during the 1960s or 1970s, seemed to suddenly care only about their own self-development at the expense of their confused and hurt adolescent and preteen children who they no longer seemed to even like much (this is exactly what my experience had been growing up in the 60s and 70s: my parents changed and no longer seemed to care).

But in the early 1980s, Peck’s “evil people” were not automatically equated with narcissists or people with other Cluster B disorders. Until the mid-90s, narcissism–or more specifically, NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)–was simply a psychiatric label given to certain patients with a certain set of traits, who may or may not have been evil. NPD wasn’t demonized yet.

Then along came Sam Vaknin in 1995. Vaknin, a former white collar criminal and self-confessed narcissist, had written a tome about narcissism called “Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.” Written initially to obtain supply and a guru-like status for himself, Vaknin’s book actually helped many of the narcissistic abuse victims who read it and recognized their abusers in its 600+ pages. Vaknin’s idea of NPD didn’t fit that described in the DSM: he mixed in with NPD several traits of psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and Borderline personality disorder (BPD), to describe a particularly dangerous type of malignant narcissist that made the toxic people described in M. Scott Peck’s book seem almost tame in comparison.

The book was successful, and soon Vaknin started his own website, and discussion groups, and abuse victims all over the world jumped on the bandwagon. Vaknin, exactly the sort of person they sought to avoid, had become their savior and guiding light out of darkness.

Until the 2000s, Vaknin’s was pretty much the only voice on the Internet about narcissistic abuse. But in the very late 90s, a few books were beginning to be published about this “new” type of abuse that didn’t necessary include physical violence (but could). Parents, particularly mothers, were the focus, and a subset of the narcissistic abuse community–one that focused on narcissistic mothers and the damage they had done to their now-adult children–formed the template for the explosive ACON (Adult Children of Narcissists) movement.

2000s.

bling

For a brief time, after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it looked like Americans just might start to care about each other again. There was an outpouring of support for the victims of the 9/11 disasters, and solidarity shown among all Americans. For the first time, regional differences and even racial differences didn’t seem to matter, and Americans were united by their flying of the flag. No one seemed all that concerned by the curtailment of certain freedoms and and increase in xenophobia–after all, it was for the protection of the country, right?

But as a result, the economy was suffering, so George W. Bush Jr. (“Dubya”) gave us all permission to “go shopping.” And so we did. It was back to the bread and circuses and the shallow, materialistic culture of the 1980s through pre-2001.

Reality shows rose in popularity and the badder the behavior, the more popular they got. New celebrities were famous only for “being famous,” having a famous parent, or just for acting badly. People aspired to be just like Snooki and The Situation from The Jersey Shore, or Tiffany “New York” Pollard from Flavor of Love. All of these characters were narcissists, or at least acted that way for the benefit of the camera. And people loved them for it.

During the 2000s, Millennials, the rising young adult generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, started being being accused of being narcissistic, but if they are, you can blame their parents for having taught them these values. In addition, a lot of gaslighting is going on by older generations, who blame the Millennials for their inability to find jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits, forcing them to live at home and be dependent for longer than earlier generations–and accuse them of being “lazy,” “spoiled,” and “entitled.” But what about their mostly Boomer and Gen-X parents, who modeled this sort of behavior?

old_boomers

Politicians became more blatantly narcissistic and their lack of empathy sank to new lows. One politician said if you weren’t rich, you should blame yourself. Blaming the victim became increasingly popular, and was even seen by some conservative politicians as a “Christian” way to behave–for if you were favored by God, He would bless you with wealth and material comforts. Religion itself became a way for narcissists to rise to positions of great power, and use their “favored status” in God’s eyes as a way to abuse their flock of followers.

Meanwhile, the narcissistic abuse commmunity continued to grow, and blogs written by abuse survivors were beginning to pop up all over the Internet. The abuse community developed their own lingo, some of it borrowed from earlier movements such as 12-step programs (codependent, enabling, people-pleaser are examples), some from pioneers such as Sam Vaknin (narcissistic supply, confabulation), and some from mental health experts going all the way back to Freud. Some terms were taken from popular movies, such as “flying monkeys” (The Wizard of Oz), and “gaslighting” (Gaslight).

2010s.

tea-party
Tea Party protesters.

Now we’re nearly 7 years into the 2010s. While it’s hard to see any patterns yet, it does seem that the problem of narcissism is finally being noticed by the general public. Pundits and media critics write about the narcissism of politicians and celebrities and “cluster B type” reality TV stars.  Now there’s a call by many for more empathy and community spirit over selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and greed.  2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement enjoyed a flurry of popularity, especially among Millennials (though older generations had their fair share of supporters) before it was ultimately silenced.  But at least it was a start.


Occupy protesters. 

On the other hand, the problem is even worse now, with the possible impending presidency of Donald Trump, who has even been remotely diagnosed with NPD by psychiatrists (breaking their own rule never to diagnose anyone who hasn’t been formally evaluated). Sam Vaknin has called him a Malignant Narcissist (and I do believe he is one) and even publications like Psychology Today and news media have picked up on that and written about it. The news is peppered with so many articles about Trump’s malignant narcissism that it’s a wonder he is still a contender. But Trump has a powerful bloc of supporters (mostly “angry white men”), who seem to be in denial about how dangerous this man could be should he become President. I don’t think he will win. But no other presidential candidate in living memory showed the same level of arrogant, entitled, and grandiose behavior that Trump has shown in his campaign–and politicians are by nature a narcissistic bunch! Can you imagine someone like Trump making it this far 30 or 40 years ago? I can’t. Even ten years ago, someone who acted that way would have been booted from the race during the primaries. We as a nation have normalized the type of pathological behavior someone like Trump displays.

Narcissism is a fashionable topic now. Maybe it’s just a fad, but it’s making people pay attention. I’ve noticed a number of Christians–at least online–who are abandoning the fiscally conservative values held by groups such as the Tea Party, who are about as collectively entitled as you can get (they better get their social security, but to hell with that child who needs special medical treatment but can’t get it because his parents are too poor). It’s probably too soon to tell whether the “social gospel” is making a return, but there does seem to be a greater desire for an increase in empathy, kindness, and community spirit instead of just building up the Almighty Self. The enormous popularity of Bernie Sanders, especially among the Millennials, proves this. Of course a Sanders-type figure wouldn’t have solved all our problems (it took decades for us to get to this point and it won’t be changed overnight), but the fact one made it so far and people actually paid attention gives me a little hope that the tides may be turning. It will be interesting to see what the rest of this decade holds.

*****

For further reading:
1. Are Millennials Really the Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?
2. Why is Narcissism so Hot These Days?
3. Generations Explained

Millennials and voting.

Michelle Obama Urges Iowa Grassroots Supporters To Get Out The Vote

The Primary election is on Tuesday night, but I’m so out of the loop sometimes that I didn’t even realize early voting ended today.  I always try to vote early because you can avoid all the crowds and craziness.  Sort of like Christmas shopping.

I wasn’t planning on voting today.  I was driving downtown to run some errands.  But I happened to pass by the library and saw all the campaign signs and a long line of people waiting to get inside.  Huh?  Why so many people standing on line when it’s early voting?

I got out of my car and breathed in the warm early spring air.  It was a glorious day, with the sun shining and the birds singing.   A few trees are beginning to blossom.   I walked over and asked someone why the line was so long, and she told me there was only an hour left before the early voting polls closed until Tuesday night!  I’d  made it right in the nick of time.  So I thanked her and took my place at the back of the line. The atmosphere was party -like.  People were excited about their candidates of choice, and the spring weather made things seem festive.

The vast majority of people waiting to vote were young families, many with babies.   I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many babies in one place since I took my own kids to Gymboree classes back when they were tiny toddlers.  A quick mental calculation based on these young parents’ appearance told me they were part of the Millennial generation (born in the 1980s and 1990s)   A few might have been later Gen-X or Gen Y, but not too many.  I’ve been reading about how politically active the Millennials are, something the previous generation (Gen-X) was generally not when they were of like age, oh, about 20 years ago now.   (Has it really been that long?)

millennialvote

There was a 20-something clean-cut young man handing out flyers and another 20-something young woman dressed in hipster garb and covered with campaign buttons enthusiastically talking about the election and handing out flyers for a different candidate. My own 24 year old son has also become politically active in his state.  He’s campaigning for Bernie Sanders (who seems very popular with Millennials, which is ironic since he’s the oldest of all the candidates).  A an aside, Bernie has amassed his enormous popularity among Millennials through social media, especially Twitter, where you can #FeeltheBern becoming an unquenchable fire.    2011’s ill-fated Occupy movement also built its momentum using Twitter to spread the word.   The movement might have fizzled out before it could make a real impact (or been silenced), but I think it was the first real sign of things to come.

Millennials get it.   They’re not taking any more of the same old, same old.  They’re not backing candidates who spout the same old tired rhetoric we’ve become so familiar with, jaded candidates funded by huge corporations who promise change but fail to deliver.  This generation has  inherited a broken nation and no one seems to give a damn.  They have had a terrible time getting a foot in the door of real adulthood because they can’t find decent jobs that pay a living wage and many can’t afford to move out of he home they grew up in.  They are in college debt up to their eyeballs and will no doubt remain in debt until their late middle age or even for the rest of their lives if things don’t change.   They’re sick of being called entitled crybabies, when all they want is the same opportunities that other generations before them did.  They also realize that if things are going to change, it’s going to be them that have to make things change.

bernie_sanders

Most of the Millennial generation is now old enough to vote, and they are taking advantage of that right and showing up at the polls to exercise that hard-won right, whether they are male or female; black, white, Hispanic, or “other;” gay or straight; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist; and regardless of political affiliation (though most seem to be quite liberal or independent).    As Americans, we all have the right to vote, and voting is the only thing that brings real change.   If you fail to vote, do you really have a right to complain?   Although I’m terribly unhappy with the state of this nation and have been for a long time, I always felt guilty griping about it whenever I failed to vote.

So I stood there on  line feeling the spring breeze in my hair and looked around at all these enthusiastic Millennials on line, with their bumper crop of babies and toddlers (the future generation of this country), and felt very proud of this young adult generation, the same one William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted back in the 1990s would become the new “Greatest” generation–the people who would finally be able to save America from itself.

 

The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial

mirror_graphic

The popular media just doesn’t understand anything about narcissism–or Millennials. It continues to trot out the “Millennials are narcissists” stereotype because they’re more likely than other generations to take selfies and are more likely to be living with their parents into their late 20s and even early 30s (even though the lack of good jobs and disastrous economy has a lot to do with this and has nothing to do with their being entitled or spoiled). If Millennials take more selfies than older people, that really doesn’t have anything to do with narcissism. It may have to do with vanity (which isn’t narcissism per se) or the fact “everyone else is doing it” and the technology happens to be available. Someone on another blog even pointed out that taking a selfie is actually a vulnerable act and a real narcissist won’t be taking selfies because they’ll want you to believe they are someone other than who they really are and a selfie shows you as you really are.

This article’s about a year old but is still relevant because the “all Millennials are selfie-taking narcissists” meme hasn’t gone away. It’s time to set the record straight. We also have short memories–every generation since the Boomers (and maybe earlier than that) has been similarly vilified during their late teen and young adult years.

The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial
By Brooke Lea Foster for TheAtlantic.com, November 19 2014

People are still lobbing the same accusations at Millennials, even though evidence shows they’re not any more self-absorbed than their predecessors.

A few months ago, the news went viral that the American Psychiatric Association had classified “taking selfies” as a sign of a mental disorder. It lit up Facebook and Twitter until it was revealed that the article was a hoax.

But still, I doubt I’m the only one that has felt at least a tiny sense of self-loathing after, say, posting a photo of myself on Facebook. Deep down, taking a “selfie” doesn’t just feel like capturing a moment—it also feels like capturing myself at my most vain.

In his pop-psychology book “The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World”, published in September, author and Time editor at large Jeffrey Kluger argues that the popularity of the “selfie” is just one way that our culture is becoming more narcissistic. In fact, he says, narcissistic behaviors today aren’t just more accepted; they’re celebrated. “We’ve become accustomed to preeners and posers who don’t have anything to offer except themselves and their need to be on the public stage,” he says. The egocentric antics of figures like Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian, for example, make our own narcissistic proclivities seem more palatable by comparison, and social media only instigates the desire for attention. Facebook, to a narcissist, can be like an open bar to a drunk.

millennialquote

But Kluger also devotes a chunk of his book to what’s become a tired argument: The idea that Millennials—the generation that came of age with selfies and Facebook and the Kardashians—are the most self-absorbed generation of all. “Plenty of people are narcissistic in our society,” Kluger says, “but Millennials are doing these things on a pandemic level.”

Of course they are. They’re young and full of themselves, like every other generation that’s come before them was at some point. But are Millennials any more narcissistic than, say, the Baby Boomers, who were once considered the most self-obsessed cohort of their time? Consider the 1976 cover story of New York Magazine, in which Tom Wolfe declared the ‘70s “The Me Decade.” One could argue that every generation seems a little more narcissistic than the last, puffing out its chest and going out into the world with an overabundance of self-confidence, swagger, even a bit of arrogance. These traits are simply hallmarks of early adulthood—it’s often the first time people are putting themselves out there, applying for first jobs and meeting potential life partners. Overconfidence is how people muscle through the big changes.

Read the rest of this article here.

Further reading: Are Millennials Really the Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?

 

Generations explained.

boomer_millennials
credit: Blog of the Ginger

One of my long-standing interests is demographics, and the interplay between the different living generations. Here is a video that explains the interactions between the four living generations born before 2005 (or possibly, 2001 — the jury’s still out on the last birthyear of the Millennials).

The birth years are based on Strauss and Howe’s “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning,” both books I have read and highly recommend for anyone interested in how generations impact history (and are, in turn, impacted by history). I agree with these birth years over the more popular ones used by most marketers and the popular media. I also believe there are “cusps” that straddle the generations and bleed over several years in both directions, so someone born in a cusp year would have characteristics of both adjacent generations. Of course, these are just guidelines (some have compared generational types to astrological signs) and some people may not fit their generation at all, but maybe a different one.

The generations discussed here:

1. GI Generation (Hero generation, born 1900 – 1924) — few still alive.
2. Silent (Artist generation, born 1925 – 1942)
(Silent/Boom cusp subgeneration: War Babies born about 1936-1946)
3. Boomer (Prophet generation, born 1943 – 1960)
(Boom/X cusp subgeneration: Generation Jones born 1955-1965)
4. Generation X (Nomad generation, born 1961 – 1981
(X/Millennial cusp subgeneration: Generation Y born 1976-1986)
5. Millennial (Hero generation, born 1982 – 2005 (?)

If you’re interested in this stuff, I recommend these two books by William Strauss and Neil Howe:

Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy — What the Cycles of History tell us about America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny

Are Millennials really the most narcissistic generation ever?

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Hipster Millennial with all his high tech stuff.

“The National Institutes of Health found that for people in their 20s, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is three times as high than the generation that’s 65 or older…”

–TIME Magazine

Millennials have been loaded with negative stereotypes: lazy, entitled, or what seems to be the media favorite, narcissistic. A recent Time magazine article managed to fit all three adjectives into one title in the cover-story, “The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” Ouch.

— Rachel Gall, So-Called Millennial.com

The burning question of whether the much-debated Millennial Generation (people born between about 1981 and 2004,according to William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory, which is based on historical cycles, and uses a set of dates I prefer to the more popular dates used in mass media that refer to anyone born from 1976 to 1991 or so as “Generation Y”) are entitled, narcissistic spoiled brats continues to be a popular and controversial topic.

Like every youth generation ever since the Baby Boomers started thumbing their noses at The Establishment’s stultifying conformity back in the ’60s with their pot, patchouli, and peace signs, when the media first discovered the coming of age Millennials about a decade ago, its initial reaction was one of disdain and dismissal–it was immediately assumed that all Millennials were spoiled, indulged narcissists who cared about no one but themselves, their iPhones and iPods, and having the best looking and coolest MySpace or Facebook profile.

“[you are] so self-obsessed. Tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys, and Snapchatting your YOLOS.” Our social media feeds are being filled with our favorite subjects: Me, Me, and Me……“Us Baby Boomers are very upset, because self-absorption is kinda our thing.”

–comedian Stephen Colbert

But recently, writers and bloggers all over the web and in the news are beginning to question the validity of the narcissistic Millennial stereotype. Two fairly recent articles–from opposite sides of the political spectrum, no less: Are Millennials Deluded Narcissists (Forbes Magazine) and The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial (The Atlantic Monthly), both defend Millennials and offered reasons why they may not be all that narcissistic, or at least why any narcissism they do have should be blamed on other things like the narcissistic, materialistic, and individualistic society they grew up in, a society that keeps up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians) and thinks greed is good. There are many other articles and news pieces that have been making the same arguments. New York Magazine posted this insightful article, completely disputing the idea that Millennials are no-good narcissistic Red Bull-guzzling basement dwellers taking advantage of their parents’ generosity.

Even when they still have the N label pinned to them, at least the accusers are placing the blame on things like the economy, lack of decent jobs, the extortionist prices of higher education and decent health care, and the astronomical amounts of money Millennial college grads owe for student loans that were supposed to make it possible for them to earn the kind of money to be able to pay back the loan and become productive middle class citizens. But instead, being in debt to Sally Mae in a stagnating economic environment burdened this disappointed and angry generation of unemployed and underemployed young people–20-somethings with college or even graduate degrees–with having to take low-paying McJobs or put up with the cold and factory-like environment of call centers (but which pay far less and offer fewer benefits than factory work, whose workers at least had the unions on their side). Then, to add insult to injury, those McJobs pay such dismally low wages there’s little or no hope of ever being able to pay back the loans they hoped would give them a foot in the door to a successful life, or even allow them to move out of their childhood home.

Most Millennials, unless they are very lucky, very talented and manage to procure the right connections and contacts, find at some point they will probably default on their student loans, which in turn earn them the accusation from conservative foghorns like Fox News, that they are entitled takers and moochers, feeding shamelessly off the government teat and living, Morlock-like, in the damp dark caverns of mom and dad’s basement, growing fat and pasty as they play with their collection of high tech gadgets that enable them to become an Internet star if the video or meme they just made goes viral.

In fact, going viral on the interwebs may be the most sure way a Millennial can ever become successful in our current sick and unstable economy and general diminishing quality of life for all but the very rich. Millennials are being forced to sink or swim in a society that has become increasingly compassionless and narcissism-glorifying. So they’re finding their own well of hope and opportunity, and that well seems to spring from social media, Youtube and reality TV.

Don’t knock it. Going viral by sheer luck and the fortuitous timing of a Youtube video is basically what happened to Justin Beiber; crime victim and folk hero Antoine Dodson, whose impassioned and unintentially hilarious rant on a local news station was transformed into a huge iTunes hit and made him an overnight star; and many other Millennial pop stars. Probably the biggest success story of all is that of Mark Zuckerburg, the multibillionaire twentysomething founder and CEO of Facebook, which he started in his spare time as an ingenious way to chat online to his college buddies from his dorm room at Harvard.

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Millennials Dodson and Zuckerburg both became successful through viral spread via social media on the Internet.

If you have a halfway decent voice, you can win a record deal or at least a little temporary fame by auditioning for reality/game shows like The Voice, America Has Talent, or American Idol. Hey, you could be the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood! If you can cook (and can tolerate the constant narcissistic rants of the cooking shows’ mean hosts such as Gordon Ramsey from Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef), well you can win your own restaurant and become rich.

What if you have no talents at all? No problem. You can still get on a reality show, even if you’re a teen mom who never graduated from high school, or a bitchy girl who likes to get into catfights with other bitchy girls. You can get rich just by acting like a jerk on TV, or doing nothing at all. And let’s be honest here: that sure beats working in Wal-Mart’s underwear department and not being able to pay your rent because your student loan debt exceeds what you earn in your dead end job. Who wouldn’t do it? Reality shows may be dumb and glorify stupidity and bad behavior, but we can blame their popularity on the uncertainty of the hope of gainful employment obtained in more traditional, socially acceptable ways.

So what generation wins the title of Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?

Personally, I would give that dubious honor to the Boomers (born from 1943-1960 according to Strauss and Howe; the popular media range is 1946-1964), the pig-in-a-python generation that pretty much turned the conformist, narrow minded, and yet community oriented and moderately altruistic Pax Americana of the post-war years into the self-worshipping, narcissistic, greedy, materialistic, hedonistic, glory mongering morass of misery and despair it has become since Reagan’s trickle down economics became sanctioned as a way to piss (trickle down) on the poor; since Rush Limbaugh’s ugly epithets toward everyone who wasn’t white, conservative, Christian, heterosexual and male became widely accepted as sound advice; since G.W. Bush gave us permission to “Go shopping!” after the 9/11 disaster and its shortlived mood of national solidarity after the attacks.

Millennials didn’t create or want this narcissistic, selfish society. They were born and raised during a time of economic uncertainty, philandering presidents whose actions became widely discussed, 24/7 coverage of heroes-turned-villains (O.J. Simpson), and a general atmosphere of increasing political discord and animosity toward those who weren’t like yourself. Millennials were often raised by single parents who were struggling to make ends meet in our crumbling society, or passed back and forth between divorced parents. Millennials are reacting the only way they can react to a society that denigrates them, gives them no opportunities, ships potential jobs overseas, makes it impossible to earn enough money to move out of their parents’ homes, and generally places them in a no-win situation.

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Where Boomers could protest Vietnam and attend a huge 4 day rock festival held on a farm, and win publicity (if not glorification) in the media over their countercultural activities, Millennials’ “Occupy” movement of late 2011–a movement that wasn’t anti-establishment or countercultural but just an expression of their desire to be treated fairly and be given more opportunities–was quickly silenced by the media. A year later, you barely heard of it anymore. We are still hearing about the Vietnam and civil rights protests of the 1960s and the womens’ and gay rights movements of the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong–those were all good causes and I agree with them–but why are Millennials being silenced for nothing more radical than wanting a decent job and a measure of respect?

underpaid Protestors sit in the street and demonst
All they want is a chance.

Although born at the butt-end of the Boom generation (and thereby almost X), I don’t consider myself a Boomer and find myself balking at my inclusion within it; nor do I truly identify with Gen-Xers. I actually consider myself a member of Generation Jones (a subgeneration that straddles both Boom and X and contains characteristics of both Boomers and Xers and includes a few of their own). Anyway, I highly recommend reading Strauss and Howe’s books, 1991’s Generations and its 1997 followup, The Fourth Turning, both which describe the way history runs in cycles of four “seasons” that produce four corresponding archetypal generational types that repeat themselves at approximately 80 year intervals, and how the interplay of the generational “constellation” and the turning (national mood) at hand impacts history and society.

But I have digressed from my original point. Boomers as the most narcissistic generation ever is not an unpopular notion. Politics, big religion and entertainment is glutted with narcissistic, bombastic Boomers who bloviate over their greatness, judge the rest of us harshly, shove religion down our throats, and show their hypocrisy by demanding obedience, family values, and morality when they themselves showed their disdain for the very same things when they were younger.

Boomers started the “Me Decade” of the 1970s–an unbridled era of vanity, designer drugs, designer jeans, pleasure seeking and hedonism; before that, during their younger, more idealistic phase, Boomers naively promised they could change the world through music, eastern forms of meditation, and psychedelic drugs. During the 1980s, they morphed into the selfish, greedy Yuppies, and by the 1990s, they had taken over the political landscape, becoming ever more bombastic, judgmental and just plain uncivil and nasty to anyone who disagreed with them.

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1960s era idealistic hippies and their 1980s incarnation as materialistic Yuppies.

Staying young and fit forever became the collective goal of the Boomer generation once they became disillusioned with their youthful idealism following Woodstock and Watergate. Perhaps due to their huge numbers and a firey passion and culture of cool that first enchanted and then took over the American imagination as early as the late 1960s, they grew up into adults who thought they were immortal, invincible, forever young and vital. They started the health and organic food craze of the late 1970s and 1980s and has continued to this day. They told us how we should all eat, look, exercise, worship, raise our children, and live our lives. And if you didn’t follow their rules and became sick or poor, well that was your own fault for lacking self discipline and strength of will. Even into their 60s and early 70s, Boomers are getting facelifts and liposuction, in a sad attempt to resurrect the appearance they had 30 or more years ago, Of course they’re just getting old like everyone else, but they refuse to confront it.

What about Generation X?
Poor Generation X (born 1961-1981, according to Strauss and Howe) is like the ignored middle child–or even the scapegoated child in a narcissistic or dysfunctional family. Having children was unpopular when they were being born, with more and more women shunning motherhood in favor of moving up the corporate ladder. Telling someone you were pregnant was usually met with side-eye by the cool people, and if you had the gall to admit you wanted to have more than two children, people looked at you like you were an unenlightened throwback to the 1950s. Getting on the “Pill” was what every young woman wanted to do.

Movies made about children during the 1960s and 1970s depicted kids as evil, demonic, bratty or badly behaved. Child psychologists recommended letting kids do whatever they wanted, which basically meant neglecting them. During the child-hating 1970s, “Latchkey” kids became the norm rather than the exception. Even “throwaway” kids, kicked out of their homes by parents who cared more about themselves than about their children, weren’t especially uncommon, especially in urban areas.

Not surprisingly, Generation X grew up with collective low self esteem, and while their humor can be dry, cynical, and full of snark, it is almost always self-deprecating. They have grown into adults in their late 30’s to early 50’s who tend to embrace traditional values, take on DIY projects, are politically and morally conservative, and believe in practical solutions rather than unproved theories. They don’t trust those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They’re overprotective of their children and highly critical of the Boomers before them.

Middle aged Gen-Xers appear to accept the aging process fairly well, pretty much resigned to the inevitable. Hey, it’s better than the alternative. They’re not lining up at plastic surgeon’s offices for facelifts and body sculpting. While there are definitely narcissistic Gen-Xers (and I could list a lot), their generation as a whole seems the opposite of narcissistic–perhaps they’re avoidant or suffering collective PTSD. They are having problems in the workplace too–squeezed between older Boomers who refuse to retire, and Millennials wanting to take their places at the lower level jobs many Gen-Xers haven’t been able to move up from because of Boomers who refuse to pass on the torch.

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Millennials are not a generation of narcissists; they are the victims of the narcissistic society they are trying to fit into without too much success. Their behavior shows frustrated young people who are just trying to find their footing and their place in the world, but no one seems to want to help give them a hand up, just blame them for failing to navigate the obstacles they never put there and never asked for.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that every generation has its good and bad individuals, and there are certainly narcissistic Millennials and Gen-Xers, as well as unselfish and truly good Boomers. I’m generalizing about the generations as a whole, not their individual members.