I haven’t seen any official studies or statistics, but it seems like narcissism is possibly the most popular psychological topic on the Internet in recent years. Blogs about narcissism are spreading like wildfire (though it’s possible they may be on the decline now). The subject of narcissism seems to be brought up regularly even in articles and sites about other topics, especially entertainment, big business, and politics, where narcissism is rampant. Narcissism is a buzz word, and it’s because we children of the Baby Boomers and Silent Generation–parents who bought into narcissistic values way back in the 1960s and 1970s–are finally having our say.
In a society-wide twist of values, Narcissism has become a virtue. Old fashioned virtues like altruism and empathy are seen as liabilities that hold people back from achieving success, rather than prosocial traits that keep us civilized and human. Ayn Rand, who idealized narcissism in her philsophy of “objectivism” (and was most likely a narcissist herself) has become a cult hero; her mediocre torch romances “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” both featuring selfish, narcissistic “heroes” as their protagonists, have been enjoying enormous popularity.
I believe all this started in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Consciousness Revolution. Certainly the 1950s were mind numbingly conformist and rife with racism and sexism, but things went way too far in the other direction, as Baby Boomers and younger members of the Silent generation began to rebel against all the conformity. They popularized the idea of “doing your own thing,” whatever that thing was. Having and raising children became something to be avoided and any woman with a brain avoided pregnancy as if it were a disease. Abortion and The Pill became legal–and cool. Of course there’s nothing wrong with women having control over when and whether to have children, but I think the general attitude toward children in the 1960s and 1970s was negative. Young Gen X children were not wanted or valued. They were demonized in movies like “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” I remember an Esquire article from March 1974, “Do Americans Suddenly Hate Kids?” Well, it did seem that way.
Their parents, the Boomers and Silents, were encouraged to put their own self-growth and advancement of their careers ahead of child-rearing. At the time, this was even thought of as “good” for children, providing them with a positive example of a parent with a high self image and lists of achievements a mile long. Unfortunately, for many children growing up during this time, the attitude that adults were more valuable than children backfired and we felt like we just weren’t that important in our parents’ universe. We grew up with collective low self esteem.
The 1970s were dubbed “The Me Decade” and adults were encouraged to do and be whatever they wanted, even if this meant neglecting their own children and turning them into latchkey kids with far too much freedom for their own good. Promiscuous sexual behavior and drug abuse among adults was rampant. Women everywhere (including my own) joined consciousness-raising groups that encouraged them to put themselves over their families. The fallout rained down on the lives of their Generation X and Gen-Jones (late Boomers born at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s) children, and we suddenly found we had to fend for ourselves, without much parental support, even when our parents were not narcissists.
While attitudes toward children improved during the 1980s as Millennial children began to be born, the Boomers and younger Silents who had spearheaded the Consciousness Revolution and Me Generation, were suddenly in positions of authority in politics, business and entertainment. We had Ronald Reagan, with his “trickle down economics” and support of the “supply side” and big business over the people. Tax cuts for social programs commenced with his election and increased over the next 30 years (and show no sign of letting up). Reagan was popular and charismatic, and so were his draconian economic policies that hurt the poor and later, the middle class. New college graduates during the 1980s and 1990s realized they could make unlimited amounts of money in the stock market and suddenly the “helping professions” were unpopular and considered far less lucrative than making a killing on the stock market or in investment banking. These became the infamous “having it ALL” Yuppies.
Yuppies were better parents than their hippie predecessors, but they micromanaged everything their children did, to the point the kids became stressed because they weren’t free to just be kids. These overcontrolled children were sent to the best private schools, given lessons in everything from piano to karate, and had no free time to just play and learn on their own. Millennials grew up stressed out and expecting to achieve in life, only to find when they first entered the job market during the 2000’s, they could not find decent jobs.
Narcissism continues to be a “virtue” and our policies increasingly glorify the self and unlimited financial achievement over humble, old fashioned values of community and compassion. Children who were born or who were children or teens during the 1960s and 1970s are now adults, the oldest of us now in our 50s. I’ve noticed most blogs by ACONs seem to be written by women in their 40s and 50s: these are the Generation X and late Boom/Generation Jones children who suffered the most at the hands of parents who bought into the selfish ’70s and greedy ’80s. Even back in those days, the shift of narcissism from a vice to a virtue was not unnoticed. In 1979, cultural historian Christopher Lasch wrote his treatise “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,” about the danger of narcissistic values for American society. His book remains popular today.
We may be a bunch of middle aged fuddy duddies, but we’re no longer scared and we are not shutting up. We call out everything we see wrong with the culture we were raised in, a culture that has become just as unhealthy for our own Millennial children. We were the scapegoats of a society that didn’t value us, and now we are the truth-tellers who are boldly talking about everything that was done to us, everything that went wrong and why. It was us who spearheaded the ACON movement (and yes, it is a movement) and are bringing narcissism out into the light where it can be seen for the disgusting and ugly scourge on humanity it really is. We are doing our best to nurture our own children according to more humble, old fashioned values, although that’s hard in a society that still only values personal gain and material wealth, and still tries to keep us down.