A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this article from The Age. From her position atop an increasingly suspect pile of unsupported generalisations and smug anecdotes, Wendy Squires asks whether today’s teenagers are ‘the most narcissistic we’ve ever seen’?
My first problem with Squires’ article is that it is plain unoriginal. Our media outlets never struggle to find another journalist proffering stale views on Gen Y’s selfishness, impatience, sense of entitlement, and obsession with social media. I suppose these articles provide easy column inches for an editor. This year, we’ve already seen this and this, and just today, another article from Fairfax somehow attributing dull travel experiences in Europe to the destructive influence of Gen Y. None of these articles provides a fresh or novel perspective; they just parrot the same generational stereotypes. Squires recognises this charge, conceding that her article might seem to be just “another Gen Y bashing piece full of stereotypes and broad generalisations”. If you’re conscious that your writing seems derivative and groundless, why persist with the piece?
Squires’ claims are also unsupported. The narcissism of Gen Y is largely attested to by a couple of anecdotes, like the author’s quite unpleasant practice of spotting ‘SNOTs’: severe narcissism overcoming teenagers. For all I know, Squires might well have encountered a young kid, sulking in a restaurant, “indignant at having to endure fine dining with their parents yet again”. But does this really justify slating home an entire generation as narcissistic? I’ve got some anecdotes of my own that would tell a distinctly different story. Hello Sunday Morning is changing Australia’s drinking culture. Left Right Think Tank is engaging young people in the key public policy questions of the future. And the Oaktree Foundation raised over $1.8m last week in the fight against global poverty.
More importantly, the statistics just don’t support Squires’ story. She quotes American researchers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell approvingly, claiming that “[y]oung people, especially from wealthy families, should be encouraged to do some difficult work in order to learn humility, compassion, the link between work and play, and the value of the dollar.” As of 2012, however, 85 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds in Australia were in full-time education or work, and 46.4 per cent were working. The same figures stand at 75 per cent and 72.4 per cent respectively for 20- to 24-year-olds. The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds involved in volunteering has actually increased over the last two decades, from 16 per cent in 1995 to 27.1 per cent in 2010.
These figures seem to put the lie to Squires’ claim that “good, solid, grounded, generous, empathetic” kids are getting harder and harder to find. But it would be equally absurd for me to claim (on the back of these statistics) that Gen Y is the most altruistic, socially minded generation in history. Pigeonholing an entire generation with a couple of stereotypes might be pithy and provocative, but it will very likely also be empty and inaccurate. Articles of this type offer nothing constructive. Furthermore, they distract from genuinely interesting questions about the nature of identity, community, and engagement in the twenty-first century. The focus of these writers on a generation over an actual issue is just small-minded. As a contrast, take this talk from Eli Pariser about the effect of online filter bubbles on the way we access information. Pariser explores an issue that undoubtedly affects many members of Gen Y, but also extends more broadly to any person who consumes their news and current affairs through digital and social media.
Editors, raise the bar. Stop accepting recycled whingeing about Gen Y, and demand journalism of substance from your writers.