The search for self-expression has become a groundswell that shows no signs of stopping. Its proponents have already begun to question traditional organizational structure on many fronts. Its young people have become their own authority in a myriad of situations in no small part because of the glut of information that the Internet provides to all of us. But what if we put a positive spin on the current age of entitlement, the quest for putting as much “me” as possible out there for all to appreciate? What if we view it as a step forward in the progress of civilization?
For centuries human beings have had to conform; to sacrifice their own self-interests to greater causes, be they wars, political disputes, economic and religious issues or basic survival. Opportunities for self-fulfillment and individual expression were available only to a select few—usually royalty or the very wealthy. At the present time however resources are such that many of us are not in a constant struggle for survival. The Information Age has been a great leveler, providing unlimited chances to contribute opinions and learn from others around the globe. The opportunities for self-expression are exhilarating and many have jumped in with both feet.
But now we are faced with a generation of seemingly slothful feckless youth (and their parents), concerned only with their own well-being and what feels good in the moment. We are understandably puzzled and yes, troubled. In a TIME article called Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation (May 20, 2013) Joel Stein cites the following data:
Here’s the cold, hard data: The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982… They’re so convinced of their own greatness that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60% of millennials in any situation is that they’ll just be able to feel what’s right. And they are lazy. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.
So what do we do? The solution on one side is to return to the old ways: embrace the hierarchies that divided people into classes, have and have-nots. The other side affirms the rights of the individual but is also faced with the glut of men and women in their twenties and older who are so convinced of their own greatness that they don’t need to work or contribute in any way to society.
It is at this point that we need to distinguish between selfishness and individual liberty. Selfishness in any form only turns us back on ourselves; it reinforces a fragile self-structure that is unable to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” It is however an important step on the path to liberty. That is, we must know and love ourselves in order to fight for true freedom for all. Only then will we be able to embrace a society in which self-expression co-exists with commitment to the common good.
Now comes the tricky part. Next week we will consider how we teach our children the difference between the two.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.