The ‘rise of’ narcissism in Gen Y is a trendy discourse, and it’s easy to see why. Some contemporary writers like to place the phrase ‘the rise of’ in front of timeless and universal behaviours, like the ‘rise of promiscuity’. This practice keeps the masses alarmed and distracted.
Last week on Q&A, neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield explained the rise of narcissism on social media. Greenfield said that humans have historically used body language as the ‘natural handbrake’ to prevent them from divulging too much information in social situations. So, Greenfield argued, our natural tendency towards self-interest has ballooned, because the internet allows everyday communication without the intervention of body language.
In 2011, The Huffington Post published an article titled The Epidemic of Narcissism, in which author Nicole Forrester said, “I believe the promotion of narcissism encourages a proclivity of striving for favourable evaluation by others. This may be a recipe for distraction if these evaluations unknowingly become a priority.” In 2013, The Age carried a similar article with the headline, Is this the most narcissistic generation we’ve seen?
Let me ask: is there anything about the society we live in that does not promote narcissistic tendencies? We live in a time of hyper-individualism. “You” are told from a young age to value yourself. Be who you are; your opinion matters. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter. Put yourself first! Be aggressive and confident, you have to be your own champion. What is different about you? Scream it from the streets!
Then we’re fed an excruciatingly long list of don’ts: Don’t be fat. Don’t be ugly. Don’t be lazy. Don’t settle. Don’t stay in your home town. Don’t be too opinionated, especially if you’re a woman. Bide your time in banal jobs because if you don’t, you’re a self-entitled Gen Y. Travel, otherwise you’re uncultured. It’s exhausting being Gen Y. As Eleanor Robertson recently wrote in a stunning piece for The Guardian, “Gen Y didn’t go crazy in a vacuum” (if you haven’t read it, do so immediately).
We crucify young people who deviate from the script. Remember the lashings Miley Cyrus received for her VMA’s performance? We treat Justin Bieber like a God then scold him for acting like one. So what happens when you have a culture that indoctrinates its youth with the message that ‘individuality is important’ combined with social condemnation for being different? An epidemic of insecure young people who are playing the role of ruthless, confident Gen Y – a role they’ve been told they have to act if they want to get anywhere in life. Is this the most insecure generation we’ve seen?
The two most outwardly confident Gen Y individuals I know have both confessed to me in times of vulnerability that they are intensely insecure, and feel their confidence is a total charade. There’s even a prescriptive line for this trait, and we’ve all heard it – ‘fake it ‘til you make it!’ And let’s not forget, suicide is now the number one cause of death for young people. But Gen Y has nothing to complain about, right? Self-entitled and lazy brats they are.
Social media is an obvious forum for Gen Y to enact cultural scripts. The technology allows endless possibilities for validation – liking, commenting on, and sharing posts, favouriting, re-tweeting, re-gramming – each providing a instantaneous dose of approval. To lament and criticise the ‘rise of narcissism’ on social media is like leading a malnourished gazelle to an oasis and frowning when it desperately laps up the water.
No wonder we’re in such dire straits and mentally all over the place, growing up in a world where we’re told to Be Somebody or we’ll be worthless. No wonder we’re all clambering for a slither of admiration, some external validation – after all, we live in a time where the consequences of social rejection can literally mean death.
See the original publication of this article at Birdee Mag.