Generation Me does plenty for others

April 23, 2007 | By Daniel T. Swann

A recent study concluded that my generation is narcissistic. It was based on a nationwide survey of college students called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The higher the NPI score, the more narcissistic the subject. Two-thirds of my peers had above-average scores, a 30 percent increase since the NPI was first conducted in 1982. The study was called “Generation Me.”

Generation Me. That label implies that college students lack empathy and value themselves much more than relationships. Jean Twenge, the San Diego State University professor who headed the study, argued that technology is a driving force of this neo-narcissism. Websites such as MySpace and Facebook are all about drawing attention to ourselves.

It’s true that we love our online profiles, but we aren’t that simplistic. Narcissism and altruism can exist in the same generation.

I saw it in the young woman in my residence hall at Northeastern University who helped build schools in Haiti and Mexico before she came to college. I heard it when I listened to two international affairs majors named Aly Brennan and Hannah Robertson-Forrest talk about Invisible Children, a program of Uganda-CAN, an organization working to end the war in northern Uganda.

Invisible Children is a reason to believe in my generation. I joined Uganda-CAN last fall after watching a DVD about the Invisible Children program. Three filmmakers from Southern California, all in their early 20s, formed the group in 2004 after they traveled to Uganda and documented a disturbing chapter in the 21-year war between the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and the Ugandan government. The refugee camps set up 10 years ago have been housing 1.8 million people, including children who are trying to avoid being abducted by the LRA and used as child soldiers.

Invisible Children spreads awareness of the displaced children by showing the documentary at college campuses nationwide. The nonprofit also boasts a variety of grassroots campaigns to improve conditions in the refugee camps and encourage peace talks. The Schools for Schools campaign designed to provide schools in northern Uganda with clean water, books, teachers, and technology raised $150,000 in a month and a half.

What does all of this have to do with Generation Me? Everything. It was all Generation Me.

“I would say 75 percent of people [in Invisible Children Inc.] are under 25 ,” said Chris Zwakenberg, 24, a national tour representative for Invisible Children. “The chief financial officer is 23.”

Last April 28, 80,000 of my peers attended staged protests for the Invisible Children Global Night Commute. Demonstrators slept overnight in the streets of 130 cities worldwide to protest the lack of international attention for the children forced to commute to the camps at night to avoid capture during the day.

“And these are all kids,” Brennan said. “There aren’t adults, like some 40-year-old wiser man who took over dictating what they do.”

Eighty thousand people. That’s almost the number of friends I have on MySpace.

Kidding.

However, it isn’t just individuals who draw attention on MySpace. Ideas and issues do, too. The One Campaign and Amnesty International are two of more than 20,000 MySpace groups listed as “Non-profit and Philanthropic” organizations.

“MySpace has been huge,” Zwakenberg said. The “Invisible Children” documentary—clearly not a narcissistic endeavor—was one of the most popular videos on MySpace last year.

Could MySpace actually be evidence of our potential? William Strauss, the co author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” says my peers, the “Millennials,” aren’t creating profiles, videos , and audio files on sites like MySpace and YouTube for purely narcissistic reasons.

“It’s for sharing, and sharing is not narcissism,” Strauss said. “As in any generation you will find examples of self-oriented behavior but we should not let youthful ambition be mischaracterized as narcissism.”

Strauss and his colleague Neil Howe have been studying the Millennial generation since 1986. Their book “Generations” describes the patterns of four generation types and the mindsets and behaviors associated with them.

Strauss points to the decline in behaviors commonly associated with reckless and self-involved youth over the last 15 years, such as crime and sexual risk-taking, as evidence of the Millennials’ sense of responsibility. “Like GIs, Millennials are a generation of improving trends, rising institutional trust , and greater teamwork,” Strauss said.

Howe said Millennials possess an attitude toward civic duty he described as: “Let’s go. Let’s do it.”

“I do feel your generation looks at boomers and how boomers are running government, and you feel you can run a more capable, less corrupt [government] with less cronies,” Howe said.

Something is driving the demand for more options for alternative spring break at colleges. Boston College’s alternative spring break program, for instance, offers students the opportunity to spend their week doing Habitat for Humanity-type projects in such places as Jamaica and the Appalachian Mountains.

“These programs have developed and become much more a part of the BC culture,” said John McDargh, an associate professor of theology there. He said there are almost always more people applying for positions on the Appalachia and Nicaragua trips than positions available.

We might never know why someone chooses something selfless over something self-gratifying. I only know that my generation cannot be explained with one study. I know this because Brennan and Robertson-Forrest discuss poverty so passionately. I have seen Brennan joking about how tired she is one minute and almost jumping out of her chair with energy while talking about Africa the next.

“I really do feel blessed to know this,” Brennan said about the situation documented by Invisible Children. “I feel so honored that I know what’s going on somewhere all the way across the world that I want to share it with everyone. It blows your mind.”

My problem with the study is it labels an entire generation with a blanket term. There are people doing good work who deserve better than that. Judging a demographic’s perspectives and potential based purely on a narcissism index is like determining its intellect based purely on the average SAT score.

Yes, we love our Internet, but there are some who use it as a resource to positive ends because they see the world outside their posted photos and online diaries. Yes, we might even think we’re special individuals sometimes. If we didn’t, would we be able to accomplish much?

Connections