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The young: “We’re #1 but worthless”

Posted by Richard D North in Media / Rights on 6 August 2009

Why we posted this: It’s a commonplace that modern people are unhappy and that there are “studies” to prove it. David Aaronovitch of The Times has devoted quite a few columns to this sort of pseudo-academic work. This time, he’s on about the contradictoriness of one writer’s “evidence” about why young people are miserable (and he’s reluctant to assume they are).

The original story:
“It’s not Facebook that’s doing down our young”
David Aaronovitch
The Times
4 August 2009

Summary of the story:
Mr Aaronovitch looks at a piece of work by one commentator. He writes:

“Modern society was so bad, this declinist wrote, that one study showed how girls …. thought so little of themselves that the number answering that they saw themselves as a ‘worthless person’ had gone up threefold in 20 years. This was awful.”

Mr Aaronivitch said that the declinist then went on to cite Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic as having part of the answer. Twenge said modern young people have an “exaggerated and selfish idea of their own importance”. Between the 1950s and the 1980s there was an increase from 12 to 80 percent in the number of people who agree with the proposition, “I am an important person”.

According to Mr Aaronivtch, the Facebook generation mostly face the problem (not of TV or Pop Idol), but the

“determined – almost ruthless – cultural pessimism of some of their spiritual, academic and commentating elders.”

livingissues comment:
It is certainly true, as Mr Aaronovitch says, that modern gurus often cite evidence which is extraordinarily self-contradictory without any hint that both arguments can’t be true.

However. It is of course possible that modern young people are a bit contradictory. One could argue, for instance, that they have a sky-high but very fragile opinion of themselves. That is: they believe (because everyone tells them so) that they matter, can succeed, and ought not to defer to anyone. On the other hand, when they do fail this becomes an amazing surprise because they have no conception that if they aim low and attempt nothing they will be failures and if they do attempt things, and aim high, sooner or later they will over-reach themsleves, and fail.

In short, they do of course matter but they will fail. So it may be that they need to be told that one is bound to feel a bit worthless unless one has a very realistic understanding that success is quite rare, that life is a battle. In short, they may need a little modesty. On the other hand, too much modesty can be demotivating.

Life’s a muddle and it takes courage. To that extent, saying contradictory things about life (and young people) is inevitable. So one might refine Mr Aaronivitch’s analysis to this extent: he might have added that being contradictory is inevitable, but one ought to admit it. But that makes one’s writing rather nuanced, and it is probably the case that modern academics and commentators feel the need to make a large splash.

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