Narcissist, who me?

Forget about the environment, the economy, crime and unrest. Those are small matters not worthy of my time.

What I’m interested in – and this is all about me – is, well, me! And you should be too.

Apparently there’s an epidemic of narcissism among college students that’s bound to make a mess of society in the next generation:

“What this means is that we have generations of people entering the workforce that expect special treatment, are demanding of others and making risky decisions — ones that could be quite costly when you consider recent business fiascoes,” says Amy Brunell, an Ohio State researcher unaffiliated with the study.

Narcissism isn’t limited to college kids, though. Look what David Brooks of the New York Times says about Mel Gibson. He figures the overboard actor’s recent alleged phone rants are evidence of me-centred thinking taken horribly to the (Mad) Max.

Gibson’s behaviour may be sophomoric but he’s a Baby Boomer through and through. And so were the bankers who plunged the economy into the pits over the last few years!

According to the same article quoted above:

Some researchers believe that the current credit bubble plaguing the American economy and the global financial crisis are the result of the risky decision-making and sense of entitlement associated with narcissism…

And that should be no surprise. Let’s remember – Tom Wolfe coined “the me decade” nearly 25 years ago now, to refer to the “self-absorbed and passive” North American mentality of the day. In fact, self-focus to the point of selfishness has arguably been a societal plague since shortly after the “Greatest Generation” returned from the Second World War to start silver-spoon-feeding their Baby Boomer offspring.

They, in turn, are the ones who apparently fostered this new generation of millennial narcissists. Go figure.

It’s easy to make those kinds of sweeping generations when you’re viewing history and society through the lens of opinion. Which I am, of course, but I’m entitled to. I’m a blogger, and anyway, I was born in 1969. Duh.

What I’m wondering is whether North American narcissism is really an epidemic – a momentary blip caused by rugged individualism meeting near-total entitlement in the past couple of generations in the Western world – or is it actually a manifestation of the way we Westerners see the world?

A recent study from the University of Alberta notes that Japanese people and North American people judge the happiness of an individual very differently. When looking at an image of a person surrounded by a group of peers, Japanese subjects are likelier to evaluate the happiness of the surrounding group in assessing the happiness of the individual. North Americans, by contrast, look at the individual alone for clues to happiness.

In other words, me first, we second, everybody else… later, dude.

I find this pertinent for Canada’s so-called compassionate society. Culturally, we share a lot more in common with our American neighbours, including ranting Mel and those selfish college kids, than we do with the people of East Asia.

If society becomes increasingly fragmented into individuals with a strong sense of entitlement, what does that mean for the poor, the weak, the sick, the aged, the disabled among us?

If narcissism translates to high personal debt, low productivity, self-indulgence and disinterest in the problems of others, a compassionate society is going to be harder and harder to maintain.

But whatever. I’ve got better things to do than write about this. I think I’ll blow off work early, grab a latte, maybe get some new clothes on my Visa card and plan my next tropical vacation over steak dinner on a patio somewhere.

I deserve it, right?

2 comments on “Narcissist, who me?

  1. Another example of this is how CEOs in Japan took pay cuts when faced with economic crisis in the 1990s (CEOs in N.America continue to feed at the trough during the currrent recession). Good post I enjoyed reading it…BUT…I have a question:

    What do you mean by “a compassionate society is going to be harder and harder to maintain.”? Couldn’t organizations/communities that embody compassion (and dump the narcissism) see a jump in productivity? Wouldn’t families that welcome compassion into their home be less likely to split (and therefore avoid the costly realities of divorce). It might be hard to put a $ figure on the benefits accrued by compassion, but the benefits are there…aren’t they?

  2. David Newland

    July 29, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your comments.

    By “a compassionate society is going to be harder and harder to maintain,” I meant that in a world where everyone thinks increasingly of him or herself, people are less likely to want to fund or focus on programs intended to ease the plight of others.

    I’m speculating of course. I’d like to think that people who are aware of the issues inherent in a narcissistic world view do gravitate, as you suggest, to communities that embody compassion. That would be good.

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