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The Narcissism Epidemic

I’m reading The Narcissism Epidemic by Twenge and Campbell. In a lot of ways the authors are completely correct about selfishness taking over modern societies to varying degrees. It’s a huge problem that I actually have had many non-academic conversations about with a pretty broad range of people. People feel it and sense the problem with it. The authors talk about how reciprocity is important for societies to work, and when blind selfishness causes people to take without giving back, it can have wide-reaching consequences as the person who is cheated of the returned favor becomes less inclined to help others and the cycle continues and expands to affect more and more people. Most of the rest of what’s in the book you could arguably trace back to this one idea.

However, the chapter “All Play and No Work: Entitlement” left me less than impressed. It is absolutely true that there are a lot of young people who expect work to give them far more than they give it. At the same time, work is much less rewarding than it used to be except for those at the top of the pay scale. There’s nothing in this chapter about the declining loyalty of companies to their employees (vs. the opposite), stagnant wages or the growing income gap, especially in the United States, where the authors reside and where most of the stats and anecdotes in the book are drawn from.

The criticism of the new drive for work-life balance also seems over the top. The authors seem to be, presumably without noticing it, biased towards a traditional lifestyle where work and/or family were the cornerstone of life, and wanting time for other activities is made to seem unrealistic or less desirable than focusing on work or family. Narcissism is no doubt somewhat linked to the rise in care-free, childless adults in low responsibility jobs, ultra flexible jobs, or seeking such jobs with probably unrealistically good pay to match. But there are also other trends at work.

The change in gender roles probably has something to do with it. Women, arguably, have traditionally been more interested in having children and actively raising a family than men have been. Now women are encouraged, if not expected, to pull their income and career weight as prospective marriage partners. Men have had their roles blurred as well so that career isn’t the only thing they are expected to contribute anymore, but must now also help around the house and be more active parents. They may even stay at home with the kids while their wives go to work, however much society has lagged in valuing and including such men thus far. Is it any wonder that some people are throwing up their hands and letting both family and work slide in favor of something more immediate, such as a social life with solid friends and personal development and fulfillment? People are struggling with how to do it all, whether to try to do it all, and where they fit at all. They might also be wondering whether it’s better to remain childless in such uncertain and challenging times when there are already more than enough people on the planet, degrading our own once-beautiful, varied and plentiful habitat more and more everyday.

There is also more widespread recognition of new realities regarding work, especially by young people. Work is less rewarding than in the past (i.e. stagnant wages, growing inequality, fewer benefits, fewer pension plans, less loyalty from employers) and there is growing recognition that a lot of jobs do not actually contribute much good to society at large. Being a little too idealistic myself, I have struggled with a choice of career in a world dominated by corporations and the drive to produce money for the economy (how about something good for society? Isn’t that what the economy’s for?). The authors are professors who get to spend their time thinking about things like what’s gone wrong with society. They do not peddle or contribute to the peddling of more needless goods in the economy. At the same time, it seems probable that a lot of people in the new “information” and “service” economies being sought all over the world are feeling a sense of disconnection from their work, which produces less and less tangible results. Professors might think they are contributing to progress in society through research and the world of thought and debate, education. But the people who really make society work, the ones who grow and make our food, build our buildings and infrastructure, work in manufacturing and staff all those lowly service jobs where they sell you groceries and cut your hair, are often among the lowest paid there out there.

When the authors mention the argument for illegal immigration that such immigrants do jobs Americans don’t want to do, they talk about this as if there is the implication that Americans think they’re “too good” for such jobs. (This is also the argument for legal immigration, by the way, for most of the rest of the “developed” world.) Maybe Americans (and Canadians and Europeans) wouldn’t think they weren’t too good for these jobs if they were better enumerated and respected. I don’t like working in an office, despite the authors’ talk of how much easier it is than building a roof in summer heat. But as soon as you move into an office and start wearing office clothes, you generally get a pay hike and more respect. I deal with this reality everyday in the job I currently work. My job is considered entry-level, but without me, a place of business does not run at all. Without one of the office staffers..a phone doesn’t get answered. They’re essentially administrators, while I deal with the public everyday, enforcing rules and ensuring the place keeps doing business. Don’t get me wrong, administrators are important, but why should they be paid so much more and respected so much more just because they sit at a desk and work with a computer? (Sometimes I think it’s because there is an instinctive sense that office jobs really aren’t better, that they keep people cooped up inside dealing with the same faces and office politics day after day and generally are more of a grind, but a lot of people do seem to prefer the air conditioning and cooped-up aspect to what I do everyday.) Americans (and the rest of us) would probably be more than willing to do these other jobs if they got paid enough to be reasonably comfortable on the wages from them and didn’t feel embarrassed about not haven’t progressed to a “real job”. Admittedly Twenge and Campbell suggest that everyone should work a difficult job to learn humility and sustained respect for those who remain in such jobs for life.

There is a lot of mixing of trends in society. The authors talk about work-life balance as if many people expect it without expecting a pay cut too. They’ve missed out on the simply living and voluntary simplicity movements, apparently. They admit that there’s a collision of work and life in their own days, but don’t acknowledge that maybe there’s a reason for the backlash. They talk about materialism as it relates to narcissism, but thinking about work-life balance and trends in happiness-seeking, people seem to be catching on that experiences, not “stuff” are what bring contentment. And balancing work with “life” can also mean taking part in political activities and other outward-looking activities that build society just as narcissism seems ready to destroy it.

I guess what I’m saying is that you can be focused on yourself, and try to be a well-rounded person and it can be good for society. Twenge and Campbell may have swung too far to one side, simplified too much and run too much in favor of a lifestyle and a societal setup that has deserted us. I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistaken statements here (I haven’t read the entire book yet and have skipped around a fair bit, and I’m writing this during a bout of insomnia), but as I read the book, I can’t help that hope and think that society is in transition. On the other side of that transition we’ll hopefully find something better, something in between the “good old days” where people focused mainly on work or family, business or community (generally one at a time, let’s face it) and today where people have retreated to become too-isolated individuals. We’re still looking for balance.

In the meantime, everyone individually and together can gain by stepping outside the self once in a while, and really trying to give back to someone else and to the world at large. Civilization needs it too.

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