Russell and Duenes

Stop Telling 18-Year Olds How Great They Are!

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Two weeks ago I sat in on a high school graduation, and as I sat there, I kept thinking: “We are certainly heaping a lot of praise upon people who haven’t accomplished very much at all!” Doubtless the same would be true at just about any high school graduation around the country. I think it’s a serious problem to keep showering accolades upon people without them having really done all that much. I was confirmed in my sense of this problem by a fantastic piece by Don Peck in The Atlantic recently (“How A New Jobless Era Will Transform America“). The article delves into the long-term consequences of unemployment upon our society and what some of the underlying issues are relative to our jobless woes. And one of the issues is a sense of entitlement in young people who have been told they are great even though they’ve accomplished very little. Peck notes,

Many of today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today’s young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

In her 2006 book, Generation Me, Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since. By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent. (More than 40 percent of teens also expected that they would be earning $75,000 a year or more by age 30; the median salary made by a 30-year-old was $27,000 that year.) Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread. [Emphasis mine]

These efforts have succeeded in making today’s youth more confident and individualistic. But that may not benefit them in adulthood, particularly in this economic environment. Twenge writes that “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,” and that “the ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.” She worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market. “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent,” she told me. “But it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”

And so many of my graduating high school students will be entering one of the toughest job markets in our history all the while being told that they are wonderful and destined for greatness. Don’t get me wrong, I love high school students and consider it a high honor to teach them. But I also believe in truth, and the truth is that almost none of today’s 18-year old’s have taken on anything like adult responsibilities. And a good many of them have little or no conception of grit, hard work and perseverance, particularly in carrying out laborious tasks which they find unenjoyable, tasks which they will have to carry out to succeed at anything, even things they do enjoy. This is why I have for some time been arguing that it is a major deficiency in our current educational system that we don’t require students to work with their hands and bodies, laboring hard to create, build, change or refurbish something. Most students are like little leaguers who think they’re good at baseball because they made the all-star team. And as can now be seen by even the most casual observers, we have not been doing them any favors in fostering in them this false sense of achievement. Rather, we are setting them up for disillusionment, frustration and emotional fragility.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

Posted in Duenes, Philosophy

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