When historian Christopher Lasch published his classic book The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, it was already clear that a new kind of human being had been forged in the cultural fires of the sixties—one who was more socially conscious, more free from traditional norms, and more thoroughly self-obsessed than in any previous generation. Now, thirty years later, the Me Generation has given birth to Generations X and Y, for whom phrases like “Building self-esteem,” “You’re special,” and “Be all that you can be” have, for many, become instilled as foundational principles of existence. Indeed, with this new breed of budding narcissists, the cultural phenomenon that Lasch first defined has both expanded and intensified, causing many to question whether the trend toward individualism may have gone a bit too far. Primary among these critics has been thirty-seven-year-old San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, whose 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement may be the best and most comprehensive diagnosis to date of what she calls a “cultural disease.”
It would be difficult to find a person who cares as much about those who care mostly about themselves as Twenge does. Her interest in narcissism was piqued during graduate school in the nineties while doing psychological research on how changing gender roles were affecting young people, particularly women. Twenge found that in addition to the new level of equality and individual empowerment that women were experiencing, there was an accompanying degree of self-infatuation that was, ironically, holding many back from expressing their full potential as human beings. Her interest in the subject blossomed, eventually leading her to publish Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before in 2006. The book, which garnered attention from a wide range of major media outlets including the New York Times, the Today show, and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, launched her into the national limelight and established her as one of the world’s foremost experts on the narcissism phenomenon.
With The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge has taken her research to the next level. Filling more than three hundred pages with psychological data (much of which comes from original research) and examples from pop culture, she makes a strong case that we are in the midst of a narcissistic renaissance. From her discussion of new “personal paparazzi” businesses (which give anyone with a few grand the opportunity to feel what it’s like to be an adored celebrity) to her original graphs (which show a significant increase in the appearance of narcissistic language in newspapers), Twenge paints a stark picture of our current cultural predicament that is both shocking and implicating for those of us who have grown up in the self-reflective afterglow of the sixties. But Twenge isn’t just a critic. She’s on a mission to educate people about the harmful consequences of this disease and to help provide a much-needed objectivity on our own collective condition. Playing the role of cultural epidemiologist, Twenge explores the root causes of the narcissism epidemic, gives an overview of its many symptoms, and offers her own set of prescriptions for how she thinks we can treat it.