Back in the late 1960s I was going on a camp with a group of Christian students. One of the students mentioned that an acquaintance of his had been depressed, and was missing from his room last night.
As we drove up a mountain road my friend spotted his fellow-student's car, parked near a rocky creek bed. We got out and searched around a bit, but couldn't find any sign of the missing young man. When we got to the campsite we phoned the police.
Later we learned that they found him - just a few metres from where we'd searched, almost dead from an overdose. A few days later he was out of danger. This young guy was a loner: he'd never go out of his way to talk to anyone, except the lady in the cafeteria.
It's a bad mad sad weird world
Our human voyage is a lonely affair. The world is full of lonely people. And I would think there are more lonely people among Generation Xers than in any other generation in history.
The term 'Generation X' comes from the title of Douglas Coupland's hip 1991 novel. It signifies an unknown variable, a generation that is still in search of its identity. Gen Xers were born between the years 1961 and 1981. The young men and women who make up Generation X are as diverse in outlook and style as the baby boomers before them. (I'm not even a Baby Boomer. I'm in the generation before that, which grew up with no TV - so I'm in a class you might call 'Old Fogey'.)
Some have called Gen X the "paradox generation" because its members display characteristics that appear to cancel each other out. The themes and thoughts found throughout Generation X material form a complex mix of positive and negative.
According to Gen Xer Jeff Bantz, Xers are:
· very individualistic, and yet highly value relationships
· skeptical yet pragmatic
· slow to commit yet passionately dedicated
· a challenge to manage but are excellent workers
· apathetic, and yet care deeply
· relativistic but are searching for meaning
· disillusioned, yet they are not giving up
· don't respect authority, yet long to receive instruction
· have an extended adolescence, and yet they grew up too soon.1
And they're pro-choice regarding abortion but pro-life when it comes to whales and trees (if someone can explain the logic of that I'll be happy to be enlightened!).
There are plenty of generalisations to be made about Gen Xers (see box), but the consensus is fairly unanimous that they struggle with three pervasive feelings: despair, confusion, and narcissism.
A few years ago I spent the International Year of the Family studying relationships and writing a book The Family2 in which I showed that God puts people into families (and/or communities) for three reasons: to learn self-worth by being loved unconditionally; to feel a sense of belonging (home is the place which, when you go there, they have to take you in); and to give back to others in forms of sacrifice and service. Gen Xers have suffered deprivations in all three areas. ("I'm homesick for the home I never had!" screams the lead singer of the Rock Group 'Soul Asylum').
The US psychologist Martin Seligman (author of Learned Optimism) says that today young Americans are ten times as likely to suffer measurable depression as their grandparents were. In a new book, Britain on the Couch, psychologist Oliver James notes that British people are about three times as likely to be depressed as they were in the 1950s.
Christian researcher George Barna says Xers are the most ignored, misunderstood and disheartened generation we have seen in a long time. Richard Peace, professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary, calls this "a clinically depressed generation".
Today we live in a world where road rage is about to be certified as an official mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association - together with IAD ('Internet addiction disorder'), caffeine induced anxiety disorder, inhalant abuse, and telephone scatologia (making sexually related heavy breathing phone calls). A world where the young choose to kill themselves at an alarming rate. On the basis of the available data New Zealand appears to have the highest rate of youth suicide in the world.3
Choosing careers is a hassle. In earlier times, children grew up taking for granted that they would adopt the occupations of their parents. A few generations back, children began adopting their parents' aspirations instead of their occupations. Gen Xers are likely to choose neither.
In all of the G7 countries save Germany, joblessness among people under 25 is worse than for the work force as a whole - a point illustrated by the movie "Reality Bites'' in which Winona Ryder plays a college-leaver who is either over or under-qualified for every job she seeks.
When the boomers were twenty-something, they were ready to save the world. Xers feel they are barely able to save themselves. Survival is their goal.
A composite statement of Xer frustrations might go like this: Boomers had free love; we have AIDS. They had the War on Poverty; we have a trillion-dollar debt. They had a booming economy; we have downsizing and pollution.
Gen Xers are the first 'post-Christian/post-modern' generation in the West - the first generation to grow up without absolute truths. Instead they believe that the highest virtue is tolerance of the views of others.
The key assumption of modernism is that knowledge is certain, objective, good and obtainable: the 'modern' knower tries to stand apart from the world and be an unbiased observer. Information processing is linear, one's outlook is optimistic, progress is inevitable and the focus is on the individual.
The TV series The X-files - which has, over the past few years, taken the world by storm - is all about the paradigm shift (from modern to post-modern) in Western thought and culture. The show's catchphrase - "The truth is out there" - is based on the (modern) assumption that although 'the government' is involved in conspiracies to conceal reality from its citizens, it is possible to find the truth eventually.
Dana Scully is the sceptic. She is a doctor of medicine and a believer in 'science fact', not 'science fiction'.
The FBI assigns Agent Scully to work with Agent Mulder to solve the X-Files. They hope to discredit Mulder with science and eventually close the X-Files altogether.
But the plan fails as Agent Scully begins to realise that seeing is not always believing.
For postmodern Xers there are multiple centres of truth, no truth is true, and all truth is true. Everything is relative and everything could be truth. Xers can live with contradictory ideas.
For the Xer, experience beats dogma. Truth is defined by each individual and the community of which he or she is a part; so, information processing is non-linear and fragmented, the idea of progress is illusory, and the focus is on community.
I asked a high school teacher who had returned to teaching after several years at home bringing up her children whether she noticed any difference in today's young people. "They're more selfish these days", she said. "We were studying the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman and talked about the notion of 'duty', but they had no idea what duty or obligation was all about."
Articles in psychologists' journals are suggesting that narcissism5 is the behavioural disorder of the late nineties. Thirty or forty years ago - and for millennia before that - guilt was the main psychological crippler.
Not any more. Now I talk to clients who have absolutely no guilt - but they're not psychopaths either. They're trying to find happiness in the ways the media, advertising and celluloid industries tell them it can be found. While living hypersexual and hedonistic lives they are empty inside.
In The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations Christopher Lasch says:
The trend toward excessive emphasis on self-esteem and self-congratulation may be an overcorrection of earlier traditions where children were not complimented for fear of making them conceited. Self-esteem is most likely to be fostered when children are esteemed and treated respectfully and receive the right kind of positive feedback in the form of appreciation, rather than empty praise and flattery.
The concept of the self varies among cultures. Westerners typically construe themselves as independent, stable entities. On the other hand, in Asia and Africa, the self is viewed as interdependent and connected with the social context.
Westerners view the self as an autonomous entity consisting of a unique configuration of traits. The Asian view is that the self exists primarily in relation to specific social contexts, and is esteemed to the extent that it can adjust to others and maintain harmony.
So are today's young people more selfish? In one sense, no. Every generation has its own way of manifesting narcissism. Gen Xers are more honest about it than some.
Where to from here?
Faith, hope and love are the greatest of human virtues and they are the perfect antidotes for confusion, despair and narcissism.
Faith is trusting the God Jesus told us about; hope is the deep conviction that God who promised to be with you through thick and thin will keep that promise; love is a gift from God - the relationship between subject and object that creates worth in the object rather than responding to worth in the object. And never forget: each of us is an unrepeatable miracle of God's creation. There is only one of you - and that's good.
Just as Jesus got his feelings of self-worth and identity from hearing God his father affirm 'You are my son; I delight in you!' so each one of us is a delight to God.
"God does not share out love between all of God's creatures: God gives all of God's love to each of God's creatures," said Hugh of St Victor.
4 According to Greek mythology, Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water and instantly fell in love with himself. Each time he tried to clasp his reflected image to himself it disappeared. As he sat for days at the pool, dying, he cried in despair, unable to embrace his own love.
Rev. Dr. Rowland Croucher is Director of John Mark Ministries, serving pastors, ex-pastors, church leaders and their spouses. He has a counselling practice based in Melbourne, conducts two-day retreats for clergy and others, and speaks at seminars around Australia and beyond. He has been married for 371/2 years to Jan who is a clergyperson, and they like to spend their day off with one or two of their grandsons, who live next door. He may be contacted on <[email protected]>.