Every catch an ear-worm? You know, when a tune nests unwelcome in your mind and you can't shake it. Well, a couple of weeks ago I was infected by one of its even more inescapable cousins, a "thought-worm."

It started over dinner with a 20-something I watched grow-up who I don't get to see all that often. She brought me up to speed on the wonderful—and sometimes not—things going on in her life: building a career, starting to think about her financial future, even trying to nurture some creative impulses all while looking around for ways to give back more meaningfully than doing what she called "volunteer-lite." I was impressed.

But, however delightful the dinner was to this point, there was not yet anything cognitively infectious. That waited until we started talking about her social life, specifically how she and her friends were using various technologies. This was when I got infected by the thought-worm I've used to sub-title this post: "someone else is the mayor of my apartment."

Some quick background because not everyone is familiar with Foursquare, a location-based social network, that names someone the "mayor" of a location. Foursquare lets you tell those in your network where you are, what you're doing, and how good a time you're having. Users "check-in" when they go someplace and they can earn "badges" and prizes when they check-in at various commercial locations. You can also add locations—like my dinner companion's best friend had done with her apartment—so it is not just pre-packaged venues. And mayor? Well, the person who has checked-in most frequently becomes the "mayor" of that place.

Ok? Got it? That's where this mayor-thing comes from. But let me be clear, what makes the phrase so infectious is not because Foursquare is itself that interesting. It's merely one of many social networks trying to establish itself.

Rather, what makes it worth all the mind-space it has used—and justifies, I hope, my trying to infect you with the thought—is the window it offers on how newly minted adults, the first generation of of digital natives, experience themselves, each other, and being in the world. Despite research saying they are a self-involved cohort suffering from an epidemic of narcissism (see fellow PT-blogger and pre-eminent proponent of this point of view Jean Twenge's blog), I think there is room for tremendous hope and optimism, room to be impressed by who these people are becoming but only when we see them in their own terms and not through our distorting pre-digital concepts.

In fact, even before this dinner my experience of today's new adults, including the patients I treat in my psychotherapy practice, did not resonate with all the inter-generational hand-wringing. Seemingly entitled grad-students also go on to work incredibly hard to achieve that which they can annoyingly seem like they feel entitled to have without work. But it only looks like entitlement; they still work incredibly hard. Entitlement is a performance not a trait; self-esteem is just something they were taught to do. 

 Christopher J. Ferguson writing in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"There has been much recent discussion in the psychological literature and the popular press about the idea that self-esteem among young people has become so problematic that an "epidemic" (not my word) of narcissism has gripped the younger generation. Allegedly, high levels of narcissism place young people at risk not only for manipulativeness and selfishness but also for all manner of ill outcomes, including increased propensities for violence, depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance."

I just don't see it, despite what takes place on the Jersey Shore. And here's that thought again: "someone else is the mayor of my apartment." It's reminding me that social networks really are letting new forms of relatedness bloom and more is going on than an epidemic of narcissism. And as Ferguson goes on to say, "there is simply not the quality of evidence available to support such hyperbole."

But whether scores on the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory) really are increasing over time and whether or not that provides evidence for the purported epidemic, what we do know is that because new modes of relatedness and experience have emerged, whatever the NPI measures in a college student today is not the same "self" that it measured when I was a college student armed with a #2 pencil, a yellow legal pad, and a collection of Grateful Dead records.

I just don't see new adults as being more selfish, entitled, exhibitionistic, and full of groundless self-esteem. Rather what I see is that today the very term "self" refers to very different processes and experiences. Rather than referring to an essential private possession that needs to be nurtured and expressed—the William James notion of self as the sum total of all that a man can call his—today's new adults are creating a self through their relationships and connections. They are the first generation of connected "inter-persons" who are not about displaying themselves—although it looks that way to us—as much as they are about displaying the other selves with which they are connected. Being the mayor of someone else's apartment has become a source of self-esteem for both people. They need each other to be themselves.

In other words, and thankfully I've finally got that thought-worm out of my head, Generation Me is really Generation Us.

About the Author

Todd Essig

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.

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