Millennial Narcissism Is Baby Boomer Narcissism, But Better
Revisiting Tom Wolfe's "The 'Me' Decade," four decades later
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” Tom Wolfe’s very long and very middling 1976 cover story for New York Magazine, might be the most famous essay comparing Jimmy Carter to a woman screaming about hemorrhoids. Wolfe argues, too many times, that all Americans spent the ‘70s proudly yelling about their hemorrhoids, or whatever equivalent. And they turned this viewpoint—up their own asses—into a movement.
According to Wolfe, “they”—Baby Boomers entering adulthood, a flock of whom appeared on the cover of that New York Magazine issue in yellow “Me” t-shirts looking bold, self-actualized, and all the same—twisted a harmless Freudian term into a political act to fight the failed ‘60s counterculture and the ‘70s crisis of confidence. The term was “narcissism.” The burnout “Me” generation now used self-care to fight Nixon and their parents.
Whether or not Wolfe was joking doesn’t matter anymore. For better or worse, his influential, and outrageous, essay helped define this new narcissism for the mainstream. And after 40 years of political unease, and an Information Revolution as unprecedented as the late 18th century Industrial Revolution, Wolfe’s twist on narcissists still rings true. On the first anniversary of his passing, rereading “The ‘Me’ Decade” can show us how the world has changed both completely and not at all.
The 12,000-word, multi-chapter essay, published during America’s bicentennial, would have been most other writers’ career-defining Big Important Statement. For Wolfe, it was just his latest one. Already a prolific and influential writer on a hot streak—he would publish The Right Stuff four years later—Wolfe knew he had an audience that would read whatever he wrote. Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men, both released earlier that year, had reinforced how Watergate and Vietnam had set a new low for America’s self-image. He wanted to name that low. The mind behind “Radical Chic” and “New Journalism,” always looking to coin some snappy new phrase, offered his most famous one: “The ‘Me’ Decade.”
With his trademark style—funny, flashy, desperate to get your attention—Wolfe opens his essay with an anonymous female “explorer” at an LA Erhard Seminars Training (EST) session, followed by Jimmy Carter on the presidential campaign trail. According to Wolfe, these two embodied all Americans in the ‘70s. They saw something they didn’t like and attempted to squeeze it out through some communal, quasi-religious experience. One saw low morale in American politics and injected Baptist Jesus into his campaign. The other tried screaming out her hemorrhoids in a hotel lobby. It is a ridiculous introduction. A lesser writer would have fumbled such a leap. A better writer would not have talked down a woman for having self-interest while portraying Carter as misguided but at least guided. Wolfe was laughing either way. And that’s just the first 2,000 words.
The desire to achieve a higher self was not new in 1976. Instead, Wolfe explores the new reasons and methodologies. He spends the rest of his essay tripping over faddish examples of Americans trying to find themselves to underline a lofty, decade-defining thesis: Baby Boomers, hungover from Woodstock, out of college, and starting families, traded heavy psychedelic drugs and “we’re all in this together” marches for religion, or new insular niche communities. The hippies had jobs, but they still wanted a trip. The Jesus People, Maharaj Ji communes, Scientology, and more, all promising different freedoms, became the rage. Church and communal human farms were the new protests. In a decade of more visibly corrupt politics, rotting cities, stagflation, increasing environmental worries, continued racial violence, too many Jesus freaks, not enough Jesus freaks, and pet rocks, there was a lot to protest.
If God or gods weren’t your thing, you could still buy your peace. Wolfe argued that, like the EST woman, more Americans were also now paying professionals to ask what they could never ask themselves: What’s the one thing you want to eliminate from your life? Your unsupportive partner? Your sexuality? Your self-hatred? Your inability to communicate? Your privilege? Your guilt? Your thinning hair? Now you can fix it. Go to your nearest store and find a cure. Mineral oil, softener tablets, prunes, coffee, more coffee (never less), TV, newspapers, magazines, self-help books, and yoga mats: mindful consuming is an easier, more personal protest. Not having any product is a net loss, for everyone. Wellness will save the world and your skin.
Wolfe’s next thesis attempts to define the economics of the decade: By 1976, the post-WWII “go-getter bourgeois business boom” finally killed off the working class. (“The word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face.”) That didn’t matter, because these workers, now a middling class, could join the wealthy to buy more stuff. Workers were not richer, but they were free. To Wolfe’s horror, they used their money to move to the suburbs.
According to Wolfe, the American socialist promise was freedom from metaphoric wallpaper: freedom from consumerism and a need to buy and surround yourself with useless, distracting “stuff.” (Wolfe also wanted Americans to be free from literal tacky decor.) We had a shot at being free. Instead, we went out and bought nicer wallpaper. Bauhaus be damned.
Wolfe brings it all home with Shirley Polykoff’s famous Clairol hair-dye slogan: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” He argues that in this decade, with your one life, it’s your responsibility to be whatever blonde you wanted to be, as long as it’s your best blonde. Whoever “you” were, self-care was your key. The ‘60s were a lie, and we clearly live in a broken world. You can’t fix Nixon. But you can fix you. So let’s focus on making you better. Rich or poor. Silent majority or not. Let’s talk about Me, to make us all better. Me, Me, Me.
It’s a lot to unpack in one magazine article. Not all of it works, especially the economics lesson. Not all of it worked even then. But it was entertaining. Wolfe didn’t set out to write an academic paper but to capture and define a mood. “The ‘Me’ Decade” is famous for being so famous, which was the point.
There is some genius here. Or, at least, there is a lot of excellent writing. A longtime and credible on-the-ground reporter, Wolfe mostly shows his case with his readable “you are in this room” style, which he was close to perfecting and would later perfect with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. He aw-shuckses his way through cults and shampoo ads with ease. And when he wanted to, he could write a perfect sentence. (“Out with the truth, you ridiculous weenie.”)
The most well-known section, where Wolfe offers his most genuine insight, is the shortest. In “The Holy Roll,” he famously depicts Jimmy Carter as your weird uncle, pounding a used Yamaha electric keyboard in a church basement for the Lord. God in C-major. Here, Wolfe goes into how politicians now tried to reach the “awakened vote” through what he called “enigmatic appeal.” You were saved and born again so that you could save others, which was the direct response to a numbed America wanting to believe in literally anything that could work. This “grim slide,” Wolfe’s catch-all cry for the world’s constant demise, brings about new kinds of movements and leadership. Each era has its own slide. To fight the ‘70s slide, Wolfe argued, you had to be an evangelical Baptist of the secular world. The new reborn Me must stop the madness. Righteous narcissism—this “Third Great Awakening”—will save us all.
The most immediate effect of Wolfe’s essay was highlighting this new form of religious and consumer narcissism. Before the ‘70s, “narcissism” was Freud’s explanation for how we try to self-manage expectations and deal with our failure to live up to family and societal expectations – the “ego ideal.” Throughout the early ‘70s, influential essays by the likes of Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg framed narcissism into something more accessible and alarming; it evolved from a natural coping mechanism into a condition. In Freud’s conception, to be human was to have some level of narcissism. Now you could have it or not, like a cold. It was a sickness, but you could cure it. You could transcend—if you tried hard enough to fix yourself.
Wolfe only uses the word “narcissism” once in “The ‘Me’ Decade,” towards the end as a throwaway, and yet he helped bring this new view of narcissism to the masses. After Wolfe’s essay, more people than ever were talking about this new “Me.” A few weeks later, the New York Review of Books published Christopher Lasch’s even more influential “Narcissist America.” Annie Hall came out a year later. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) became a recognized medical condition in 1980.
“The ‘Me’ Decade” was a hit, both as Wolfe’s desired decade-defining phrase and as a punchline for any self-proclaimed “important male writer” speaking on behalf of all Americans. Neither attention lasted long. When Carter’s infamous 1979 malaise speech made moralizing unsexy again, America more or less agreed to leave “The ‘Me’ Decade” behind. Wolfe also moved on; for defining the ‘80s, he settled on “Plutography,” a more vicarious form of narcissism for when Baby Boomers discovered cocaine and money. To talk about Me was to save the world. Now you were the world. It was your right to become rich and stay rich and enjoy being rich to achieve the best You, because that’s all there was. Master of the Universe. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, this evolved narcissism more or less stayed true for the “Me” generation, who still believed that they were saving the world through buying stuff. (“[The] Protest Generation comes of age as the Generation of Super-Consumers,” said Faith Popcorn in 1991.)
Wolfe’s essay never really went away, though. Its message disappeared, yet people still remembered that there was a “Me” decade, whatever that meant. Writers and historians loved the essay’s simplicity and took any chance to bring it up, even just to argue its logic. In 2013, a Time cover story tried to explain away Millennials as “The Me Me Me Generation,” which is less groundbreaking considering that “Me Me Me” kids were raised by “Me” parents. Wolfe’s essay is still famous for being famous, and We – now the Internet We – don’t like to forget famous things.
Two points are hard to ignore upon rereading this essay. First, it’s too long—you could start a brand in the time it takes to finish it. Second, Wolfe, intentionally or not, sometimes comes across as an open-minded bigot. He listed feminism as a “Me” trend and not a movement with an already-rich history, and he was mostly writing about affluent white Americans, and their relation to “the common man,” to an affluent white audience. Critics pointed this out in 1976, but it’s even more glaring now.
Essays like “The ‘Me’ Decade” have also grown more out of style in our post-blogging world. Shortcomings and all, it is interesting to read a popular writer from the ‘70s not openly taking sides but focusing more on observing and reporting. Wolfe highlighted a lot of good and bad takes, yet he never claimed them as his own. This kind of writing is getting harder to justify in an age of identity writing, in which a writer’s identity is woven into, and is inseparable from, one’s argument. Every Me is speaking for a specific We. If Wolfe covered this awakening now, his magazine cover would be more diverse, but everyone would now be wearing “We” T-shirts.
This is mostly for the better. At its best, identity writing allows marginalized voices the long-overdue chance to tell their stories without a patriarchal or white funnel. And more white people (including this writer) are realizing that they have an identity and aren’t just default people. At its very worst, which is becoming more common, it also gives a platform to hate groups claiming to have a “misunderstood” identity. Everyone has a We.
Rereading Wolfe’s essay now also feels eerie, as a new awakening has taken hold of America over this past decade and beyond. A so-called Burnout Generation, with its youngest members now entering adulthood, is facing new extremism in work-life balance, politics, art, the politics of art, and climate change. (There’s also the valid argument that this awakening is not new, even among Millennials.) These are specific challenges to this specific age. Yet at its core, our popular culture has embraced the current widespread political unrest and division in the same manner as the ‘70s: it is in vogue to feel numb. Electing Obama did not fix all our problems. Now Mueller isn’t going to save us. We don’t know how to act, so we act like our parents. No matter how many times we march, we still can’t fix our government or our racist uncles. So we are all back to focusing on Me, together online with our own We. And We are pissed.
Playing on Wolfe’s phrase, we are perhaps still in a sort of “We Decade,” a term this writer first heard from Marilynn Preston. In Wolfe’s ‘70s, you were born again, or you bought “stuff,” to find your new Me. The internet and social media also encourages you to find your new Me, but less from buying the right products and more from sharing the best parts of you: your photos, your videos, your music, your favorite movies, your humor, your beliefs, your politics, your friends, and so on. Your value and identity comes from who else values—literally “likes”—the stuff you already own. In a sense, you are your own “wallpaper,” or what we now call your brand. And if you surround yourself with likeminded Me people who are also projecting the best versions of themselves, there’s no need to transcend. Your We—your online communal human farm—is already perfect. In the 2010s, you are already your best self; you just need to find your audience.
This isn’t automatically good or bad, in theory. An optimist—someone like Wolfe—would probably chalk this up to “same story, different age.” (Millennials did not invent narcissism.) On the flip side, you could counter that we now are the products or that art has turned into literal wallpaper. In either case, as it was in Wolfe’s ‘70s, narcissism is again the weapon to fight the grim slide. You can’t fix the President. But you can fix you. Wellness can save your world and your skin. All you need to do is find your We to be the best you. Look at all of We, through Me. We, We, We. Me. Me. Me.
Wolfe once believed we had a shot at freedom from our wallpaper of mindless “stuff.” Instead, the Internet gives our wallpaper more value, and we gain more value the more we share. Who has the prettiest, nicest, most interesting, most real wallpaper? “The ‘Me’ Decade” didn’t reflect the world in 1976, but it remains a fascinating and frustrating time capsule of an era when the dream was just to get nice wallpaper. Now we are our wallpaper; we are turning into our bunch of stuff.
Rereading this essay can bring on the groans, but it can also be a source of odd comfort. It’s a strange sort of relief knowing that Millennials did not invent the grim slide. These days are polarizing and extreme, and that should not be discredited. They are also not new. It is human to want to protect “me” and to connect with “we.” One’s identity and history should not be erased. It is also human to be more complex than “Me” or “We.” In real life, we are not our stuff. We also did not invent the grim slide, so we can look to the past to see how we can change and fight it in real life today. We don’t have to be wallpaper.