The “Me” generation in the United States is a term referring to the baby boomer generation and the self-involved qualities that some people associated with it. The baby boomers (Americans born during the 1946 to 1964 baby boom) were dubbed the “Me” generation by writer Tom Wolfe during the 1970s; Christopher Lasch was another writer who commented on the rise of a culture of narcissism among the younger generation. The phrase caught on with the general public, at a time when “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment” were becoming cultural aspirations to which young people supposedly ascribed higher importance than social responsibility.
The cultural change in the United States during the 1970s that was experienced by the baby boomers is complex. The 1960s are remembered as a time of political protests, radical experimentation with new cultural experiences (the Sexual Revolution, happenings, mainstream awareness of Eastern religions). The Civil Rights Movement gave rebellious young people serious goals to work towards. Cultural experimentation was justified as being directed toward spiritual or intellectual enlightenment. The 1970s, in contrast, were a time of disillusionment with idealistic politics among the young, particularly after the resignation of Richard Nixon and the end of the Vietnam War. Unapologetic hedonism became acceptable among the young, expressed in the Disco music popular at the time.
“The new introspectiveness announced the demise of an established set of traditional faiths centred on work and the postponement of gratification, and the emergence of a consumption-oriented lifestyle ethic centred on lived experience and the immediacy of daily lifestyle choices.”
By the mid-1970s, Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch were speaking out critically against the culture of narcissism.These criticisms were widely repeated throughout American popular media.
The development of a youth culture focusing so heavily on self-fulfillment was also perhaps a reaction against the traits that characterized the older generation, which had grown up during the Great Depression. That generation had learned values associated with self-sacrifice. The deprivations of the Depression had taught that generation to work hard, save money and not spend it; to cherish family and community ties. Loyalty to institutions, traditional religious faiths, and other common bonds were what that generation considered to be the cultural foundations of their country. Baby boomers gradually abandoned those values in large numbers, a development that was entrenched during the 1970s.
Health and exercise fads, New Age spirituality, discos and hot tub parties, self-help programs such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training), and the growth of the self-help book industry became identified with the baby boomers during the 1970s. The marketing of lifestyle products, eagerly consumed by baby boomers with disposable income during the 1970s, became an inescapable part of the culture. Revlon’s marketing staff did research into young women’s cultural values during the 1970s, which revealed that young women were striving to compete with men in the workplace and to express themselves as independent individuals. Revlon launched the “lifestyle” perfume Charlie, with marketing aimed at glamorizing the values of the new 1970s woman, and it became the world’s best-selling perfume.
The introspection of baby boomers and their focus on self-fulfillment has been examined in a serious light in pop culture. Films such as An Unmarried Woman (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Ordinary People (1980) and The Big Chill (1983) brought the inner struggles of baby boomers to a wide audience. The self-absorbed side of 1970s life was given a sharp and sometimes poignant satirization in Manhattan (1979). More acerbic lampooning came in Shampoo (1975) and Private Benjamin (1980). The Me generation has also been satirized in retrospect, as the generation called “Generation X” reached adulthood, for example, in Parenthood (1989). Forrest Gump (1994) summed up the decade with Gump’s cross-country jogging quest for meaning during the 1970s, complete with a tracksuit, which was worn as much as a fashion statement as an athletic necessity during the era.
The satirization of the Me generation’s me-first attitude perhaps reached its peak with the television sitcom Seinfeld, which did not include conscious moral development for its baby boomer characters, rather the opposite. Nor did it have plots with lessons to teach its audience. It was a “show about nothing”, and its creators held this position deliberately.
The term “Me generation” has persisted over the decades, becoming synonymous with the baby boomers to many Americans. Not all young adults were enamored with the lifestyle choices being offered to them in mainstream culture, however. The 1970s were also an era of rising unemployment among the young, continuing erosion of faith in conventional social institutions, and political and ideological aimlessness for many. This was the environment that precipitated gravitation toward Punk rock among America’s disaffected young people. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President, a growing number of America’s baby boomers had also begun turning toward conservative political and cultural priorities.
At the same time, the realities behind the label have not escaped notice. As Eastern religions and rituals such as yoga grew during the 1970s, at least one writer observed a New Age corruption of the popular understanding of “realization” taught by Neo-Vedantic practitioners, away from spiritual realization and towards “self-realization.” The leading edge of the baby boomers, who were counter-culture “hippies” and political activists during the 1960s, have been referred to sympathetically as the “Now Generation”, in contrast to the Me Generation