Youth’s Irrational Exuberance

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Great expectations could lead some down wrong career path.

If pride comes before a fall, as the proverb goes, then today’s young people may be in for a tumble indeed. According to a new Florida State University study, a growing number of teenagers harbor unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve. This generation-wide phenomenon could lead to anxiety, stress, and lost time and resources.

The study tracked changes in high-school seniors’ educational and occupational plans between 1976 and 2000 and found a significant and growing gap between stated goals and actual achievements. The research analyzed data from several national surveys, including the annual Monitoring the Future Survey, the National Longitudinal Study, the Digest of Education Statistics, and the Current Population Survey. Roughly 50% of high-school seniors in the year 2000 were planning to continue their education after college and get an advanced degree, and 63% planned to get a professional job such as doctor, lawyer, or college professor by age 30. In 1976, only 20% of seniors expressed similar goals. Meanwhile, the actual percentage of high-school graduates who obtained advanced degrees remained steady, suggesting that the gap between expectation and final outcome grew from 22% in 1976 to 41% in 2000.

“Today’s teens are highly ambitious and increasingly unrealistic,” says sociology professor John Reynolds. “While some youth clearly benefit from ambition, it can lead to disappointment and discouragement rather than optimism and success.”

The report adds to a body of research showing that today’s young people are more self-assured, and possibly out of touch, than their predecessors. In her book Generation Me, University of San Diego psychology professor Jean M. Twenge (herself a member of GenMe) delves into the reasons for, and perils of, an inflated sense of self-worth.

“Generation Me’s expectations are highly optimistic: They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities,” she writes.

According to Twenge, there are many reasons for this shift in perception. An important factor: From a very young age GenMe has faced aggressive and nearly constant marketing. Changes in the attitudes of baby boomers toward parenting contributed as well.

“Since GenMe’ers were born, we’ve been taught to put ourselves first. Unlike the Baby Boomers, GenMe didn’t have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that our own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion, and a cultural shift toward parenthood as choice made us the most wanted generation of children in American history. Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddler-hood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom,” she writes.

Twenge predicts that the transition to adulthood will be particularly brutal for this generation, raised to think of themselves as special and entitled. “As more GenMe’ers reach adulthood over the next few years, there will be a full-scale collision between their high expectations and the unfortunate realities of modern life. More and more young people in their twenties will be disappointed that they cannot pursue their chosen profession, that their job performance is criticized, and that they cannot afford to buy a house. This will lead to a lot of anxiety, depression, and complaining,” she forecasts.

The authors of the Florida State study see a related set of dangers for today’s dreamy-eyed youth. “Unrealistic plans may lead to a misuse of human potential and economic resources,” says Reynolds. “For example, planning to become a medical doctor while making poor grades in high school means that preparation for other more probable vocations is likely to be postponed.”

To address this trend, Twenge suggests that high-school educators provide better career counseling services for young people and that teachers reconsider the amount of emphasis they place on teaching “self-esteem.”

“It does not do any good for a child to hear that he or she is ‘special’ or to ‘win’ a trophy just for participating,” she writes. “Decades of research have shown that high selfesteem does not cause good grades or good behavior. So the programs are not doing any good. What’s more, they may actually be harming some kids by making them too selfcentered. Praise based on nothing teaches only an inflated ego. The purpose of school is for children to learn, not for them to feel good about themselves all the time.”

-Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2007.

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