There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Your Best Selfie

There is suddenly much panic about the rise of the “selfie” generation. But millennials are simply rejecting the worn-out trappings and organizations of the Establishment—and quite right too.

03.18.14 9:45 AM ET

That discomfort you’re sensing all around you? It’s the American Establishment loading its Depends diapers over the prospect of a younger generation that is turning its back on political parties and other zombified artifacts of our glorious past.

On the heels of the Pew Research report titled “Millennials in Adulthood,” two leading New York Times columnists have penned anxious articles sweating it out over the “The Self(ie) Generation” and “The Age of Individualism.”

“Millennials (defined by Pew as Americans ages 18 to 33) are drifting away from traditional institutions—political, religious and cultural,” muses Charles M. Blow, who sees a “a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual… This is not only the generation of the self; it’s the generation of the selfie.” Oh noes! And it’s only gonna get worse: “In the future,” worries Ross Douthat, “there will be only one ‘ism’—Individualism—and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide.”

Does it strike anyone else as odd that selfies—clearly less the product of rising narcissism and more the product of the same awesome technology that empowers citizens to capture cops beating the shit of innocent people—have emerged as this year’s droopy pants, backwards baseball caps, or visible piercings, as a shorthand for all that is wrong with today’s youth? Getting bent out of shape over selfies may just be the ultimate #firstworldproblem.

The Pew study itself leads with charts titled “Millennials: Unmoored from Institutions” (specifically, 50 percent call themselves political independents and 29 percent are religiously unaffiliated) and foregrounds that just 19 percent believe “most people can be trusted” (this compares with 31 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers). Only 49 percent of Millennials define themselves as patriotic, which is far fewer than Gen Xers (64 percent) and Boomers (75 percent). Whoda thunk that growing up against the background of two inconclusive, ill-conceived, and poorly prosecuted wars might have soured Millennials on the old Red, White, and Blue?

It’s easy to understand why folks at The New York Times and, say, at Democratic and Republican headquarters, and the National Council of Churches are worried about all this. After all, it’s their “traditional institutions” that are being left behind like Mayan ruins. But who can blame Millennials for, say, vacating worn-out, pre-Civil War political brands such as the Democrats and Republicans, two groups that are about as relevant and dependable as your father’s Oldsmobile?

The Dems and the Reps have been leaking market share for decades, the inevitable byproduct of wielding power directly at odds with the promises that got them elected in the first place. Far from being a limited-government conservative, George W. Bush and his Republican Congress was a big government disaster that massively increased federal spending across the board, passed record-setting levels of economically significant regulations, and embroiled the country in two decade-long wars. Barack Obama expanded the very surveillance programs he denounced while running for president, acted foolishly at home and abroad by bailing out bankers like nobody’s business and droning the hell out of countries with which we weren’t at war, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into support for gay marriage and pot legalization (and the jury is still out on the latter).

His signature health-care plan is just as unpopular among Millennials (54 percent say they don’t approve) as it is among the rest of us (also 54 percent, says Pew). Of course it is: It’s based on a command-and-control model of economics and politics that should have gone out of fashion for good when the Soviet Union collapsed. Who the hell can take universal mandates seriously in an age where all the cutting-edge action is based around persuasion and personalization? Say what you will be about Facebook and other aspects of what Douthat calls “the online Panopticon,” but social media is chock full of opt-outs.

More than most age groups, Millennials know that they are being set up for a generational scam of epic proportions. Indeed, Obamacare’s individual market is explicitly predicated upon overcharging relatively younger, healthier, poorer people to subsidize lower premiums for relatively older, sicker, and wealthier people (who really hit the jackpot when they turn 65 and get Medicare). A full 51 percent of Millennials believe they won’t receive any Social Security benefits and an additional 39 percent say that they will receive reduced benefits if they get anything at all. That’s not even factoring in analysis by Urban Institute researchers who show that virtually all workers getting Social Security after 2009 will get less out of the system than they paid in. Wait until that sinks in on younger Americans.

Given that, the real question isn’t why most Millennials are turning their backs on institutions, it’s why any of them are still clinging to the old ways? The Pew study documents instances of what I would charitably call the confusion of youth (despite huge and ongoing disappointment with Obama, the Affordable Care Act, and political parties, 53 percent of Millennials still say they want “a bigger government that provides more services”). But it also shows an optimism that should be genuinely bracing and energizing for Americans of all ages.

Millennials in 2014—still slogging through an anemic recovery to an awful recession—are as optimistic about their future as Gen Xers were in 1994. That was a time when the U.S. economy was revving up, the Internet was becoming a mass medium, and the post-Cold War world has seemingly slipped the noose of history. Eighty-five percent of Millennials say they either already earn enough or will earn enough “to lead the kind of life they want,” compared to 68 percent of Gen Xers and 60 percent of Boomers.

Maybe it’s because Millennials are too busy taking all those selfies to pay attention to the world going to shit around them. More likely, it’s precisely because they are turning away from played-out institutions in American life and turning to a future in which individuals are free to form new communities and new ways of navigating a world that is as uncertain as it is untapped.