Narcissus Bows, but Only to See Himself

James Di Palma-Grisi, Columnist

After reading a few articles about Gen Y and the workplace, I have come to the conclusion that the system of beliefs Gen Y seems to have is reminiscent of a single factor: elevated expectations. Like a banker in heat, the entire Generation seems to believe itself important, perhaps to a narcissistic degree, and capable of enacting dramatic change on the workforce.

An NPR article entitled “It’s up to you, New York (And Job Growth)” tells the story of Tsivia Finman, a 24-year-old college graduate with a life-threatening illness and without health insurance, looking for a job in New York. In January 2009, Finman moved to New York with two degrees, two grand and one plan: live in New York City looking for a job until there is only enough money left to buy a one-way flight back to Michigan.

“You always think, ‘I’ll find that job, I’ll find that job,’ which is why I didn’t apply for Medicaid earlier,” she explains. “It’s like something is gonna come along, I’ll have that work, but you can not do what I’m doing. It’s playing with fire, and it’s scary. It’s scary.”

As we learn from the article, Finman eventually applies for Medicaid, accepting the fact that her own health is more important than her fierce desire to believe things will turn out well for her. Medicaid seems to be a denouement of sorts, her admission that the world will not bend to her call and that she must rely on others for her own safety and health. But, crucially, she shows no signs of remorse; she knows full well that you “can not do what [she’s] doing,” and yet she continues to play with fire.

Call me crazy, but if I knew something wasn’t working, I would return well in advance of my money running out completely. I may sound like a miniature Andy Rooney, but Finman’s situation strikes me with a cyclical quality. We’ve heard the mythic American Dream stories of ages past, of foreigners coming to America believing that the streets are paved with gold only to immigrate to a country without mobility. We’ve heard these stories, and we know their falsities. But it seems that we, for all our talk of breaking the mold and improving everything, are falling into the same traps as our forebears, and are every bit as unaware.

Take Barack Obama for instance. We all thought he would bring a generational uprising against the traditional moralities surrounding Washington and business in the United States. We believed he would end wars, change the way the country saw itself and the way it was perceived abroad. What does that idealism remind you of? The student groups of the 1930s, 1960s and 1980s, perhaps? It is possible that someone could trace that attitude back to the revolutions of early modern Europe or the American Revolution. Of course, Obama—with Congress—passed several pieces of landmark legislation, but the shining future that was promised (I don’t care how many “lowerings of expectation” there were, the promises rang visionary for many listening) never materialized. But then, it never does. Nor should it be expected for the workplace.

And yet, there is Tsivia Finman (and probably thousands, maybe millions, more like her), bringing us, however abruptly, to narcissism. In the 1950s, 12 percent of teenagers queried thought of themselves as important. By the late 1980s, that number had risen to 80 percent. There is so much talk of Generation Y’s (and Obama’s) pragmatic idealism, an ideology allowing us simultaneously to work for the ideal and to achieve the best somehow rationally. Perhaps narcissism really ought to be added to the equation.

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