Is low self-esteem all that bad? Self-loathing is. But between self-loathing and narcissism is a vast spectrum comprising infinitely various degrees of self-regard. Neither extreme is good. If only we could just reach medium.
In 1986, California state assembly member John Vasconcellos proposed the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem. This ignited a new movement: Based on the notion that low self-esteem caused every kind of social woe from teenage pregnancy to low test scores and high dropout rates, school curricula and parenting techniques were radically transformed, their main objective now being to cultivate high self-esteem among the young, which activists proclaimed would cure those social woes and make America a safer, happier, and better place. A multibillion-dollar industry surged around self-esteem. Kids were taught to make “me” flags of their putative “me” nations, to view history and fiction through the filter of their feelings, and to start schooldays with affirmations such as I always make good choices and Everyone is happy to see me.
The aftermath has not worked out as planned. Since 1986, self-esteem among young people has increased. Studies show that students hold themselves in higher regard than students in decades past. But to the shock and horror of the self-esteem movement’s boosters, soaring self-esteem has done nothing to stem crime, addiction and those other ills the boosters claimed high self-esteem would stem. In fact, ambient sky-high self-esteem might present new problems of its own: One long-term study found that college students are now twice as narcissistic as college students were in 1982; other studies link high self-esteem with high rates of aggression, territorialism, elitism, racism, and other negative qualities.
And other studies show that the so-called Millennial Generation – young adults born after the self-esteem movement began — are demonstrably less likely than Baby Boomers and Generation Xers to care about social problems, current events or energy conservation. Millennials are also less likely to have jobs whose main purpose is to help other people. In one study, three times as many Millennials as Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.