Now comes another skirmish in the generation wars, the fight about whether post-boomers are selfish, moneygrubbing fame seekers - the "Me" Generation - or confident, group-oriented volunteers - the "We" Generation.
The latest salvo comes from Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me and the Narcissism Epidemic. Not surprisingly, she's still critical of her own generation, the Generation Xers born between 1962 and 1981, and the Millennials born after that.
In research published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Twenge found that, over the last 40 years, young people have become increasingly focused on money and fame while caring less about politics, their communities, or the environment. Her team based its conclusions on analyses of surveys taken by nine million high school seniors and college freshmen.
"I think it's potentially problematic to have this generational decline in civic engagement and community involvement, and that's because these are the bedrock of a society," Twenge said.
Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America, take a more favorable view of the younger generations and were quick to find fault with Twenge's study.
At 69, the pair are too old even to be boomers, who also were once known as the Me Generation. They said old-fashioned wording of the survey questions may have underestimated modern students' interest in the environment and community improvement. Hais said surveys that focus on actions rather than attitudes show Millennials "are actually a very participatory generation."
Twenge downplays survey results showing increased volunteerism because many high schools now require it. Hais and Winograd concede that's true, but say the volunteering continues into college and young adulthood. They're not so high on Gen Xers, whom Winograd described as mistrusting and skeptical of both younger and older generations, but compared Millennials favorably to the G.I. Generation that Tom Brokaw labeled the Greatest Generation. These "civic generations" tend to be raised by extremely loving and involved parents.
"Usually the impact of raising a huge number of supremely confident, overachieving people is that the country does great things," Morley said.
At Clark University, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett studies "emerging adults," those aged about 18 to 25. He doesn't think change comes neatly packaged in generations, but said youth trends over the last 20 years have mainly been positive. Volunteerism and graduation rates are up, he said, while crime, drug use, and teen pregnancy are down. Today's young people are tolerant of differences in ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, he said. If anything, he said, this is a "generous generation."
Twenge stuck to her guns. Survey questions about what students did, rather than what they thought, she said, also supported her view.
You're part of Generation Me, Twenge said, if you did an "All About Me" project in school and saw posters on the classroom wall that said, "Believe in Yourself" or "Anything Is Possible."
According to the surveys she studied, the proportion of students who said it was very important to be wealthy increased from 45 percent for baby boomers to 70 percent for Gen Xers and 75 percent for Millennials. The percentage who thought it was important to keep up with politics fell from 50 percent for boomers to 39 percent for Gen Xers and 35 percent for Millennials.
The biggest drop was in whether youths felt the need to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Seventy-three percent of boomers thought that was important, compared with 45 percent of Millennials, but Millennials still thought it more important than money.
"You have these kind of shallow values being promoted of money, fame, and image," Twenge said. She thinks all of this says today's rising youth are not the next great generation.
Taken together, she said, the survey results point to an extrinsic or outward orientation rather than an intrinsic one. Extrinsic values are associated with more anxiety and depression, she said.
Neil Howe, a historian who, with his late coauthor William Strauss, coined the term Millennial Generation, agrees that Millennials are more outward looking, more into shame than guilt. He disagrees that that's bad. Like Hais and Winograd, he said that generations are different, not better or worse. Millennials, he said, are good at getting along and forming communities, something their elders have found awfully challenging.
So what if Millennials think they're extra-special, Howe said. Learn to work with it. Tell them: "I think you're all very special and we expect special things out of you."