Dar-Wei Chen: A need for recognition

By Dar-Wei Chen, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published March 27, 2012

One of mankind’s favorite pastimes is criticizing the younger generation — your parents have probably bragged before about how their generation is better than yours. Almost inevitably, the younger generation rolls its collective eyes when hearing the criticism, citing some sort of misunderstanding caused by the “generation gap.” I want to take this opportunity to complain about something I see in my own generation. Perhaps the criticism will be more well-received in this manner.

My gripe with my generation is as follows: members of Generation Y want credit for everything they do, no matter how menial the accomplishment is. I’ll admit that this gripe applies to me sometimes — I’m just observing the trend and reporting on it. Whether the development was caused by social media or simply exacerbated by it is debatable. And the motives for trying to garner said credit are varied: self-aggrandizement, need for reassurance, social competitiveness, etc. But regardless of cause or motive, Generation Y is undoubtedly hungry for credit and praise.

To see the phenomenon in action, simply log onto Facebook. One of the disturbing recent trends is people posting pictures of their food. Of course, some food-related moments are worth savoring, such as preparing a difficult dish or dining at a special place. However, news feeds now often present users with friends’ pictures of even relatively average foods. Nothing to get excited about — after all, every human being eats at least somewhat regularly.

The reason people post pictures of even routine meals is simple: Once the food is eaten, they can’t get credit for having the food anymore. Especially if they prepared the food themselves, the lost chance for credit can potentially be devastating. What bothers me is that Generation Y feels the need to document commonplace events, such as eating, to gain some marginal credit for their accomplishments. Preparing and consuming food is basic human sustenance — a lack of documentation shouldn’t be disconcerting.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily slamming food pictures specifically — I’m slamming those who want credit for every part of their lives, eating being a particularly egregious example of something ordinary for which people still want credit. Another example can be found in applications such as Foursquare, which enables people to take credit for frequenting the gym, for example. I’ll concede that hitting the gym is less of a necessity than eating, meaning gym trips are slightly more worthy of announcement. However, for people who exercise often, any given trip is routine and therefore not announcement-worthy. They’re likely reporting it repeatedly to get the social credit associated with being active.

Even ostensibly well-intentioned actions can have underlying credit-grabbing motivations. The most recent viral internet movement was Kony 2012, a campaign by Invisible Children, Inc. to bring Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony to justice. I acknowledge the campaign and its good intentions. But for many in the social media world, Kony presented a chance to appear noble and well-informed, possibly one too good to pass up. You’ve probably seen many of your friends casually posting on Facebook about him.

How do I know that people in Generation Y probably don’t care much about Kony? Ask yourself if you’re still hearing about him now. The fact that so many of these movements end up as transient fads reveals, in my opinion, that people care only enough to the point that it helps their own image. After that point, the personal returns are diminishing and not worth pursuing.

When people expend effort to get credit for menial accomplishments, they develop inflated senses of self-importance. And while Generation Y isn’t full of slackers like some in older generations would believe, it doesn’t need to be conceited either. I believe credit should be given only when it’s due. For example, instead of sharing every gym trip, perhaps tweeting about reaching an exercise milestone is more appropriate. If you have an insightful comment to make about a social movement, contribute your comment to the discourse instead of casually referencing the movement just to appear knowledgeable.

All people want recognition at some level, as Professor Abraham Maslow has theorized in his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. I realize that nothing is wrong with wanting praise — I’m particularly needy myself. With this column, I’m merely differentiating between what is praiseworthy and what isn’t. They say that champions are made when no one’s watching. My fear is that Generation Y always wants to be watched.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @DWChen_MDaily.