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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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The Rise of the Micro-Celebrity

I’ve read the claims that young Americans in their 20s are selfish, self-absorbed, lazy, and a cultural and moral declension of their predecessors.

This generational bleat is as old as the hills, or at least as old as the jeremiad by the founding generation of Puritans against its less pious and inadequately devout offspring. 

While conceding that it’s almost a timeless temptation for an older generation to impugn a younger generation as selfish and lazy, the author of a recent Time magazine cover story on the new me generation nonetheless proceeded to argue that the younger generation was, indeed, selfish and lazy—and this time we really mean it.

I haven’t had many occasions to observe millennials in the workplace. I don’t have colleagues, and I don’t hire people. They don’t strike me as any more selfish than any other generation, but I’m not an expert. Even so, lack of meaningful contact with the generation in question doesn’t seem to impede others from making generalizations about them in major media outlets, so I suppose I can, here.

I was chatting recently with someone who does interact with 20-somethings a great deal in the workplace. It’s her observation that millennials don’t trust institutions, corporations, or organizations.

And with good reason, seeing as how institutions, corporations, and organizations have pretty much broken trust with them, and lost faith in them. They’re not going to be hired for life, the social safety net might not exist for them, they don’t get pensions, can’t find jobs in a ravaged economy, and most of them are starting adulthood already in debt.

Disconnected from institutions that used to anchor us, in the good and bad senses of the term, the millennial sees herself as her own “brand,” my friend continues, which is really a new, 21st-century twist on rugged individualism, or self-reliance, that comes across in this instance as selfish. They think of work as a place where they can burnish their own status, as an individual name, even before they have a name. They are Corporations of One.

Or, they are micro-celebrities. My hypothesis is that young people are asked to function today in what amounts to a celebrity economy. In this economy, all they have to rely on is their own “brand” and name.  Their celebrity-hood is micro, because it doesn’t transpire on the big screen or in larger-than-life proportions, but in the capillaries of social media, reality tv, and Twitter. It’s an inner experience of self rather than an objective state of being famous.

Put differently, the putative selfishness of millennials has an economic underpinning, and its own cultural logic. It isn’t a failing of character, but a reflection of bigger changes in economy and society.

Consider one of the worst raps against 20-somethings:  they’re lazy and self-absorbed and fail in the workplace.  An acquaintance of mine more or less agrees with this point. On principle he won’t “ever hire anyone under 30” because they don’t seem able to work as a team, are self-absorbed, and so on.

A consultant who studies generational variance in workplace cultures notes that millennials almost expect to get ongoing personal affirmation, praise, and emotional validation in the workplace from their bosses qua fans—missing the entire point, it would seem, of why they call it “work.”

To me it sounds like the behavior of a celebrity, who naturally expects that a supportive team surrounding them will tend to the problems and the innards of their workplace experience—the tasks that are necessary yet tedious, unpleasant, boring, and/or pointless. They expect praise and affirmation from groupies.

The micro-celebrity comes by it honestly, though, this need for praise, and the lack of team spirit. They weren’t raised to be backstage roadies or team members, but rock stars. The micro-celebrity grew up having obstacles swept away from their path, and dangers removed by helicopter parents. Maybe they heeded the Copernican message that they are, indeed, the center of the universe, and must excel ruthlessly just to hold serve in the upper middle class.

The micro-celebrity may not know his way around the confusing basements and back stages of life, but that’s on par with celebrities, who have a coterie of tenders to do such things.

The micro-celebrity hasn’t had as many opportunities to internalize the work ethic. She was raised according to the disturbing, self-abnegating principles of Baby Before Couple and Baby Before Mother, in French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s terms. Badinter’s bracing polemic against “overzealous” motherhood shows how these values replaced both the nonchalance of the 1940s and 1950s, and the feminist-inspired emphasis on mothers’ wellbeing in the 1970s and 1980s (remember quality time over quantity time? I’ll have more to say about her fine book next week).

As I observed in Marriage Confidential, what children learn about adulthood today by observing their parents is mostly how to be a parent, not a multi-faceted adult—that is, a “team player,” a problem-solver in the office or classroom, a professional— since parenthood is about the only task that moms are expected, and allowed, to pursue guiltlessly and unapologetically.

As regards parents, the work ethic is shunned as an almost pathological distraction from family life.

As a young adult, social media outlets enter the micro-celebrity’s life. They further the persona, since the presentation of self on Facebook and its hipper successors feels in some ways like an ongoing branding initiative or public relations campaign.

As with a bona fide celebrity, the micro-celebrity in social media is comfortable with a gap between the “real self,” such as it persists, and its promotion, curation, and presentation to friends, fans, and followers.

When the micro-celebrity needs to shop, he can go to his favorite sites online, and algorithms function like his own personal buyer or techno-butler, to present just the items that he might like.

 Conversely, each move that the micro-celebrity makes online is invaluable for the new field of social media marketing experts and data miners, who treasure these ephemeral traces of the micro-celebrity’s banal, everyday activities— very much as a celebrity’s each gesture and relic is treated reverentially by fans.

Likewise, the everyday activities of life are fodder for micro-celebrityhood in its preferred cultural genre, which is the reality tv show, or its more sophisticated cognates on HBO.

These shows make fleeting celebrities out of ordinary people, precisely for being ordinary, and instruct the viewer in how to be a (micro)-celebrity –even when simply living, and being normal; even when unknown, and unremarkable. 

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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