The Singular Generation by Wanda Urbanska (Doubleday: $16.95)
Sociologists get a lot of flak. They are accused of practicing an unscientific science. Where other scientists can prove their theories and replicate their discoveries in petrie dishes and test tubes, sociologists are not so much discoverers as chroniclers of social phenomena. Like economists, they are great at telling us about the obvious, but more often than not, fail when they take on the role of soothsayers.
"The Singular Generation" is a good example of a clinically presented sociological study that is then abruptly jammed into the ill-fitting clothing of a theory. In the conclusion, author Wanda Urbanska explains away all of her data in platitudes based upon her own subjective viewpoint.
The title is also the subject. Singulars is the buzzword coined by Urbanska to define the current crop of young adults who she claims are "the first generation of Americans who aspire to be self-sufficient at some primary level and who, almost instinctively, commit ourselves to a lifelong, dynamic relationship with ourselves."
What Are We Reading Here?
This earth-shaking new discovery of shameless narcissism and materialism in our midst is then chronicled by Urbanska, who is not a sociologist but, instead, a journalist. In the preface, she admits that she herself is one of these Singular folk, thereby throwing her reporter's objectivity to the wind. So what are we reading here? A personal allegory? No. Doubleday has decided "The Singular Generation" will appear under Sociology.
OK, so who is this bona fide new generation of Singulars, whose genealogy extends back, according to Urbanska, to the Me Generation of the '70s, the hippies of the '60s, and the Beat Generation of the '50s? The people we are shown appear strikingly similar to yuppies or to the new narcissists Christopher Lasch wrote about in his famous 1979 book "The Culture of Narcissism."
We see Singulars at work ("Singulars do not work to live; we live to work" which means that work is the centerpiece of a Singular's life); at play ("Fun is no longer spontaneous . . . fun is a self-conscious endeavor . . . purposeful"); at marriage (". . . a business partnership . . . we negotiate the terms that make sense for us as individuals and that fit into our schedules"); and at exercise (the body is ". . . our most important natural resource . . . Exercise is . . . our means of escape . . . a reaction to the insecurities of our age").
Narcissism is Narcissism
Singularity, throughout, is equated with self-sufficiency, an admirable goal among any generation in any age. Which is why Urbanska's idea of an emerging Singular generation, now in their 20s, doesn't hold water. Take a good look around and you'll see quite a crop of people of all ages, throughout the country, who pray to the golden calf of self-actualization and worship the self above all else. Narcissism is narcissism is narcissism. While many young people may possess Singular characteristics, many others are more Plural in their activism against apartheid, intervention in Central America and nuclear proliferation.
Through my involvement as director of a work and education program for mainly urban, disadvantaged youth, I can report that Singularism has not reared its indulgent head in the ghetto. These young people of Singular age have such ill-defined senses of self that they operate in survival mode and rarely if ever have the opportunity to "live to work" instead of "work to live." To them, marriage is largely irrelevant and "dynamic relationship with self" is like mumbo-jumbo from outer space.
There is no cultural consensus among the young, as "The Singular Generation" suggests, or among any other demographic group right now. Rather, we are a people fragmented on the continuum between form and substance. Anxiety about the future turns some of us inward, but many of us react by getting angry enough to work for change.
Urbanska, however, thinks Singulars are swell just as they are. They hold the answers to salvation in the future. Somehow, cultivating the self will save us from nuclear destruction and "the great social freedoms that we now enjoy will extend even further . . . This would parallel the evolution of gender and racial equality from self-conscious adoption by the '60s generation to implicit acceptance by the '80s generation."
Perhaps selfishness is the new way to achieve momentous change, as Urbanska claims. Perhaps not. I for one would put my money on those who take political and social action, who make commitments to relationships and transcend the narrow boundaries of their selves, as our best bet to save us from the mushroom cloud.