The average Facebook portfolio of a mid-20ies person will show photos taken with a SLR camera of the latest trip to India, the first triathlon completed, going out with multinational friends and of course selfies in any situation you can think of. In between all of this self-portrayal, one will find posts informing the world that they have been at a special event, shared articles giving career advises or stories of people achieving something awesome.
This actually reflects the fiercely wish for individualism, THE core value of a generation born from the early 1980ties onwards, the generation Y. Members of this generation embrace uniqueness and their highest goal is to have a fulfilling life, privately and professional of course.
But where does this mainstream “I want to stick out of the crowd”-attitude come from? As brilliantly explained in the Huffington Post, parents of generation Y (the baby boomers) encouraged their offsprings to take the chance and realize their dreams they feel passionate about. In contrast to them, their children are blessed with a stable economy and have the resources supporting them. Therefore Gen Y was the first generation to be raised in an environment valueing individuality and being self-centered.
Uniqueness in the age of mass-production – a conflict
Thanks to the industrial revolution, mass production led to affordable apparel and life style products today. However, for millennials, as they are also called, mass production has become a threat. They were growing up in the 90ties, when huge chain store companies like H&M became popular. Having a deeply anchored mindset of uniqueness, this has left them drowning in homogeneity.
You are what you consume.
The discrepancy between being individualistic and indefinite supply to everyone paradoxly leads people to turn to mass-products for help to define themselves. You are what you buy! Certain brands convey strong identities (being elite, faire trade, hipster …) and other brands are selling well as they give the feeling the customer has the option to use their products his way. Just think of IKEA! Industry has noted the rising wish for more individuality of the youngest generation and is coming up with a new solution: Customize your mass-produced item! MyMuesli, CafePress, NikeID are only some examples. Products are also often connected and associated with outstanding individuals implying being special if purchasing it. Also very popular nowadays are slogans embracing the extraordinary self like “Have it your way” at Burger King or Apple’s famous “Think different” ad campaign.
Having this catalog of brands by hand, people create their ideal selves.
Sigmund Freud’s nephew
Defining one’s personality via consumption is not something new to generation Y but goes back to the 1920ies. The “father of public relations” Edward Bernays, inspired from his uncle Sigmund Freud, believed that humans are driven by irrational, unconscious forces that are dangerous and needed to be controlled. Once understanding crowd psychology, it is possible to unconsciously steer masses and as he said “engineer a consent”. As shown in “The Century of the Self”, using Freud’s psychoanalysis Bernays read and even created desires of the mass and then satisfy them with products. For instance in the 1920ies smoking was inappropriate for women to the regret of the tobacco industry. So they hired Bernays. He paid women to smoke in public and emotionally connected this act with the women’s rights movement, naming it “torches of freedom”. By making the cigarette a symbol for independent women he successfully linked a product to an emotional subject. The tobacco advertising targeting women led to a huge increase in numbers of women smoking by the end of 1929. From these days on society shifted from a need to a desire-culture as buying of a product makes you feel good.
The idea of a society in which satisfaction of individual desires is the highest priority has been fostered and encourage ever since by industry as it results in the best consumers. However, today this meets even more fruitful grounds. In times of global availability, self-expression is met by combining many different brands and as being different is hard to achieve it will continuously create need for more products and more brands.
Being different vs. authentic
Maybe the greatest danger is the false notion of individualism. The mainstream urge to be different and special should not be confused with being authentic. Simply standing out and breaking with conformity is not the same as expressing your true authentic personality.
Millennials are often cited as lazy and spoiled, if not the worst generation. In consideration of its true driving force, being individualistic, this seems unfair to say. It rather seems to be a generation that is even more idealistic than the ones before when it comes to life goals. Maybe sometimes having to high expectations. Yet many seem to choose the easy road of buying their self-expression rather than self-reflecting on themselves indicating that they are lacking the tools to be themselves.
The personality and thus the appearance of oneself should be inferred from what a person actually does. By being yourself, you can be guarantied to be unique. Even if your true self is mainstream right now, keep hanging in it will move on to another trend!
Image credits royalty free