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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 thispoint. 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.

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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. 


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