Are we encouraging “irrational exuberance” in our kids?

It’s open season on young Americans.

So begins a piece in last week’s New York Times Sunday magazine titled “The Why Worry Generation,” which tells us that, far from being the generation that would finally make America all better, blending the optimism of the 1960s left with the can-do spirit of the 1990s tech boom to solve all our problems, the millenials, born between 1982 and 2002, are self-important narcissists. Oh, and we’re often rude and turn our music upway too loud.

Judith Warner writes:

Once described by the trend-watchers Neil Howe and William Strauss as “the next great generation” – optimistic, idealistic and destined to do good – millennials have been depicted more recently by employers, professors and earnestly concerned mental-health experts as entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up…As they’ve entered adulthood, they have inspired a number of books on how unmanageable they are in the workplace, with their ubiquitous iPods, flip-flops and inability to take criticism. A consensus has emerged that, psychologically, they’re a generation of basket cases: profoundly narcissistic and deprived of a sense of agency by their anxiously overinvolved parents.

For the record, I don’t wear flip-flops to work, though I am writing this with a pair of earbuds in.

But in general, I think the millenials’ critics — and there are many — are mostly right. But here’s the question: These days, when uncertainty is about the only certain thing and seismic events occur with alarming frequency, isn’tthat self-assurance (no matter how out of proportion with actual talent) actually an evolutionary advantage? It’s a sort of forcefield to cushion kids from the unpleasant reality checks that seem to keep on coming.

Just got laid off? No worries! You’ll find another job, a better job, and now that you think about it, that old job was stupid anyway. Global warming? A troubling trend, but hey, you have some pretty smart friends and they have some pretty smart friends and surely one of them will figure out how to solve it.

The children of the Depression never really recovered. They turned into the grandparents who sent you a check for $9 on your birthday and told you to spend it wisely, or the ones who made you lick your plate clean. Maybe this is the millenials’ way of avoiding that?

Warner nods in this direction:

Perhaps it’s a result, as some longtime observers of this generation have suggested, of growing up in an era of almost unremitting ambient anxiety: school years spent in the shadow of Columbine, 9/11 and, lately, widespread parental job losses.Maybe chronic unease has simply raised this generation’s tolerance level for stress, leaving it uniquely well equipped to deal with uncertainty.

But — and here’s the but — there’s a tipping point at which this worldview becomes self-destructive. There’s a fine line between encouraging our kids to reach for the stars and fostering a sense of entitlement, between helping them develop a sense of self-worth and the “irrational exuberance” Warner describes. And that, as always, comes down to parenting.

Good luck.

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