Bravo, Tom Wolfe: The Me Decade Sparks the We Decade

By Marilynn Preston

June 5, 2018 6 min read

Have you heard of the "Me Decade"? I hope so. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, ever since the recent death of Tom Wolfe, the journalist, author and natty dresser.

Wolfe coined the term in his landmark New York magazine cover story "The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening," published in 1976, the same year this column got started. After he died, I reread the piece, a powerful example of New Journalism at its earliest best.

(Hang in there. We'll be connecting to your personal well-being in just a moment.)

In the '60s and '70s, Wolfe explained, thanks to the post-World War II wavy-gravy train, business-couldn't-be-better economic boom, there was a tremendous shift in U.S. culture, especially in the counterculture.

He thought of it as a recovery of the self during a chaotic and corrupt American era, a significant move toward greater self-determination and more self-examination.

"The new alchemical dream is: changing one's personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one's very self," Wolfe reported, decades before contemporary neuroscience proved how possible that is.

Ordinary people — Wolfe called them "the common man," but believe me, women were waking up, too — began to wonder about extraordinary things: their inner selves, and how to organize mind, body and spirit to build strong, healthy relationships and meet the challenges of the day.

Call it individuation, self-actualization or the Human Potential Movement; this healthy instinct to explore the self had consequences:

—More yoga, more meditation, more bike lanes, more community gardens.

—More interest in body-mind therapies, both Western and Eastern.

—More interest in clean food, clean energy, a clean sustainable environment, time in nature.

—More understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings/things.

—More attention paid to service, volunteering, working communally.

—And yes, more interest in me, me, me.

Wolfe wrote brilliantly, journalistically, about the impact and the excesses of the Me Decade. But some culture critics of the day denounced it, considering this turn inward to be a kind of social pathology, selfishness on steroids, narcissism gone wild.

Yes, back in the late '60s and '70s, there was more freedom to explore drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, but that's not all that was going on.

The Me Decade (overall — not every dizzying Peter Max expression of it) was a healthy development in our unfolding awareness of what it takes to build, sustain and defend our personal well-being.

My favorite mantra back then? "Question authority."

(My least favorite? "Steal this book," but I've got a horse in that race.)

The Me Decade led to decades more of aspirational living, with endless self-help books, trainings and Esalen-style workshops to help men and women, girls and boys, explore their human potential.

Who am I? Why am I here? What do I value? What do I plan to do with this one big juicy life?

These are all Me Decade questions, but they're not based in pathology, and there's no proof they are the gateway drug to increased narcissism. (You can't say this about Facebook or Instagram.)

Call me a Me Decade groupie, but I'm thrilled to see so many millions of Americans decades later on the self-directed path to greater health and happiness, more kindness and respect, for themselves and others.

Self-exploration — recovery of the self during a chaotic and corrupt American era — isn't selfish these days; it's mandatory. The truths of the Me Decade speak to us now more than ever: Take time for yourself so you can offer strength and stability to others. Get enough sleep. Stay positive. Be vigilant when it comes to technology. Slow down and figure out what well-being means to you, and how to get there, both as an individual, and as part of a conscious community.

The Me Decade has brought us here. And the bottom-up work of social change continues. It involves a lot of listening, respecting and finding common ground.

The Me Decade can lead us into a more harmonious We Decade, starting with the vote in November. Because we're all in this together, and the sooner we listen compassionately to each other and, for example, guarantee free health care for all, the better.


"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?" — Hillel

Marilynn Preston is the author of Energy Express, America's longest-running healthy lifestyle column. Her new book "All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being" is available now on Amazon and elsewhere. Visit Creators Publishing at to learn more. For more on personal well-being, visit

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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