Is the current generation really more narcissistic? In the last decade, many books and articles distinguished the Millennials (born 1982 to 1999) as helpful, civically oriented young adults who wanted to save the planet. More recently, others have argued the exact opposite; they claim that Millennials feel entitled, are self-centered, and uninterested in anything other than themselves. Which is right — are Millennials Generation We or Generation Me?
The first books written about Millennials were glowing accolades that predicted that Millennials would resemble the generation who fought World War II: conformist, socially conservative, and highly involved in the community and interested in government. (Millennials Rising–The Next Great Generation by Neil Howe and William Strauss). In the years that followed, numerous books and news reports emphasized the Millennials’ desire to help others, become involved in politics and government, and work toward improving the environment. “Generation We” is non-cynical and civic-minded. They believe in the value of political engagement and are convinced that government can be a powerful force for good,” wrote Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber in their 2008 book Generation We. They based their opinions on the rise in volunteering and interviewed Millennials, but didn’t compare those responses to data from previous generations.
However, in Jean Twenge’s 2006 book Generation Me, she presented data showing generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations, based on surveys of 1.2 million young people (some data was even available from the 1920’s) spanning several generations. Her analyses indicated a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self. But perhaps both views were correct — maybe Millennials’ increasing self-importance found has found an outlet in helping others and caring about larger social causes. So let us take a look at some of the other studies that have been done.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health surveyed 35,000 Americans about symptoms that can indicate Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the more severe form of narcissism. They asked if someone had ever experienced these symptoms in their lifetime, so you’d expect that older people would have a much higher rate than younger people since they’ve lived more years. However, the data showed the polar opposite: only 3% of people over 65 had ever experienced NPD, compared to nearly 10% of people in their twenties. With almost 1 out of 10 people in their twenties already experiencing NPD, it’s frightening to realize how high that number could rise in the coming years.
Psychologist Jean Twenge, the lead author of the analysis in Generation Me, is also the author of a study showing that traits of narcissism in students have increased 30 percent in the last thirty years. So what do the data show? The results for civic engagement were clear: Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events. The results certainly don’t support Howe and Strauss’ prediction of Millennials as “The Next Great Generation” in civic involvement.
Millennials were also less likely to say they did things to conserve energy and help the environment, and less likely to agree that government should take action on environmental issues. Three times as many Millennials as Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.
Jean Twenge, the professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of her latest book The Narcissism Epidemic, sums up her findings:
“We found that… college students in the 2000s were significantly more narcissistic than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The Boomers, a generation famous for being self-absorbed, were outdone by their children. By 2006, two-thirds of college students scored above the scale’s original 1979-85 sample average, a 30% increase in only two decades… The upswing in narcissism appears to be accelerating: the increase between 2000 and 2006 was especially steep.”
One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test measuring traits of narcissism. Another study reported a 40 percent decline since the 1980”s in empathy among young people; a lack of empathy is a defining characteristic of narcissism. So what has caused this increase in narcissism? Has the externalization of children’s self-identities, caused by popular culture and social media, resulted in an unhealthy internal focus on the self? Is it the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children and adolescents? Many of the articles currently published seem to think so.
An interesting study explored the changes in music lyrics over the past three decades. The researchers found a significant shift toward lyrics that reflect narcissism (“I” and “me” appear more often than “we” and “us”) and hostility (change from positive to angry words and emotions). These findings aren’t just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (notorious for its self-absorption, grandiose artists and the venom of its messages), but rather are evident across all musical genres.
Other research suggests that social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, promote narcissism as they encourages self-importance and give young people outlets for gaining constant attention. Furthermore, all of the time absorbed in screens has reduced the amount of actual face-to-face contact that children have, thus depriving them of the experiences needed to develop empathy, compassion, and consideration for others.
On Facebook, young people can deceive themselves into thinking they have hundreds or even thousands of fans or “friends.” They can block anyone who disagrees with them or delete comments that contradict their inflated self-esteem. They can choose to show the world only flattering, sexy or funny photographs of themselves.
Using Twitter, young people can continue the pretense that they are worth “following,” as though they have real-life fans, when all that is really happening is the mutual fanning of false love and false fame.
With the frequent use of computer games, children and adolescents can act as if they were Olympians, Formula 1 drivers, or rock stars. On MTV and other networks, these young people can see lives- just like theirs- portrayed on reality TV shows that are fueled by abnormal and unhealthy self-involvement and self-love.
These are the psychological drugs of the 21st Century and they may be getting our young people very addicted.
We must be aware of the potential toxic impact of media and technology on children and adolescents. It can promote the faux sense of celebrity status—the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories. Although it may not be the cause of increasing narcissism, it certainly adds fuel to the fire.