enough with the “generation me”

Generational stereotypes are in the eye of the beholder, it seems. One obvious and pervasive example: the stereotype that the Millennial generation is filled with narcissists.

Much attention has been paid to a new report from Jean Twenge and her colleagues that seems to reinforce Twenge’s idee fixe — that today’s twenty-somethings are more self-centered than any previous generation. This belief has permeated Twenge’s professional writing (she’s a psychology professor at UC San Diego), as well as pop-science books that give away their bias in their titles: “The Narcissism Epidemic” (2009) and “Generation Me” (2006).

So when Twenge and her colleagues came out with a new report about the selfishness of Millennials, it fed right into her favorite narrative. The researchers concluded that since the sixties, the trend has been toward young people exhibiting less social involvement, less concern for others, and more self-interest. In comparison to Baby Boomers when they were young, the authors wrote in a report published online in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, young people today consider “goals related to extrinsic values (money, image, fame) more important and those related to intrinsic values (self-acceptance, affiliation, community) less important.” On balance, Twenge and her colleagues concluded, “The results generally support the ‘Generation Me’ view.”

Trouble is, it’s just as easy to come to a different conclusion if you’re so inclined.

The recent findings were based in large part on an opinion survey that has been given to incoming college students since 1966, a major undertaking known as “The American Freshman” project that has so far surveyed 8.7 million students. That’s a useful bunch of data, since it compares the attitudes of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1961) and Millennials (born after 1982) when they were the same age, roughly age 18. Yes, the proportion who cared about “being very well-off financially” increased signficiantly in that time, from 45 percent of Boomers saying this was an important life goal to 74 percent of Millennials saying so. But it’s just as easy for me to cherry-pick the life goals and values that did not change as it is for Twenge to cherry-pick the ones that did.

Even the changes that Twenge’s group took to reflect Millennials’ inflated self-esteem and narcissism could be interpreted differently — as a growing sense that one’s work should be meaningful, gratifying, and esteemed. More Millennials than Baby Boomers said they cared about, for instance, “having administrative responsibility for the work of others,” (39 percent versus 26 percent) or “obtaining recognition from my colleagues for contributions to my special field” (54 percent versus 43 percent). That strikes me as more idealistic than selfish.

Most press reports of this study emphasized that Millennials were found to be more socially and politically disaffected than their parents were. Yes, young people have shown a drop in how much they valued “keeping up to date with political affairs” or “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment.” But there was an increase in how much they valued “influencing the political structure” and “becoming a community leader.” Doesn’t that lead to the opposite conclusion — that they’re more politically involved, not less?

And how about raising a family? Nearly 75 percent of Millennials saw that as an important goal, compared to just 65 percent of Baby Boomers. Is Twenge really going to argue that this is because Millennials are narcissists who just want to see their own genetic awesomeness carried on?

To be fair, Twenge and her colleagues did stress that any conclusions from their study must be “nuanced.” But nuance doesn’t play well in the media — and Twenge hasn’t really worked that hard to push for it anyway. Millennials were raised with “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” she is quoted as saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special.’ It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.”

Maybe it’s a good career move to stake out one extreme position and stick with it, using tired old tropes like kids-today-got-a-trophy-for-just-showing-up whenever you get a chance. But it strikes me as a big mistake to try to paint this generation, or any generation, with one broad brushstroke — especially a brushstroke that is unnecessarily damning.

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