Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?

The Atlantic Monthly

Jean Twenge

May 2, 2012


Reading about today's young generation is enough to give you whiplash.

Many books and articles celebrate Millennials (born, roughly, 1982 to 1999) as helpful, civically oriented young people who want to save the planet. Others argue the polar opposite, that Millennials are entitled, self-centered, and uninterested in much outside their own Facebook page. Which view is right -- are Millennials Generation We or Generation Me?

The first books written about Millennials were not just positive but glowing. The best known of these, Millennials Rising , is subtitled The Next Great Generation . Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss 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. "Once this new youth persona begins to focus on convention, community, and civic renewal, America will be on the brink of becoming someplace very new," they write.

Millennials Rising was published in 2000, when the oldest Millennials were just 18. Howe and Strauss pointed to increasing rates of volunteering among high school students and decreasing rates of teen pregnancy and crime. They also interviewed 660 teens in McLean, VA, but didn't compare these responses -- or measures of civic engagement in large national surveys of young people -- to those of previous generations. You can't really conclude anything about generational differences if you have data from only one generation.

In the years that followed, numerous books and news reports emphasized Millennials' desire to help others, become involved in politics and government, and work toward improving the environment. "People born between 1982 and 2000 are the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s," claimed USA Today . "Generation We is noncynical 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 . "By comparison with past generations, Generation We is highly politically engaged." Both of these sources mentioned the rise in volunteering and interviewed Millennials, but didn't compare those responses to data from previous generations.

In my 2006 book Generation Me , I 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 dating back to the 1920s. These analyses indicated a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self. But perhaps both views were correct -- maybe Millennials' greater self-importance found expression in helping others and caring about larger social causes.

My co-authors and I decided to find out. Two large datasets -- the Monitoring the Future survey of high school students and the American Freshman survey of entering college students -- had many questions on community feeling, concern for others, and civic engagement that had been asked since the Boomers were young in the 1960s and 1970s. Both datasets are nationally representative and both are huge -- half a million high school respondents and 9 million college respondents.

With representative samples comparing three generations at the same age, this was the best data available to settle the Me vs. We question - and these items had never been analyzed in their entirety before.

So we dug into the data. 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. It was a far cry from Howe and Strauss' prediction of Millennials as "The Next Great Generation" in civic involvement.

Millennials were also less likely to say they did things in their daily lives to conserve energy and help the environment, and less likely to agree that government should take action on environmental issues. With all of the talk about Millennials being "green," I expected these items to be the exception. Instead, they showed some of the largest declines. Three times as many Millennials as Boomers said they made no personal effort to help the environment.

Millennials were slightly less likely to say they wanted a job that was helpful to others or was worthwhile to society. This is directly counter to the Generation We view predicting that Millennials would be much more concerned for others. Volunteering rates did increase, the only item out of 30 measuring concern for others that did. However, this rise occurred at the same time that high schools increasingly required volunteer service to graduate.

So where did Howe and Strauss, and others who championed the "Generation We" view, go wrong? They developed an idea of the generation first and then went looking for data to support it. They found some -- increasing rates of volunteering, for example. But they didn't consider the whole picture by examining the large amount of data available on generational shifts in civic orientation, life goals, and concern for others.

Those who have done in-depth studies of today's young people, such as Christian Smith in Lost in Transition , have come to a similar conclusion. "The idea that today's emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction," Smith wrote. "The fact that anyone ever believed that idea simply tells us how flimsy the empirical evidence that so many journalistic media stories are based upon is and how unaccountable to empirical reality high-profile journalism can be." (p. 224)

Howe and Strauss were right about other trends -- rates of teen pregnancy, early sexual intercourse, alcohol abuse, and youth crime have continued to decline. However, these behaviors aren't related at all to civic orientation, and have a tangential relationship at best to the desire to help others or contribute to society. They are also determined by many factors beyond generational attitudes, such as demographics, drug wars, policing, birth control availability, and even -- as the authors of Freakonomics argued -- the legalization of abortion.

I'm sometimes asked why I have such a "negative" view of young people. I don't. The longest chapter in Generation Me was on the increase in equality and tolerance, clearly a positive development. In addition, these findings have nothing to do with my views. The survey data we analyzed captured what Millennials said about themselves , not what I or any other GenXer or Boomer says about them. If we're going to understand our culture and how it's changed, we need to listen to what young people say.
Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey


Niccolo and Donkey
I'd like to call in Bronze Age Pervert to ask him if there are any parallels with Rome re: entitlement.
I find that attempts to pigeonhole generations into either yay or nay groups is a symptom of sociology, a pseudoscientific field that tries to make quantitative claims about ideological subjects. Take this, for example:

Just how "equality" and "tolerance" is measured is not explained but the reader is supposed to accept at face value that it's even possible to quantify such things. Of course, this doesn't mean that certain attitudes and behaviors can't be summarized and attributed to generational groupings. Personally, I find that a study of the values inherent in the cultural output of such groupings is a better model for determining generational attitudes. For example, the Baby Boomer mentality certainly exists.

In fact, when discussing the narcissistic aspects of Millennials, it's impossible not to see how this trait has been passed down generationally from the Boomers. Consider the current nostalgia industry (mostly in the form of documentaries) which celebrates everything from folk music to mural painting to gay sex as a revolutionary act. Of course once the half baked liberation fetishes of the hippies soured, this self love turned inward and morphed into New Age hokum which in turn melded with Dale Carnegie cliches to produce to modern self help movement.

The other side of this was the perpetual navel gazing of Generation X. These people came of age during the beige and austere 1970s, right as all the utopian dreams of the Boomers were falling flat. This in turn produced a profound cynicism which found it's expression in the rejection of politics, work, self-authority (i.e. "whatever, man") and anything involving even minimal effort. The narcissism meme prevailed though, just in a more minimized and somewhat self-loathing fashion. Prozac, heroin, underemployment, sleeping till noon, bi-curiosity and semi coherent discourses on brand name cereal mascots were the norm. It presented the postmodern Western individual as is in all his or her pathetic glory with the attendant question of, "What else is there?" See Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991) for a cinematic representation. This has translated to Millennial culture in the form of mumblecore.

The Millennials unique contribution to generational attitudes is perpetual adolescence/delayed adulthood which replaces Gen X slacker cynicism with childlike wonderment. This runs the gamut from obsessing over childhood cartoons and video games (insipid pop retroism) to the wide eyed fetishism of cuteness and natural innocence that is Twee culture. This can be traced back to early indie bands like Beat Happening who ,

Part of this is economic. As careers become harder to come by, young people create an idyllic version of their lowly status that harkens back to childhood where responsibility and seriousness were not expected of them. More than that, it provides a buffer from the harsh reality of diminishing expectations and Western decline. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to find beauty or artfulness in an austere landscape shaped by forces beyond our control.

There is also the consideration of the limits of counterculture. While the early 20th through the mid century created the White Negro , an avant garde specimen who celebrated and internalized the Otherness of black Americana, Millennial Tweeness revives Appalachian mountain folk , Northeast WASPiness , and 1950s domesticity (e.g. the cupcake and knitting fads). This is not to say that Millennial Twee culture is conservative in any meaningful sense, let alone even political. In fact, it may represent a deracination so great that our own origins have now become a source of commodification and fetishization.
At risk of sounding like a Marxist bore and incurring the wrath of the Salotrean bros, its important I believe to accurately discern what exactly Boomer ''radicalism'' was. Its historical consciousness (or lack thereof) I mean.

There's an apocryphal tale about French aristocrats and even lesser nobles in the wake of the Terror attending decadent balls in which gentlemen and ladies alike would wrap red silken bands around their necks, purportedly to honor the guillotine. Its presented as some kind of surreal and macabre outbreak of nihilism, indulged in by people who had become desensitized to mass political homicide. The, faltering, ruling caste ceremoniously celebrating the cutting off of their own heads as a haughty display of egoism has some kind of resonance that isn't confined to the traumatic disturbances of the modern Revolutionary period. Its a cautionary tale about cruel people, self-assured of their own historical indispensability, deriving an almost erotic pleasure from catastrophes.

I believe the ''Boomer Mentality'' is one, very narrow, dimension of that generation's ambitions, values, and edifying myths - its a bourgeoise narrative of hedonistic and disengaged people with money and means who lived their entire life under the oppressive penumbra of the prospect of total atomic war and resorted in turn to cultured brutishness, passed off as conscientiousness.

The ''other America'' were the men who lived as their fathers and grandfathers had - and whose lives (as in generations preceding) were disrupted by foreign wars. Gustav Hasford is the much overlooked scribe of this social grouping. Its worth noting that most combat troops in Vietnam weren't conscripts, but enlistees. In 1968, workers continued working, proletarian and rural youth continued fighting in Federal wars, Boomers elected Nixon not once but twice and Wallace carried the solid South as an independent.

The ''culture of narcissism'' is very real, mind you, but its a culture of lords, not vassals.
I think sociology is a bit unforgiving of Generation X - perhaps its simply my own conceptual bias, but I don't think that is entirely the case.

My peers all seemed relentlessly driven to achieve and fulfill all the proper expectations of middle class adults - we did, after all, grow up in Reagan's America and were inundated with (albeit an ethically deformed variant) of the Protestant culture of work and the expectation that people might be called to sacrifice for patriotic reasons. Even the boys I knew with absent fathers seemed to look up to their fathers - revere them, however remote, and try to emulate them.

Anecdotally, the guys and girls I grew up with who succumbed to heroin, mental illness, despondency, nihilism, weren't apathetic people who had no interest in adulthood - quite the contrary. A lot of them discovered that there was nothing to ''grow up'' into.

The Gen-X ''slacker'' who ends up in terrible shape in life is often a guy with an MBA that never led him anywhere, an ex-wife he couldn't relate to because he was too disengaged from anything but a hamster-wheel career to actually lead a family, and a litany of regrets because he actually attended Church when he was a kid and believes failure is synonymous with sloth. He might sit in an empty house, literally abandoned by his family (his birth family or his wife and children) and find himself resorting to the needle because he can't muster the emotional fortitude to start over. Odds are he's not a Star Wars fan who spent his college years hanging around outside a convenience store arguing over pop-trivia.

Millenials, of course, have it easier - they were instructed that they weren't supposed to grow up.
Beefy Rep

I agree that this generation is, as a whole, contemptible, and the coming age of ecological catastrophe and peak in resources--along with a host of other problems--will cause most to fold and crumble. I'm talking about suicide. They have been utterly unprepared for hardship, have no practical skills except possibly with computers, and have never had to count on themselves or others for anything except as mediated through economic relationships--and hence have no basis for common trust.

Yet I think there is a minority that is well suited to rebuild amidst the hardships, and relearn how to be human. They are the one's who are, in a sense, nihilists--like they all are--but have also internalized the "sharing and caring" messages of their early childhood TV shows, and are prepared to think tribally or collectively in a naive and functional rather than in the mode of moralistic universalizing. They are also the one's who, though sheltered from the world and its elements, react not to hard work, discomfort, etc. with the usual horror or at best voyeurism, but with a peculiar kind of zeal and enthusiasm for"something real." If you give these one's a look into a future technological nausea, but of global breakdown and a multitude of local restarts of an entirely different basis and order--then they get interested. Then they stop being nihilists, "haters of man," and live in the adventure of our common becoming. It is a sight to see, and one of the few things that gives me hope.

I'm a Christian and not in any sense a Nietzschean, but I do find much of his work apt descriptions of this current experience. Hopefully they go further still. I suspect an even smaller minority will.

President Camacho
Yes. The commercial below epitomizes, in 30 seconds, the rejection of responsibility, the idiotic "childlike wonderment", and obsession over trivial sensory stimuli characteristic of Millennials:


That is "Zooey Deschanel", one of these no-talent media darlings with anime-sized pupils. Even her name sounds like a stuffed animal. Only a carefree Millennial flush with cash would order tomato fucking soup for delivery, by itself, in lieu of just making it on their own.