‘Selfishness’ not generational

It’s a new year, but I doubt the journalistic trend of pontificating on the personality flaws of Millennials is going to stop anytime soon. I would argue that this trend of thinking that the young people are wayward and self-involved dates back to approximately every generation that has ever existed, but let’s focus on the “Me Generation.”

Wait, the “Me Generation” is what the Baby Boomers were called. I mean, let’s focus on “Generation
Me.” That’s what Jean M. Twenge called the current 20-somethings in her 2006 book, “Generation
Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

Although the cause of the alleged Millennial traits varies from the rise of social media to young people being pampered in an “everybody gets a trophy” culture of entitlement, the mantra among the writers of these trend pieces is that the people who are now college-aged are entitled, lazy and self-involved. Statistics about unemployment and becoming financially independent and marrying later in life are frequently cited as evidence of this.
In 2013, it seemed like there was always a new trend piece recycling the same tropes about the narcissism, entitlement and laziness of “Generation Y.” The one that sticks in my mind is Joel Stein’s piece “The Me Me Me Generation” in Time magazine. The story’s cover features a young woman smiling and posing for a selfie. It is actually very revealing that they chose to portray a young woman taking a picture of herself as the epitome of self-importance. The smallest act of self-love, especially among those in a demographic disproportionately affected by body image issues and low self-esteem, is not narcissism. That word is thrown around a lot in articles like
Stein’s – it doesn’t actually mean occasionally having positive thoughts about yourself.

Most of these trend articles are at least to some degree based loosely around statistics. Stein’s article, for example, cites a psychological study that found that narcissism is more common in younger people than people over the age of 65. He attributes that as a specific characteristic of Generation Y.

A 2010 article published in Perspectives in Psychological Sciences by Roberts et al., however, does a broader analysis and finds no difference in narcissism scores in students of college age over a period of 30 years. They did find that there were higher narcissism scores in people around age 20 and younger compared to people older than 65, but this was the case for every generation that they looked at. That is, a somewhat higher degree of self-involvement when you are young is a normal developmental stage. They concluded, “Every generation is Generation Me.”

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2011 that revealed the majority of the general population does not necessarily share the views of the authors of these trend pieces. For example, 82 percent of people polled recognize that it’s more difficult to find a job now than it was in their parents’ generation due to economic changes, instead of merely attributing the high rate of unemployment among Millennials to laziness. Yes, 24 percent of 18-to-34 year olds may move back in with their parents after moving out for a while, but it’s not because they want to. It’s because it’s difficult to pay the rent.

Perhaps the most glaring problem inherent in the way these trend pieces tend to cover the behaviors and attitudes of the younger generation is that the infrastructure of the society in which young people come of age, complete with its economic and social problems, is inherited.

It is unfair to malign how young people cope with the problems created by those that came before them as though the issues that they are dealing with just materialized from the ether. Criticizing other people, though, is easier than taking responsibility.


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