Our Changing Culture

Exploring how Americans think, work, love, play, vote, and learn today.

Who Are the Millennials?

Generation Me and the future

The Millennial generation (also known as Gen Y or Generation Me, born after 1980) has finally done it: After founding Facebook, posting millions of selfies on Instagram, and answering their cell phones during job interviews, they've achived the pinnacle of old-school print journalism: Their own cover story in TIME magazine.

Titled "The Me Me Me generation," the story has two seemingly opposing points: Yes, Millennials are entitled and self-centered, but they will "save us all." 

Just the selfies might be enough to come to the first conclusion, but there's actual data, too. This can't be dismissed as young people being more narcissistic than older people due to age. Boomers and GenX'ers scored lower on narcissism when they were the same age, back in the 1980s and 1990s. That's true among all datasets, even one that was originally used to argue that narcissism hadn't increased, and in the study cited here when a huge confound is corrected.

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The cover features a young woman in colored jeans taking a picture of herself with her cell phone. It's an interesting contrast to the first TIME cover on Generation X from July 1990, which featured a bunch of people wearing black standing there looking lost. 

Joel Stein, who wrote the piece, begins by saying he's about to "do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow." Here's the funny thing: If the generational change has been going on for awhile, and in the same direction, those old people might have always been right. The data on narcissism don't go back far enough to say for sure, but it's highly likely that the Boomers were more narcissistic than the generation before them. Just because people have said it before doesn't make it wrong.

Reactions around the web have run the gamut, which isn't surprising -- the piece balances the positive with the negative, so some are going to focus on only one of those sides and flame about it. As a generations researcher who focuses on empirical data, I've always thought it was somewhat strange to take a "pro" or "anti" Millennial (or GenX or Boomer) position. Some cultural trends are good, and some are bad, and so are the generations that result. The data are what they are. Yes, there's entitlement, but there's also growing equality. Both are the result of a culture more focused on the self. Reporting both the negative and positive doesn't mean one is "bashing" a generation or spreading "stereotypes" -- it means you're trying to get at the truth, good, bad, and in between.

Joel ends the piece with this thought: "A generation's greatness isn't determined by data; it's determined by how they react to the challenges that befall them. And, just as important, by how we react to them." Even though some of those data are mine, I find this an intriguing thought -- because there's no one obvious answer. On the one hand, we know that positive self-views don't actually lead to success, and that Millennials may be lower in resilence than previous generations. On the other hand, maybe the segment of this generation that's confident without being entitled will indeed "save us all" -- or at least themselves. 

It's true that hand-wringing about the next generation is a long tradition. I think it's gone on for so long with Millennials partially because of the recession. Take a generation raised in not just economic prosperity but the personal prosperity of overpraise, and put them in the most severe economic recession in decades, and something has to give. They'll make it somehow -- every generation does -- but it's pretty likely they'll be the first generation to not do as well as their parents.

Considering they expect to do better than their parents, reality is going to be tough. It was tough for GenX, too, but it's even worse now. We can be grateful for all of the good changes -- like more equality and self-expression -- but we should think carefully about how we raise the next generation. My vote is for fewer participation trophies and more training in social skills. Tip #1: Don't bring your cat to the job interview.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

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