Is Generation Y--or the "millennials," as they are often referred to--less empathetic, and more self-centered than previous generations? Or is our society in general more self-centered and less empathetic?
In 2008, the renowned TV news program, 60 Minutes ran a story about Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2002) in the workplace and proclaimed that a "new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred." The program described millennials as cynical, unaccustomed to hard work and having fragile egos because their childhoods filled with trophies and adulation didn't prepare them for the cold realities of work.
In my article in Psychology Today, entitled Millennials Poised To Take Over the Workplace, I said, "older Baby Boom managers are frustrated with Gen Y, feeling they demand that everyone change to accommodate them. In reality, Gen Y demands only that the workplace reflect their values--personal growth; work that is meaningful and family first. Gen Y love their parents, according to Rebecca Ryan author of Live First, Work Second, Gen Y prefers to work in teams not by themselves and they hate conflict. Gen Y are not complainers, nor act like victims. They are hard workers and want to have work that is challenging."
Bruce Tulgan, the founder of Rainmaker Thinking and an expert on Generation Y, says that "they are a pampered and nurtured generation, being both high performance and high maintenance, with a very high sense of self-worth. Tulgan calls them "Generation X on steroids."
According to a University of Michigan study of 13,737 college students in the U.S. by Sarah Konrath at her associates at the Institute for Social Research, young people today, compared to college students in the late 1970's are "40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago." The researchers examined 72 studies of students with a mean age of 20 from 1979 to 2000, all of whom had taken the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index test, which looks at empathetic concern, an emotional response to distress to others and perspective taking or the ability to imagine another person's perspective--often expressed as "being in other person's shoes."
Individuals who score higher on the empathy assessment exhibit such behaviors as helping a stranger carry their belongings, allowing someone ahead in a lineup, giving help to a homeless person, or assisting a friend. The researchers reported than there has been a 48% decrease in empathetic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking between 1979 and 2009. The researchers also reported that today's college students were less likely to have empathetic feelings for people less fortunate than them. Kornrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry concludes that "young adults today comprise one of the most self-concerned, competitive, confident, and individualistic cohorts in recent history." They also cited a previous 2005 study that described decreased empathetic concern among medical interns.
If the researchers' observations and conclusions are correct about Gen Y, what are the reasons or causes? They identify a possible reason is the influence of social media such as Facebook, and media content such as many movies, news programs, and video games with a high degree of violent content. Edward O'Brien, one of Kornrath's associates cites work being done at the University of Michigan which concludes that "exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others." The researchers also theorize that social networking, which are physically distant allow young people to "lionize their own lives" and "functionally create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others' pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others." So the authors speculate that the growing emphasis on self by young people has come with a decreased emphasis on others.
Kornrath argues that part of the explanation for decreased levels of empathy for young people may be as a result of changes in parenting styles in the 1980's, when parents focused on nurturing if not spoiling children, and focused on success and competition. The researchers observed that young people today "may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don't have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited."
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who examines Generation Y in her book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--And More Miserable Than Ever Before., argues that younger people are more self-assured than their parents, but they also are more depressed. She bases her argument on 14 years of research including 12 studies on generational differences based on data from 1.3 million young Americans, comparing the results of personality tests given to baby boomers when they were under age 30 to those of the Gen-Me or Gen Y cohort today.
Twenge says that this is a result of the misplaced emphasis on the self-esteem movement of the last few decades. Twenge says in her book, Gen Yers "speak the language of the self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocked in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities." Twenge cites the work of Joan Chiarmonte, head of the Roper Youth Report who says for young people today, the "gap between what they have and what they want has never been greater."
Twenge says that Generation Y can be called Generation Me because they've been taught to put themselves first. Unlike Baby Boomers, GenMe didn't have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that their own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made GenMe the most wanted generation of children in history. Television, movies and school programs have told them they were special from toddlerhood to high school and they believe with a self confidence that is impressive. GenMe, unlike the Baby Boomers are not self-absorbed, they're self-important. They take it for granted that they're special, independent, and don't need to reflect on it.
Twenge says this doesn't mean GenMe is spoiled. That would imply they always got what they wanted. Young people today have to overcome many challenges their parents didn't have to. For example, while families of the Baby Boom generation could once achieve a middle-class status on the earnings of one high school educated person, it now takes two college-educated earners to achieve the same standard of living. Many Gen Yers feel that the world demands perfection in everything, and some are cracking under the pressure. Many of them in their twenties today find that their jobs do not provide the fulfillment and excitement they had anticipated, and their salaries are not enough to have the lifestyle they wanted.
Does that mean that GenMe is selfish? Twenge says no. She cites the fact that youth volunteerism has actually risen in the last decade. GenMe wants to make a difference in the world. GenMe also believes that people should follow their dreams and not be held back by societal expectations. This theme is often reflected in the movies and videos of today.
Is this rather negative assessment reminiscent of the past? In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article bout the "hippies," (Baby Boomers) stating "to their deeply worried parents throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics." In the 1920's the Dallas Morning News described youth of the day as not caring about people, not "having any sense of shame, honor or duty." These visits to the past may be a wise warning for social scientists to not use scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes of young people.
In contrast to Twenge's Konrath's work is the Monitoring the Future Study, an ongoing, nationally representative study of high school seniors that began in the mid 1970's. Across the 30 years of the study, more than 450,000 high school seniors have participated in 48 states. The result? The researchers measured 31 different personal characteristics that would show generational differences. They found little support for generational differences. Of the differences, the most significant of Gen Y was less worry and concern about social issues, less trust of others and more cynicism of institutions. However, Gen Y was found to be less interest in keeping up with materialistic trends, less interest in blatant consumerism and unnecessary material goods and had higher expectations of the future.
So is the apparent self-focus, and apparent declining empathy of Gen Y peculiar to this generation or part of a larger general societal trend? Are we witnessing an age of declining empathy?
Twenge and co-author and psychologist W. Keith Campbell, psychologists team up in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, for a thorough look at a troubling trend that has broad cultural implications. They begin by chronicling changes in American culture that have brought us Botox, fake paparazzi, and Facebook. The authors distinguish between self-esteem and narcissism, drawing on scientific research, but focus on narcissistic personality traits "among the normal population" and cultural narcissism that goes deep into social values. The authors debunk myths about narcissism-that it is necessary in order to be competitive and that narcissists are actually overcompensating for low self-esteem. Although young girls have been hit hardest by the narcissism epidemic, with unrealistic notions of physical beauty, the scourge has affected us all-witness Wall Street greed and the mortgage crisis with its overblown sense of materialism and entitlement. The authors argue that the nation needs to recognize the epidemic and its negative consequences, and take corrective action.
Yet, there are other contrary views of our narcissistic society. In my article in Psychology Today, entitled How The Age of Empathy Will Impact Leaders, I said "new research in evolutionary biology, cognitive sciences and neuroscience is laying the foundation for a wholesale reappraisal of human consciousness." My observation, based on the work of Jeremy Rifkin's book The Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis is that "researchers in a diverse range of disciplines are arguing that all human activity is embodied experience--what Rifkin calls participation in the lives of others--and that the ability to read and respond to another person as if it was you, is the key to how people engage with the world, create identity, develop language, make decisions and define reality."
"Greed is out. Empathy is in. That's how Frans de Waal begins his book, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons For A Kinder Society. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world's most influential people.
The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature--proposed by economists and politicians--that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy.
Empathy, de Waal explains, is the social glue that holds human society together. He argues that modern psychology and neuroscience research supports the concept that "empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control." He points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing
So where does that leave us? Are we becoming more narcissistic, less empathetic, led by GenMe, or are we moving toward a more empathetic age, one that has social justice, social responsibility, sustainability and concern for our environment as of paramount importance? It seems to me that both things are happening. We are moving to an new age of social concerns, while at the same time, the last throes of narcissistic, materialistic and "externally focused" values are embraced. A contradiction? Paradox? Perhaps, but thus is the nature of our universe.
In the meantime, let's be careful about how we label Gen Y. After all, it's the generation that will lead us through the next half century.