Narcissism in the News: Who Becomes Self-Centered, and Why?

Psychology's generation war takes aim at narcissism

Posted Aug 13, 2013

Claims that Millennials are the “me” generation who care only about themselves may strike some Baby Boomers as ironic. Aren’t the ex-flower children, hippies, and youth-loving free spirits of the 1960s the truly self-focused?  Isn’t it the Baby Boomer generation the one who selfishly wants to feather its own empty nest, maintain its precious youth and youthfulness, and escape to an inner world where only their thoughts and feelings matter? Wasn’t the 80s the “Me Decade,” and wasn’t it the 30-somethings of the time who embraced power, money, and self-glorification? If there’s a generation war, perhaps it’s a war on who has the right to be called a selfish narcissist.

A recent New York Times article featured the research of San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge whose career of studying narcissism has led her to conclude that the title “Me generation” truly belongs to our young adults of today.  In one potentially compelling study Twenge led a team of fellow personality researchers (2012) to scrutinize several decades of survey data from Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. The data they examined were drawn from questionnaires in which high school and university students answered questions designed to tap their selfish vs. selfless motivations in areas ranging from life values, extent of civic-mindedness to service  political participation, and interest in the environment. After plowing through an immense amount of data, Twenge and her group concluded that our current young people are more likely to care about “me” than “we,” continuing a trend started by Gen X.

Given the vast amount of data covered in this article, I can hardly do it justice here. The data are part of a larger argument that Twenge has used for some time to support her claim that narcissism is a widely-growing social disease with no end in sight.  However, depending on how old you are, you may or may not recall that it was Christopher Lasch, writing about the 1980s, who coined the phrase “The Culture of Narcissism.” So who truly can lay claim to being the most self-oriented? Is it time for Baby Boomers to pass the narcissistic scepter down to their children?

Having conducted studies of the Baby Boomers from college through midlife, including original research making similar generational comparisons with GenXers, I would argue that no one generation can claim true narcissistic superiority. However, even before examining a shred of evidence, you yourself could easily come up with the same conclusions yourself. What is a “generation,” anyhow? Do you consider yourself psychologically alike to everyone who’s your same age, much less born within the same 10 or 20 years? 

Generation is an inherently meaningless concept when you bring it down to the level of the individual.  We are each affected by the cultural and social changes going on around us, but based on a host of factors (personality, health, education, family experiences), no one person will be exactly like anyone else within the same generation, birth year, or even day of birth.  There’s too much variability in life to allow valid conclusions to be made about a trait as amorphous and varyingly defined as narcissism.

Enter into this debate the work of Clark University professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.  Having coined the term “emerging adulthood” in 2000, Arnett has spent his entire career investigating the personalities, values, life choices, and family relationships of the “20-somethings,” ranging in age from about 18 to 29.  His most recent work provides a ringing endorsement of the potential for greatness in our current youth. Unlike Twenge, Arnett avoids stereotypical portrayals of any of his thousands of participants. Instead, he goes to great lengths to pick apart the inner dynamics of families and intergenerational relationships to characterize the factors that lead some Millennials to greatness and others to greed. On the whole, however, he’s generally more optimistic about the social-mindedness, civic spirit, and potential for giving represented by our newly-branded young adults.

I want to get to the details of Arnett’s work, but before I do, it’s important to clarify that so much of the data (including my own, unfortunately) fails to capture the variations in people’s development that occurs due to education, social class, and discrimination.  Researchers who study emerging adulthood are beginning to examine greater ethnic and social class variability, and particularly trying to see how non-college educated individuals make their way through the opening decades of life. 

Arnett is much more sensitive to these cultural factors than Twenge, which may be one reason why he sees the narcissistic glass of current Millennials to be half empty.  Even the college educated of the 2010’s must now deal with fiscal realities that didn't impinge on GenXers or Baby Boomers. They may care more about money because they actually need it.  In fact, as another well-respected family researcher, Karen Fingerman, has maintained, we can’t judge parents of young adults by the same standards as we used to do.  They may stay more involved in their children’s lives than did parents of the past, because today’s young adult children actually need their support.

Arnett recently co-authored a book with popular writer Elizabeth Fishel in their highly readable and informative “Dr. Spock” for parents of emerging adults called “When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?”  Before you insert the word “already??” after the title, the book’s actual subtitle (“Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult”) conveys its true message. Arnett and Fishel combine hard-nosed data from Arnett’s extensive research with advice that is both direct and sensible. They provide numerous case examples and Q’s and A’s showing how parents can handle the full range of difficult topics that can enter into the familial picture, from how to talk to your child about his or her gay relationship to where to draw the line on college tuition and early career financial support.

What impresses me the most about this book is Arnett's inter-generational perspective.  As accomplished as Twenge is in her ability to wade through large amounts of data, she’s not able to capture linkages between and among generations.  Let’s say that on average, the Baby Boom generation is more civic-minded than the Gen X generation. However, Gen X kid wasn’t raised by a generation. Gen X kid was raised by a parent (or parents) who were either selfless, selfish, or neither.  When you look across generations for social or historical trends, you can’t capture these micro-influences on people’s actual personalities.

Because they’re looking at inter-relationships, Arnett and Fishel are able to observe the way that children affect parents (and grandparents)- in other words, upstream influences across generations. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can recall times when your child influenced you to look at something in a new way or made you rethink your own childhood or youth.  The Arnett-Fishel book talks about “parallel journeys,” but what they really mean are “intersecting” journeys. We influence our children but they also influence us. 

Returning to the question of narcissism in the millennials, though, Arnett and Fishel provide ample evidence to support their claim that we needn’t assign personality disorder diagnoses to all of our young people.  As an advisor to students seeking opportunities to study abroad, participate in the Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America, I can vouch for the fact that today’s young adults are willing to make enormous personal sacrifices to give back to their communities.  Service Learning Courses, unheard of until the late 1980s (just when the “Me Generation” was getting off the ground), are highly popular on many campuses as are opportunities for “engaged research” in which students combine academic study with community outreach. These students are not seeking such opportunities just to make them more marketable or help them get into med school.  Giving back to others seems to be a part of the fabric of their being.

Maybe the Baby Boomer and Gen X parents (who are now having college-age kids themselves) didn’t do such a horrible job of raising their own children. Perhaps by boosting their self-esteem, parents of Millennials didn’t just foster a bunch of narcissistic brats.  And when these emerging adults have their own families, having spent longer before getting married, delaying parenthood, and exploring alternative career paths, perhaps they’ll do a better job than we may even imagine.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Arnett, J.J. & Fishel, E. (2013). When will my grown up kid grow up? Loving and understanding your emerging adult. New York: Workman Publishing.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults' life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966–2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 1045-1062. doi: 10.1037/a0027408