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Narcissistic or Not?

In defense of millennials

JudaM / Pixabay
Source: JudaM / Pixabay

When you hear “millennials” in the media these days, the next thing you’re likely to hear is the word “narcissistic.”  For several years now, reports on NPR, in Time Magazine, in Britain’s The Guardian, and even this publication have been debating whether or not the current crop of young adults is more narcissistic than prior generations.  Everything from excessive self-focus, obsessive use of social networks, a preference for nontraditional employment, and even too many trips to the dentist (because of “selfie teeth”) has been attributed to the inherent narcissism of millennials. 

But isn’t it doubtful, right off the bat, that millions of people could share the same personality disorder simply because of their birth date?  (More likely, older generations tend to relate to them in consistent but frustrating ways.)  Self-esteem does appear to be on the rise, with 80 percent of middle-school students scoring higher on a self-esteem measure in 2006 than their counterparts in the late 1980s.  But relying on studies like this means painting with a broad brush.  Even if college students did show an increase in narcissistic traits in the years leading up to 2008, this increase wasn’t as dramatic as the slope of the same curve in the 1990s.  And on measures of egoism, self-esteem, individualism and the importance of social status, teenagers graduating from high school in 2006 were virtually identical to the high school seniors of the late 1970s.  Lastly, although the explosion in social networking media use is often attributed to the narcissistic qualities of today’s younger generations, no causative correlation has been established. 

In my experience as a psychologist, when millennials come in for therapy, they aren’t railing against criticism by their peers or their bosses, or angry at the world for the lack of recognition it affords them.  Today’s young(ish) adults, from their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties, seek out psychotherapy for help with finding love, choosing careers, and making decisions that will reverberate through the rest of their lives.  Seen that way, the millennials I’ve worked with don’t look very different from anyone else who’s seeking help, apart from the fact of their age cohort.  (Besides, narcissistic traits generally appear more than three times as often in twenty-somethings as in people in their sixties, so even if millennials did come across this way, it might be a developmental artifact). 

Perhaps my patients’ work lives, and the economy in which they’re situated, are creating the effect.  Millennials are often criticized for ignoring the traditional work-for-pay model to which their parents, and their parents’ parents, became accustomed.  Their reliance on the “side hustle” — those freelance jobs stuck in around the edges of regular employment — has been held up as evidence of their narcissistic refusal to conform.  Aren’t millennials concerned with choosing a career that will sustain them for the rest of their lives?  Sure they are, but they aren’t trying to “have it all,” or expecting excessive praise for average performance — they’re simply becoming aware that at their age, when they make one career choice, other options become closed to them.  Do millennials want to spend more time finding effective ways to express themselves, and less time locked into traditional nine-to-five jobs?  Yes, but that’s individualism, not narcissism.  Millennials are criticized for job-switching as if it’s a sign of entitlement; never mind that their tendency to quit unsatisfying jobs generally does lead them to greater satisfaction and productivity.  This generation just seems more determined to find happiness by shrugging off traditional forms of work, and older generations — stuck in the nine-to-five workday model — are picking on them for it. 

I know that it's impossible to refute data with anecdotes, but the 25- to 35-year-olds I’ve worked with do not demand excessive admiration, and they aren’t feeling empty inside.  They are struggling to find a place in the world, both professionally and personally.  They’re competing in a difficult economy, worried about finding mates, and uncertain about what the future will bring.  Truly narcissistic patients in therapy are the ones who complain about their inherent excellence not being rewarded, or disparage their significant others for failing to appreciate them enough, without noticing the ways their own behavior contributes to these dynamics.  Millennials, by contrast, are trying hard to find their footing in a financial environment that’s working against them, and in a social universe newly transformed by consumer technology.  The millennial generation’s would-be-narcissistic concerns are not only understandable, but also relatable, forgivable, and treatable. 


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