Is There a Millennial Personality Type?

It is an empirical question.

Posted Jan 10, 2017

The meaning of the Millennial continues to attract interest from politics, pop culture, corporations as well as academic researchers and clinicians e.g., the author—also a millennial himself. It can reasonably be argued that there are some key defining Millennial psychological or socio-cultural phenomena, including reality TV voyeurism, obsessive start-up ideation, and the on-demand lifestyle craving.

Do these cultural trends have implications for the psychology of a generation?

From the perspective of pop psychology, Millennials have a unique identifiable personality profile that has implications for employers, advertisers, politicians, and society at large. From the perspective of academic psychology, it is an empirical question that necessarily starts with an operational definition. 

The existence of multiple definitions of Millennials has been pointed out by news sources over the past year, albeit rarely. For instance, the issue was the topic of a brief round table discussion on the TV show, Morning Joe, not long ago. Yet, this definitional issue has largely gone ignored, implying there is some intuitive universally understood yet unarticulated meaning. Since the term Millennial refers to an age-based demographic, an operational definition requires an age range. Lacking any empirical or scholarly sources, I rely on personal conversations and news reports in asserting that it has ranged from 18-34 (to 35 and 36) and even more broadly from 18-40. 

Within a subfield of psychology, namely psychodynamic circles, there is a longstanding view of adolescence as being a prolonged psychological subjective state rather than a biologically defined discrete stage. In this context, individuals from 18-40 year old can validly be conceptualized as a meaningful group to be defined, described, labeled, and explained in connection to a common "adolescent personality." Consider Erikson's stages of psychosocial development: (a) identity versus identity diffusion, (b) intimacy versus isolation, and (c) and generativity versus stagnation, all of which seem intuitively relevant to the putative millennial personality construct. 

However, empirically minded psychologists—from all schools of thought—should emphasize more objective criteria. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, parsimony, and the purpose of this post, let millennials be defined as individuals in the 18-35 years age range. (This definition should be improved based on empirical evidence as it emerges). 

To arrive at a valid and reliable operational definition, theoretically relevant differentiating variables from other age-based demographic constructs, e.g., Generation X, Generation Y, Baby boomers, etc., need to be identified and tested. Moving beyond definitional issues, the psychology of Millennials should be clarified by empirical and clinical evidence.

How can clinical and personality psychologists answer questions about the existence of a valid millennial personality construct? 

Clinicians can observe common clinical issues faced by millennials. Academic research can be reviewed for psychometric, neurobiological, and behavioral data that describes individuals ranging from 18 to 35 years old (and in contrast to other age groups or time periods). 

In future posts, I will focus on what, if any, personality traits predominant and what, if any, common issues emerge in clinical practice with Millennial clients. We shall see if a construct valid conception of the Millennial personality is possible. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in my blog are my own and do not reflect those of any institutions I am affiliated with.