Ailts: Generational conflict and the myth of the “Me Me Me” generation

Studies have shown that we aren’t more inclined to narcissism than previous generations, but the negative stereotypes continue.

Ellen Ailts

It’s no secret what older generations think of us youngsters: entitled, lazy, and, arguably above all, narcissists. Many of us deny these accusations, but it doesn’t seem that we’re able to convince anyone otherwise. It’s easy to view any group besides the one you’re a part of as a monolith; they are decidedly other. They haven’t experienced the world as we have. Just as older generations have negative perceptions of us, we have our own about them; viewing older generations as closed-minded and reactionary isn’t a revelatory opinion for young people to hold. And there’s nothing new here — generational conflicts have existed since antiquity, and so the opinions of older generations aren’t necessarily a true indictment of millennials. 

Older generations might point to social media as evidence for the narcissism of young people. However, we are the most tech- and social media-savvy generation, and therefore use social media more than older people. So naturally, you’re going to see more social media posts from us, our thoughts, opinions and selfies frequently put out online for all to see. Our online presences may be informed somewhat by young people being naturally inclined towards self-absorption, but it also just might be that we’re on social media more to begin with. We can look back on our social media accounts and cringingly watch ourselves growing up — an insightful, albeit brutal, experience. Because of this, we are perhaps more self-aware, but with this comes an increased and constant awareness of just how ridiculous we are. 

In 2013, there was the “Me Me Me Generation” cover of Time magazine, but in 1976, New York magazine dubbed their era the “The Me Decade.” There are recorded instances of ancient Greeks complaining that their children only care about luxury, that they have bad manners, disrespect their elders and are contemptuous towards authority — basically, all the ingredients for an angry baby boomer Facebook post. 

So where are all of these narcissists coming from? It turns out, studies have shown that exhibiting characteristics of narcissism actually has more to do with being young than being of a certain generation. Studies that have measured the narcissism scores of three consecutive generations — college student vs. parent vs. grandparent — have shown that narcissism decreases as people get older. And it’s not that earlier generations were always less inclined towards narcissism; a study published a just few weeks ago in the journal Psychological Science disproves this hypothesis. 

The study analyzed data from over 1,000 students at University of California-Berkeley in the ‘90s and tens of thousands of students at University of California-Davis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from the 2000s and 2010s. The results showed that today’s college students are actually somewhat less narcissistic than those students in the ‘90s, comparing scores on the Narcissism Personality Inventory, the most widely-used test to measure narcissism. College students average 15 to 16 on the NPI scale with 12 being the average among grandparents, proving that narcissism does decrease with age, but not in any extreme measure.

In short, it would seem that we all just need a little time to develop as human beings — so be patient with us, and we’ll get there.