Kids These Days: Study Exposes 'Generation Me'

Teens today are more cynical and less trusting of institutions than past generations, according to a new study.

But counter to some claims, Generation Me isn't all about "me." Today's youth are no more self-centered, and just as happy and satisfied, as their parents.

"We concluded that, more often than not, kids these days are about the same as they were back in the mid-1970s," said study researcher Brent Donnellan, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

The study results come on the heels of research showing significant generational gaps in work attitudes, with individuals born between 1982 and 1999 being more likely than their elders to value leisure time over work and to place a premium on rewards such as higher salaries and status.

Millennial attitudes

In the new study, Donnellan and his colleagues analyzed information collected on more than 477,000 high-school seniors from 1976 to 2006, which were divided into four-year time periods. The data came from the federally funded Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks the behaviors, attitudes and values of U.S. students every year.

The researchers had participants answer two egotism measurements, including "Compared with others your age around the country, how do you rate yourself on school ability?" and "How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?" Participants rated the items from 1 (far below average) to 7 (far above average). All participants gave an average score of about 4.9, with the scores from 1976 to 1980 (baby boomers) averaging 4.9, compared with those from the 2001-2006 group (Millennials) rating the questions at about 4.94.

To measure self-esteem, questionnaires included six items that students had to rate from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). For instance, students rated "I take a positive attitude toward myself," and "On the whole I am satisfied with myself." There was essentially no self-esteem difference between generations, with participants who answered between 1976 and 1980 giving an average score of 4.08, compared with the 2001-2006 average of 4.01 for Millennials.

The current generation indicated they are less fearful than other generations of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortages. The GenMe population also reported higher educational expectations.

Generation stereotypes

As for why there is a stereotype of egotistical, lazy teens today, Donnellan said that it's common for older generations to paint youth in a negative light. Those who are long past their adolescent years are also likely to forget what it's like to be young, he added. So a 45-year-old today might compare behaviors of today's youth with themselves as adults, rather than a true age comparison.

"Kids today are like they were 30 years ago – they're trying to find their place in the world, they're trying to carve out an identity, and it can be difficult," Donnellan said. "But lots of research shows that the stereotypes of all groups are much more overdrawn than the reality."

Rather than generational differences, Donnellan said research has shown age can be a big factor regarding happiness levels and other psychological variables.

"I worry about stereotyping entire generations of people, which by definition are incredibly large and heterogeneous groups of people, with labels," Donnellan told LiveScience. Within any birth cohort there is an incredible amount of variation, he said.

The study will be published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.