Millennials, roughly defined as the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, often hear that they're the most narcissistic, entitled generation of all time. Now, a new study examines how these young adults feel about those labels. Spoiler alert: Not that great.
Millennials do view themselves as a bit more narcissistic than generations before them, but not to the extent that older generations do, according to new research presented Jan. 29 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) in San Diego. But in general, millennials do not appreciate being called narcissistic and entitled, said study leader Joshua Grubbs, a doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Different research methods have found that individualism is on the rise in American culture, with younger generations reporting less empathy and more self-focus than generations before. Although this narcissism is often pinned on millennials alone in the popular press, research going back to the early 1900s suggests that these forces have been in play for at least a century.
"There is a very consistent and reliable trend where all indicators of individualism [have] been on the rise over the course of the last 100 years," University of Waterloo psychologist Igor Grossman, who was not involved in Grubbs' work, told an audience at the SPSP meeting. The youngest generation is more self-centered than those before it, Grossman said, but the same could have been said of the youth of the 1950s versus the youth of the 1930s, and so on.
The changes from generation to generation are subtle — the difference in 1 or 2 points on a 40-point narcissism scale, Grubbs said. In other words, though narcissism is on the rise, media reports of millennials as almost crippled by self-absorption compared with the selfless generations of the past are a bit overblown.
"We're not talking about two generations ago, people were just completely selfless, and in this generation we're trying to kill each other to watch the next season of something on Netflix," Grubbs said.
Grubbs was interested in how the public might be responding to this exaggerated narrative. As a millennial himself, he also wanted to know how his peers viewed narcissism trends.
In a series of seven studies, he and his colleagues asked millennials and older generations to rank each other's narcissism and their responses to media about generational change (in particular, a negative section of a 2013 Time magazine article entitled "Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.")
The millennials surveyed in person and online rated themselves as more narcissistic than previous generations, but saw themselves as less narcissistic than other generations did. In an online survey of 750 adults of all ages, millennials ages 18 to 25 rate themselves at 61.4 on a zero-to-100 scale of narcissism. They ranked adults 60 years and up as 38 on the same scale, a 23-point difference.
In comparison, adults 60 years and older ranked millennials at 65.3 on the 100-point narcissism scale, and ranked themselves at a mere 26.5, a spread of nearly 40 points. In other words, older generations perceive the generation gap as wider, in their own favor. (Notably, every generation saw itself as less entitled and narcissistic than other generations said it was.)
"If you say something just terrible about the generation, they tend to be somewhat offended as a general rule," Grubbs said.
The only exception to this rule was people who were personally high in the trait of narcissism. These people didn't love the labels, either, Grubbs said, but they were less offended than people lower in narcissism. This fits with previous research suggesting that narcissists are self-aware, Grubbs said. They know they're self-absorbed, but think they have a right to be.
The burning question now is whether being bombarded with negative messages about themselves is bad (or good) for millennials in the long term, Grubbs said. It's not clear if people suffer ill effects over time from these labels. The team is currently studying whether being called narcissistic makes people decide to live up to the label, or if they overcompensate and show increased altruism and empathy instead.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.