Millennials are narcistic?
In season one of the HBO series Girls, Hannah and three co-coworkers agree to allow their boss to touch them inappropriately because he provides good benefits, certainly not a feminist stance. She quits her job when her married boss declines her impulsive offer to have sex because he seems to want it. Hannah tells her boyfriend Adam she’s is scared all the time and he says, “Join the club.” The only time I saw female sexual passion in the series was when Marnie masturbates after an encounter with an obnoxious guy. She tells a friend who wants to lose her virginity that “sex is overrated.” Hannah does ask her lover Adam to be monogamous, a response to him sending her a text photo of his genitals, followed by a text telling her the photo was intended for someone else (she responded with a text photo of her breasts and is frequently shown almost nude). When Adam asks about Hannah’s one-time sexual encounter with a guy she meets in a visit to her parents in Michigan, she is more enthused about the size of her fling’s apartment. Unlike the Sex in the City women of a previous generation, we don’t see sex associated with passion or humor. It’s true that Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends were in their 30s, but they had self-esteem and goals, and had fulfilling sex lives (along with some foolish brief encounters).
It’s not just Hannah who makes foolish choices, the other characters are similar, as when Jessa was fired from her job as a nanny for inappropriate behavior with the husband and marries a jerk she recently met and initially detested. She ended up leaving him in the second season after a fight over her first meeting with his parents where she revealed she dropped out of college to go to rehab for her heroin addiction. Shoshonna’s main goal seemed to be to loose her virginity but without enjoyment or intimacy, finally finding a grumpy homeless boyfriend in his 30s, while Marnie dumped her boyfriend because he was too nice. Although she thought he would be miserable, he goes on to become very successful in his work and personal life while she can only find a job as a hostess in a skimpy uniform. Adam relies on monthly rent payments from his grandmother and part-time jobs.
In the second season’s list of problematic behavior, Hannah put the garbage of the coffee shop were she worked in angry neighbor’s trash bins instead of getting another copy of the key she lost to the shop’s trash receptacle. When he confronts her, she ends up having sex with him. An obsessive-compulsive disorder she experienced in high school resurfaces where she counts everything in eights. She has quick sex with a 19-year-old boy because she thinks her friend Jessa organized a “sexcapade” outing with two teenage boys and wanted to have “continuity” with the plan. She puts a Q-tip so deep into her ear she has to have a doctor remove it. In the finale, she falls apart, unable to write a book by the due date although she spent the publishers’ advance payment. Adam comes to comfort, despite having another girlfriend after she dumped him.
Millennial Anna Willoughby commented on the NPR webpage; “The characters just seem selfish and everything I resent about people my age (and not just white people, btw, like some have said [the four main female characters and their lovers were all white so the second season added Hannah’s brief affair with a black man]. Just entitled, self-absorbed, and childish. I don't like any of the characters on this show.” Blogger Abra Deering Nortion observed, “There are different kinds of hipsters but this show represents the worst kind: Entitled and lazy East Coast hipsters who actually come across like they're stupid. They make mistakes and bad decisions and it's not okay. Why? Because they should know better.”[i] Norton adds the “pathetic girls aren't funny because these Girls have lost themselves — lost their power. They have no self-esteem. They don't even aspire to self-esteem. That goes from awkward to just — yuck.”
A TV critic, David Wiegand believes the show is “representative of the detachment of many young men and women of Hannah’s generation who . . . express passion and excitement through emoticons and tweets.”[ii] A writer for the TV show, Deborah Schoeneman calls the characters and real young women like them, “Women-children.”[iii] But, she sees them not racing to the altar as positive, “It’s about women celebrating femininity and community.” Dunham explained in the NPR interview that Hannah is not a “boogie” (bourgeois) woman, not like the “chick lit” young women who are in search of a diamond ring, husband, and a great house. Some people therefore have called the series feminist, perhaps because the four girls’ loyalties seem to be to their women friends while their sexual relations with men are often unsatisfying, uncomfortable and without depth, or “awkward,” as Dunham said.
I checked with author David Burstein, 24, about his view of Girls and found he didn’t share my disgust: “I think it is representative of a small subset of people, but I think what’s most striking is that Lena Dunham as a show runner, writer, creator is a great example of what is possible in this generation. At her age, to be writing and running one of the most popular shows on television is an example of the kinds of things Millennials are doing today that hasn’t been done before.”
I posted the question about our youth Generation Me or We on Fluther, another online discussion group. With fewer responses, five thought there’s no difference in generations and that it’s selfish of older generations to saddle younger ones with debt, and two thought youth are more aware and compassionate—“almost everyone volunteers.”[iv] Janey, 14, illustrates the impact of electronic communication; “I’m influenced by global media by seeing people supporting things they care about, and that’s what I want to do. I want to stand up for what I believe in. Many young people have great ideas, but adults don’t listen to them.” One respondent thought they’re both WE and ME, and one thought they’re superficial. Janelle, a college student, said of her peers, “It’s hard to find someone that’s truly intelligent, has an appreciation for the arts, etc. Most of them won’t even know how to survive in the ‘real world.’ We’re raised with the skills to pass classes and to get good grades on tests, not much more.”
A Pew Research Center report names US Millennials the “Look at Me” generation because they post photos and activities of themselves on social networking sites.[v] In the Pew survey, when respondents were asked about the life goals of others in their age group they guessed fortune and fame would top the list, but that didn’t mean the respondents personally had the same goals. SpeakOut youths who mentioned fame usually framed it in the context of doing good.
The webpage for Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement gives this definition: “Narcissists believe they are better than others, lack emotionally warm and caring relationships, constantly seek attention, and treasure material wealth and physical appearance.” Based on all the surveys I’ve read, Millennials as a group may like attention and fame as on social media, want money to enable a middle-class lifestyle, and like most adolescents care about their appearance as part of defining themselves, but they also highly value warm relationships with family and friends and don’t believe they’re better than others. Young people I’ve studied don’t lack empathy, don’t require excessive admiration, and aren’t arrogant. They don’t like judgment or bigotry but value accepting someone for their personal qualities rather than their race, gender, or sexual preference.
This WE/ME debate is an excellent case study of the inexactness of social science. Twenge and her co-authors draw from two huge yearly surveys of high school seniors (463,753 gathered from 1976 to 2008) and college freshman (8.7 million, gathered since the late 1960s by the Higher Education Research Institute to compare Millennials born after 1982 with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. She also uses essays written by her college students at San Diego State University, and respondents to her website.[vi] Twenge includes herself in Generation Me, although she was born in 1971. In her first book she combined very different Gen X with Gen Y, those born in the 1970s to 1990s, referring to them as Gen Me. In a 2012 article she changed the dates to those born from 1982 to 1999.
Authors such as Jensen Arnett and co-authors Winograd and Hais question Twenge’s methodology. The latter state on their blog that she relies too much on just 182 San Diego State student survey responses although Twenge says she has around 15,000 NPI responses.[vii] Jensen Arnett and Philhour maintain that Twenge makes too much out of small percentage changes. I asked CSUC statistics expert David Philhour to look at Twenge’s statistical methodology:
I looked at the full study in order to assess how much “practical significance” there is in these studies. Given that the numbers are HUGE, it is not surprising that they got lots of p values of less than .01, but the effect size for these differences is VERY SMALL. Other problems I see relate to claims about representing Boomers (1946-1961) whereas they present only data for folks born 1958-1961 for the Monitor the Future survey (graduating high schoolers).
Professor Kali Trzesniewski and her colleagues reviewed the same surveys used by Twenge--410,527 high school student responses and 26,867 college students’ scores over 30 years. They found no evidence for increase in narcissism, self-esteem, egotism, political activity, or the importance of religion.[viii] The few differences they found are youth today are more cynical and less trusting and have “higher educational expectations” than previous generations. Similar to authors Winograd and Hais, the professors “emphasize the need for care when psychological scientists offer broad and often moralistic pronouncements about entire generations of young people.” Twenge responded to Trzesniewski and colleagues’ criticism in an article that criticized their methodology, saying they ignored many variables in the survey of high school students, and that her conclusions stand that youth are less interested in civic matters, more materialistic, and more self-satisfied.[ix]
Other scholars join in criticizing Twenge, reporting that when recent data is included there is no increase in narcissism in college students and that being self-centered is part of youth: “Every generation is Generation Me.”[x] Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett points to the new life stage of “emerging adulthood” that leads some older adults to judge young people as selfish because they delay stepping into adult roles. He observes that “youth bashing” is common and problematic although older Millennials follow through with their simple dreams of finding a romantic partner and the right job as they approach 30.[xi]
Twenge’s evidence is based on an increase in college students scoring narcissistic on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) from one in four in 2006, compared to one in seven in 1982.[xii] That means 75% aren’t narcissistic even using the NPI. An examination of the NPI questions indicates many of them just measure self-confidence as in the statement “I’m a good leader.” Does a yes answer signify egoism or a statement of fact? You can take the NPI online and see how you score.[xiii] In the same article, Twenge says for the first time I’ve read this kind of caution from her: “Most young people are, even now, not very narcissistic, but there are now more individuals who reach a very high level of narcissism.” She adds that women, Latinos and Asian Americans have lower narcissism rates than white men.
In comments about an Atlantic magazine article by Twenge, someone called PurpleCat3--I didn’t get a response to my online request for identification, responded to my posted doubts about the relevance of the NPI:
The NPI is not "outdated"--it's the measure most commonly used now by research psychologists to measure narcissistic traits. It doesn't "really measure self-confidence"--it measures narcissism, something completely different. For example, narcissism is linked to anger and aggression, but self-esteem is not. Twenge and her co-author explain all of this at length in their book. . . And does the survey of 3,000 global youth [referencing this book] compare them to previous generations? If not, how can you make a generational conclusion?”[xiv]
There’s no evidence Millennials are more aggressive than other generations, in fact they are less likely to commit crimes. Checking with the main psychology reference book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, it defines a personality disorder as “a pattern of deviant or abnormal behavior that the person doesn’t change.”[xv] A narcissistic personality disorder is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self-importance as if no one else mattered. In terms of origins, the “preferred theory seems to be that narcissism is caused by very early affective deprivation,” yet the Twenge theory is that doting parents who emphasized self-esteem are the roots of youth narcissism.
Psychologists estimate narcissists to be around 1% of the population, yet Twenge labels a generation “Me.” Who wasn’t self-centered as an adolescent when the task is to form an identity different from our parents, as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson explained?[xvi] As we transit to adult responsibilities—especially parenting, focus shifts from self to others. But we can also care about others at an earlier age, as illustrated by the numbers of teen volunteers in high school, college, and after graduation working in organizations like Americorps.[xvii]
Twenge’s college students score more extroverted than previous generations and both sexes score more instrumental/masculine on the Bem Sex-Role Inventory rather than feminine/nurturant or androgynous. Instrumentals tend to be confident. Twenge believes they are more likely than other generations to believe that external forces control their lives and feel apathetical, uninterested in and uninformed about politics. However, they got involved in the election campaigns that elected President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Zoe (17, f, California) reported backlash to the Republican “war on women” with state laws like Virginia’s mandatory vaginal probe ultrasound before being allowed to get an abortion, attacks on Planned Parenthood, etc.
A Canadian mother, Nancy Hillis, who has spent a lot of time in India living with families there, said she agreed with the charge that kids are overly protected in the West:
Yes, I see this and agree heartily--adversity indeed makes for strong resilient resourceful souls. I was amazed with how I witnessed this in India: God, and therefore surrender to what 'is', is deeply woven into daily life and there are few social safety nets to provide the comforts we are accustomed to here in Canada and the western world. Life is one of poverty and uncertainty contrasted with richness in acceptance and allowing and simply being; there is not the neurosis of the western mind and body.
American Teen Mental Health
A study by the American College Counseling Association found that 37% of college students seeking help in 2012 had severe psychological problems, up from 16% in 2000.[xviii] Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. In addition to an insecure future, a Cornell counselor blames preoccupation with media that distracts students from developing emotional skills such as staying focused on a task and understanding they can’t control everything. Information technology changes the brain, makes some people feel disconnected and anxious, according to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (2011).
An online survey of over 2,000 adults found that Millennials are more likely than other age groups to be told by a health care provider that they have depression (19%) or anxiety disorder (12%). About 6.4 million children ages four through 17 have received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About two-thirds are prescribed stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall that can increase anxiety for some children. According to the Harris poll, Millennials’ most popular coping mechanisms are music (59%), exercise (51%) and spending time with family and friends (46%). They were more likely than other age groups to get solace from their relationships (vs. an average of 39%).
The 2010 and 2011 national survey of US college freshmen found the numbers who felt overwhelmed in high school increased to 28.5%. Their self-rating of their peers’ emotional health was at an all-time low, although the majority (53%) said their own emotional health compared to peers was high or average. (The Icarus Project developed peer-support groups for people diagnosed as mentally ill and put together information about medication.[xix]) Burstein says Millennials have to figure out how to find a job and make money, and be happy in a recession, but have the ability to adapt. Why are so many optimistic about the long term? He says we’re trying to make something out this time in our 20s, not just getting married, rather, having new experiences.
Katherine Sharpe reports on her experience Coming of Age on Zoloft. She found that antidepressants blur adolescents’ identity development and can interfere with their sexuality just as it can for adults.[xx] For Sharpe herself, “antidepressants had promoted a kind of emotional illiteracy.” She traced the huge increase of prescribing psychiatric drugs for kids as “part of a broader social trend toward aggressively managing risk in the lives of children and teens.” If pushed too far, Sharpe concluded that the desire to protect kids can cause harm, a repeat of the critique that overprotective adults harm young people. The recent “epidemics” in over-diagnosis and prescribing drugs for children is due to drug companies mining a new market and being placed in special education classes often requires a medical diagnosis, according to Allen Frances, MD.[xxi]
[i] Abra Deerin Norton, “HBO Girls: Hipsterism Gone Awry,” May 8, 2012.
[ii] David Wiegand, “HBO’s Game-Changer Sitcom Funny, Smart,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 12, 2012.
[iii] Deborah Schoeneman. Woman-Child. Amazon Kindle Singles, 2012.
[v] Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of ‘Generation Next,’” January 9, 2007.
[vii] Mikeandmorley, “Millennials are a ‘We’ Not ‘Me’ Generation,” March 15, 2012,
[viii]Kali Trzesniewski, et al., “Do Today's Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary? An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement, Kali Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, “Rethinking ‘Generation Me:’A Study of Cohort Effects From 1976–2006,”Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 2010 5: 58-75.
[ix] Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, “Birth Cohort Differences in the Monitoring the Future Dataset and Elsewhere: Further Evidence for Generation Me—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan,” Perspectives on Psychological Science January 2010, Vol. 5: 58-75.
[x] Brent Roberts, et. al., “It Is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me: Developmental Changes Are More Important Than Generational Changes in Narcissism—Commentary on Trzesniewski & Donnellan,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 2010 5: 58-75
In the most recent General Social Survey, 26% of Millennial generation respondents said they were unaffiliated, as did 21% of Gen Xers. Among Baby Boomers, 15% were unaffiliated – not significantly different from when they were first measured in the 1970s.
[xi] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “To Grow Up,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 5(1), 2010.
[xii] Jean Twenge, et al., “Egos Inflated Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” Journal of Personality, Vol. 76, Issue 4, August 2008.
[xvii] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “The Empathic Civilization: The Young Pioneers of the Empathic Generation,” Huffington Post, February 9, 2010.
[xviii] Francesca Di Meglio, “Stress Takes Its Toll on College Students,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 10, 2012.
[xx] Katherine Sharpe, “The Medication Generation,” Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2012.
[xxi] Allen Frances, MD, “Psychiatric Fads and Overdiagnosis,” Psychology Today, June 2, 2010.