Vanilla Ice once rapped “if you’ve got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it!” Today, a more appropriate lyric might be “if you’ve got a problem, yo, it’s the Millennial’s fault.” It seems that every week, there is some new video or article explaining how terrible Millennials are, and why they’re ruining everything—they are narcissistic, rude, demanding, entitled, spoiled, have short attention spans, etc. But are these claims warranted? Are the arguments about Millennials any good? I don’t think so, and here is why…
DEFINING THE GENERATIONS
Who is defined as a millennial? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some demographic researchers put the starting birth year in the late 70s, while others say the early 80s. As for the end birth year, it seems to be somewhere in the mid-90s. Though, other demographers have placed the end date in the early 2000s. The smallest date range would place millennials born between 1980-1996. The largest range would shift the birth years to cover 1976-2004. Typically, generations are defined by about every 15-20 years. The shorter date ranges for Millennials meets this standard just fine, where the larger date ranges pushes it by about a decade.1
However, even if we take the shorter date range, there is a problem. Technology continues to advance faster and faster. Moore’s law states that computer processing speed doubles every two years.2 As technology has become more advanced, it has become more and more part of our lives at a faster and faster pace. As a result, the world that the younger generations grow up in changes so rapidly that the 20 year (ish) timeline for defining generations is no longer appropriate.
Consider early humans. For millions of years, all humans had essentially the same experience. To quote Thomas Hobbes, “…life was nasty, brutish and short.” And this went on for millennia (heh), with incremental progress. The control of fire is estimated to have happened around 2 million years ago. It took another 1.9 million years before we invented the wheel. However, the time between each technological breakthrough became shorter and shorter. The time between building the pyramids to the invention of the printing press was 3,500 years. We then got electricity 319 years later. Only 144 years after that came the first working airplane. Most impressive of all, it only took another 63 years to before we put a man on the moon. Incredible! 1.9 million years from fire to wheel, and 63 years from flying to space travel.
With that in mind, how could we possibly think that a present-day generation spanning 20 years could have the same experience? The first time I ever used the internet was in 19973, which means that people also in my generation were born into the internet, and have never not had it around. The world of someone born in 2004 is a vastly different place than it was for someone born in 1976. Even going with smaller date ranges, the lives of people born in the early 80’s were vastly different than those of people born in the mid-90s.
My point is that I don’t think the date range for what constitutes a millennial is very useful, as the people at both ends of the cutoff have had a vastly different experience while growing up. Trying to find common personality characteristics of 70 million people over such a large time span where so much has changed seems pretty meaningless.
NARCISSISM OR NORMAL?
It is claimed that millennials are the most narcissistic generation to every exist. The psychologist Jean Twinge wrote a book titled “Generation Me”, where she details the woes of Millennials, and explains why she thinks they are the way they are. Her book is filled with anecdotes from her colleagues who recall stories of how a student behaved in XYZ way, confirming Twenge’s thesis that these darn Millennials are the most entitled, selfish, narcissistic group of students to ever pass through the hallowed halls.
There are a couple of problems here. The first is that anecdotes aren’t helpful when trying to propose an argument about a generation of people spanning 30 years—we need actual research. Twenge is no slouch, and has done research that shows, yes, Millennials score quite high on levels of narcissism when personality given personality tests.
However, looked at a variety of research (including Twenge’s) and found that when “new data on narcissism are folded into preexisting meta-analytic data, there [was] no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades.” The researchers go on to explain that it’s not that the last three decades have produced uniquely narcissistic and selfish students, but that “age changes in narcissism are both replicable and comparatively large in comparison to generational changes in narcissism. This leads to the conclusion that every generation is Generation Me, as every generation of younger people are more narcissistic than their elders.”
To paraphrase, you are narcissistic when young, and become less narcissistic as you become older. There is nothing uniquely narcissistic about Millennials—younger generations just ARE narcissistic, until they grow out of it.
Another problems relates back to the rise of technology. In the past 10-15 years, social media has absolutely exploded. There now exist more cell phones than people—most of which can record high def video, and upload it right to YouTube, or even stream it live on Facebook. It has been claimed that humans now take more pictures every two minutes than were taken during the entire 19th century. Whether or not that’s true, the amount of photos taken on a daily basis and then shared on various social media sites gives people ample opportunity to highlight their often foolish behavior and overconfident opinions.
Because of the ease of seeing what other people are doing, and the often absurd behavior of young people, observers fall for two separate biases. The first is the confirmation bias. Non Millennials see this silliness and think “god damn, these kids are out of control. Just look at this!” They don’t consider that most Millennials aren’t acting like fools, but the small percentage (which is still a large number) who do, are just very visible, which makes it easy for people to assume all Millennials are like that.
Atheists often argue that religion is evil, as it’s exceedingly easy to turn on the news and see Muslims blowing something up, Christians trying to make being gay illegal, and Jews preventing women from siting on a public bus. However, for every large act of violence or absurdity, there are thousands of kind, generous and selfless acts by people of the same group which go unnoticed. Likewise, with Millennials, there are countless non-narcissistic, non-entitled, and non-rude acts that go unnoticed.
The second bias is called Rosy Retrospection. This is the concept that people think things in the past were better than they actually were. For this our purposes, it’s essentially the idea of “back in my day, we never complained about such small problems like you kids do! People were polite, no one ever talked-back to their parents, and we never dared behave in such ways as you hooligans! And get off my lawn!”
In a 1997 study, experimenters interviewed people before, during and after a vacation, to see how they rated their experience. “The results of all three studies supported the hypothesis that people's expectations of personal events are more positive than their actual experience during the event itself, and their subsequent recollection of that event is more positive than the actual experience” (emphasis mine). Like with our grumpy old man, the past is never as rosy as people remember it.
Non Millennials are forgetting how they behaved, and remember their younger selves in a much more positive light than was actually the case.
CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
There are various claims about what sort of thing causes Millennials do act the way they do. I am going to address the two most common claims that I hear: “Participation trophies” and self-centered, self-positive language.
The participation trophy argument states that they make everyone feel like they are a winner, thus conditioning kids to feel entitled to praise and awards, even when they don’t deserve them.
This sounds somewhat plausible, and because of how frequently it’s stated, it seems to resonate with a lot of people. However, everybody likes to speculate and come up with arm chair theories to explain behavior… but psychology is complicated, and the causes of behavior are often very counter-intuitive. For example, people are actually happier with a choice when they have fewer options to choose from.
Like a good Millennial, I received participation trophies. My main memory of such a thing is going to Pietro’s Pizza at the end of a soccer season in elementary school and seeing a box of trophies that were later passed out to everyone. However, I also have memories from middle school basketball, where only certain people got trophies (of which I wasn’t one).
Regardless, the fact is that I received participation trophies at some point in my life. Now, I don’t think I’m that entitled, and I definitely don’t expect praise—especially without doing good work (exactly what a Millennial would say, right?). “Zak, you are just one person… you might be an outlier.” Very true, but I doubt it. Though, if people can invoke anecdotes to claim that Millennials are entitled (as Twenge frequently does in her book), then I can invoke anecdotes to show the opposite.
The fact that I have such a vague memory of ever getting participation trophies seems indicative of the fact that such a thing had very little impact on my psyche or personality. However, there is also a very large hidden assumption in this argument. The argument that “Millennials are entitled because they received participation trophies” also assumes that little kids knew that trophies were traditionally only for a few select people who did the best work. To the mind of an elementary school kid, a trophy was just something you got at the end of the sports season.4
Now, someone might say “Well, just because you don’t have a strong memory of the participation trophies doesn’t mean it didn’t influence you.” Sure, but that’s a non-falsifiable argument. I could either admit that the trophies affected me (proving their point correct), or deny that they affected me, meaning that the trophies only affected me subconsciously (also proving their point). Heads they win, tails I lose.
The last issue I take with this line of reasoning is that it assumes too much influence of environmental factors on the development of personality. The role of nature and nurture on personality has been studied like crazy, and many of the studies have HUGE sample sizes—often in the five, and sometimes six, figures. One of the main findings from such research is that “All psychological traits show significant and substantial genetic influence.” Twin studies show that identical twins (even if adopted at birth by different families) have strikingly similar personalities—between a .85 and .60 correlation (out of a possible 1.0, which would mean they have exactly the same personalities).
If only 15-40% percent of personality is based on environmental pressures, I strongly suspect that getting a few trophies here and there didn’t play into it much. If it did, it seems that more prevalent environmental factors would make even more of an impact when defining personality—you would expect kids who play hours of violent video games to act more violently (they don’t). More realistically, it would be emotionally salient, social, environmental factors (experiences regarding family and friends) that influence the 15-40% of your personality.5
The second claim regarding a potential cause of Millennial narcissism is that while growing up, kids are taught that everything is about them. Believe in yourself, follow your dreams, never give up, etc. “Generation Me” has an entire section dedicated to pointing out this sort of positive, self-centered language that exists throughout modern culture.
Like with the participation trophies, this sounds farily plausible. If people are constantly being told that they are great, you’d think that would have an effect. However, recall the minor effects of environment on personality. I truly doubt that NSync singing “Believe in Yourself” on Sesame Street will have much of an impact.
More importantly though, there is research regarding positive self-affirmations. And like so much in psychology, what we expect to find isn’t necessarily what is true. A 2009 study found that positive self-statements actually made people who had low self-esteem feel worse. However, for people who already had high self-esteem, the study found that there was a small benefit. So unless someone wants to argue that Millennials all have high self-esteem, the claim that all the self-affirmation has had some large influence on 70 million people’s personalities doesn’t fly.
KIDS THESE DAYS
The 2001 study I mentioned earlier stated that young people are generally narcissistic, and that it has nothing to do with Millennials in particular. To end this blog post, I would like to share a few quotes from across history that hammer this point home:
“Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.” -Horace, 23 BCE
“I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting” (I am told this means “it would be better if 16-23 year olds would just sleep through it—as all they do is have sex, harass the elders, steal and fight”). -Shakespeare, 1611
“…I find by sad experience how the towns and streets are filled with lewd wicked children, and many children as they have played about the streets have been heard to curse and swear and call one another nick-names, and it would grieve ones Heart to hear what bawdy and filthy communications proceeds from the mouths of such…” -Robert Russel, 1695
“The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?” -Rev Enos Hitchcock, 1790
“...a fearful multitude of untutored savages... [boys] with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits... [girls who] drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody...the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.” -Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1843
“There was a time when daughters did not allow themselves to look down on their parents—when the parental authority forced the disobedient to tremble. That time has passed, unhappily: so at least many persons imagine; but let me tell you, there are still laws which do not permit—do not permit—in fact there are still laws. I beg you to mark that: there are still laws.” -Ivan Turgnev, 1860
“Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man's estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions set by its gilded youth--all these lack some of the regulatives they still have in older lands with more conservative conditions.” -Granville Stanley Hall (from his book “The Psychology of Adolescence”)
“The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise … Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against Hellenic tastes, such as crossing their legs. They tyrannised over the paidagogoi and schoolmasters.” -Kenneth John Freeman, 19076
Lastly we have the lyrics of one of the songs in the 1953 musical, Bye Bye Birdie:
I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Who can understand anything they say?
They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers!
While we're on the subject:
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?
As you can see, there is nothing wrong with Millennials. The only thing that happens is that selfish kids grow up to be mature adults, and forget how unruly they were when they were that age.
I’m not an expert in anything I have written about. It could turn out that I am totally wrong. Maybe cell phones, helicopter parents and the rest really have had an impact on the Millennial generation. Though, seeing as similar complaints have been lobbied at past generations, I think it’s pretty clear that things aren’t as bad or extreme as so many Millennial bashers make it out to be.
2. In 2008, I remember finally giving in and begrudgingly paying $20 for a 1 gig flash drive. Currently, I can get a 32 gig flash drive for $8.
3. My AOL screen name was Z007Golfer, encompassing my two biggest interests at the time: James Bond and golf. Good times.
4. Before I realized how insignificant standard parenting practices are on developing a child’s personality, my typical response to complaints about Millennials was: “who raised them?” This usually shut the person up pretty quickly, but sadly, it’s not a good argument.
5. If someone has a problem with participation trophies, I wonder if they’d have a bigger problem with honorary doctorates?
6. This quote is often misattributed to Socrates. There are also a number of similar quotes about the unruly youth of the day, falsely attributed to various ancient writers. Other than the Horace quote above, none of the other ancient quotes are legitimate, and seem to have all been made up by people in the 1960s.