Millennials are going to be less narcissistic than ever, suggests new study

Kids these days! (Pete Souza/White House photo)
Kids these days! (Pete Souza/White House photo)

Blanket generalizations are like souffles: easy to make, if you don’t mind watching them collapse spectacularly when someone blows on them. Especially when they concern a whole generation, like most of what is said about Millennials.

I believe a large percentage of what is said about Millennials as a group stems from the fact that they are the generation currently occupying the place that the People Who Write These Things used to hold. Most pieces against the Millennial, as an institution, are written in accordance with the rule that When You Turn Thirty, Something Terrible Always Happens To Popular Music.

Of course the youngest generation is going to the dogs! Instead of delicately cross-stitching their selfies on large scraps of muslin, they are sending them via their smartphones. Instead of sending their subtweets by semaphor or smoke signal, as we always used to do, they are — well, I won’t go into it, but it needs to stop. We were never like this!

One of earth’s longest traditions is complaining about the awful things that Today’s Youth are doing. All the way back in 419 BC, Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds” included some complaints about how the younger generation was coming along, such as the memorable lines: “[I]f you follow the fashions of the day, you will be pallid in hue, have narrow shoulders, a narrow chest, a long tongue, small hips and … you will know how to spin forth long-winded arguments on law. You will be persuaded also to regard as splendid everything that is shameful and as shameful everything that is honourable; in a word, you will wallow in degeneracy.” KIDS THESE DAYS! THEY NEVER GO OUTSIDE! THEY REGARD AS SPLENDID EVERYTHING THAT IS SHAMEFUL AND AS SHAMEFUL EVERYTHING THAT IS HONOURABLE! GOSH THEY’RE JUST THE WORST! GENERATION X KNEW WHAT WAS WHAT.

In a word, not much has changed.

If this kind of thinking can be helped by studies, a new study is out. But I do not hold out much hope. This study, by a researcher at Emory University, suggests that the worse an economy you land in between age 18 and 25, the less of a narcissist you’ll be later in life. This holds true even when other factors are accounted for, such as education and sex. “See, this is all for the best,” I can hear the Boomers beginning to argue already. “Really we bequeathed you this economy to cure you of being such self-centered little twerps, Generation Me Me Me! Did you see “Beauty and the Beast”? Well, in this analogy, we are like the withered old sorceress, and you are like the prince! Take that, Generation Entitled!”

Nice try, but I am not sure how far this goes. Even before that study came out, there was this study, pointing out that young people always tend to be more narcissistic than their aged counterparts, suggesting that this narcissism is a developmental thing, not a generational thing. In other words, if the economy doesn’t stamp that nascent narcissism out of us, our ineluctable progress toward the grave surely will. If we were even narcissists to begin with.

Look, we should be more worried about Generation Z, anyway. So few of them have jobs, content to live off their parents and waste hours of each day at high schools and middle schools and — in some cases — elementary schools. Generation Freeload, that’s what I’d call them! We were never like this! The things they’re doing to pop music already!

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | May 15