Interview with Dr. Twenge: Is Generation Y more narcissistic than earlier generations?

The book “Generation Me” probes the issue of this generation of young people being so self-centered. Photo: Dr. Jean Twenge and her book "Generation Me"

FLORIDA, September 16, 2012 — For one reason or another, some people really do believe that the world revolves around them. 

Why do they buy into such nonsense? Who knows. Nonetheless, said mentality has caught on with many in Generation Y. Trying to understand the reasons for this can be a most complicated ordeal. After all, who is going to admit that he or she is self-centered to the point of delusion? 

Perhaps anyone honest enough wouldn’t be so self-centered in the first place. 

Thankfully, academic and author Dr. Jean Twenge has decided to illustrate the facts about the generation that can’t seem to see beyond itself. In her 2007 book “Generation Me,” she explained the social dilemmas often faced by members of Generation Y. As co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, she outlined how self-absorption is actually changing America’s cultural landscape. 

In a detailed discussion, Dr. Twenge shares her views about the unique norms of Generation Y. From the self-esteem movement to the rise of social networking to increased rates of personal depression, nary a stone is left unturned. 

Joseph F. Cotto: Technology is a wonderful thing. Nonetheless, it does come with downsides. Has technology has negatively impacted Generation Y?

Dr. Jean Twenge: Technology has mostly been beneficial. But negative consequences can result if technology means people are not seeing each other in person and not connecting on a deep and personal level. (More on this below).

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with those now entering the business world is a poor work ethic. How did laziness become so prominent? 

Dr. Twenge: First, let’s address the premise of the question — are recent generations lazier? Fewer than in previous generations do say they are willing to work overtime and more say they would prefer not to work if they had enough money. But most still say they want to work and would work overtime. Many want to preserve “work-life balance.” As long as that’s not taken too far, that can be a good goal. The danger comes if young people expect to not work very hard to succeed and then find out it’s not so easy. I think many people got the idea that success comes overnight from watching celebrities and movies where the years of hard work are invisible.

Cotto: The danger of becoming self-absorbed is present for all of us. Yet, many say that Generation Y is more narcissistic than its predecessors ever were. Do you agree with this idea? 

Dr. Twenge: This isn’t a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, as empirical studies have answered this question. These studies are unequivocal and numerous. Eleven studies show a generational increase in narcissism. They include respondents from high school age to adults, four different ways of measuring narcissism, three different research methods, four different ways of recruiting respondents, three different countries, and eight sets of authors. Five of these studies compare GenY with their predecessors at the same age. This includes one dataset that originally claimed to show no change that demonstrates significant change when analyzed correctly. Nine additional studies show increases in positive self-views.  

Cotto: By and large, do you think that the self-esteem movement has proven to be beneficial for Generation Y? 

Dr. Twenge: The two benefits the self-esteem movement hoped to produce — more successful and more caring young people — have not resulted. Standardized test scores for high school students are, depending on the test, unchanged or lower since the 1960s. Empathy, perspective taking, and concern for others have declined, according to large studies.  

Cotto: Generation Y seems to be predominated by a sort of entitlement mentality. Is there any central reason for this?

Dr. Twenge: In “The Narcissism Epidemic,” we identify four major causes: 1) changes in parenting and education, 2) celebrity culture and media, 3) the Internet, and 4) easy credit. 

Cotto: Despite being more confident than their elders, members of Generation Y, on average, suffer from higher rates of depression. Can this paradox be explained?

Dr. Twenge: Good question. It could be two different segments of the generation. There may be one group who’s more confident and another that’s more depressed. Or it could often be the same people at two different points in time, as overconfidence can lead to depression when unrealistic expectations are not fulfilled. One caveat should also be made to this premise: Some studies suggest that depression and anxiety rates peaked in the 1990s and have since leveled off or declined slightly (at historically high levels compared to the 1980s and before, but that’s better than continued increases). 

Cotto: Social networking has kept more people in contact with one another than ever before. Nonetheless, many members of Generation Y report feeling lonely. How can this be?

Dr. Twenge: Humans thrive on in-person relationships. If social networking means we spend less time face-to-face, that can lead to loneliness. Social networking that leads to in-person interaction has benefits, but it is not a replacement. If in-person relationships resemble healthy food, social networking is junk food. 

Cotto: Many think that the Information Age has severely altered the human socialization process. Do you believe this to be the case?

Dr. Twenge: I think it’s too early to tell.

Cotto: In the future, might Generation Y take a turn for the better? Or, could it be expected to introduce new norms to our society? 

Dr. Twenge: Two things are likely to happen: GenY will adjust to the world and the world will adjust to GenY. We’ve already seen new norms adopted in response to this generation: For example, less top-down authority and more flexible work schedules. As long as these new norms are beneficial to everyone, they are good developments. If they instead compromise learning or profit, they are unlikely to survive. 

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a noted academic and writer about Generation Y. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Twenge: When I first began researching generational differences, I was a 21-year-old undergraduate. In the years since, my co-authors and I have identified generational trends considered positive (gender equality) and negative (narcissism and anxiety). I wrote “Generation Me” and co-wrote “The Narcissism Epidemic” to bring this academic research to a wider audience — including lots of pop culture references, humor, and stories from real people. Now that I have three children, I’m looking forward to seeing what their generation (born since 2000) will be called.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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