Readers Write: Are Young People Narcissists?

Today's under-30s crowd has earned itself a nickname: Generation Me. Compared with older generations, young people today are increasingly displaying a lack of empathy, aggressive behavior and an inability to form relationships. At least that's the conclusion of a report from San Diego State University called "Egos Inflating Over Time." The study, conducted over a period of 25 years and based on interviews with more than 16,000 students, states that 30 percent more college students show "elevated narcissism" now than in 1982.

AlterNet published the findings recently in an article reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor, and it got our readers talking and asking questions: Are young people narcissists? If so, is this unusual or to a greater degree than any other generation? What are the underlying causes of this supposed narcissism? Could it be a normal stage in psychological development or rooted in something else like culture or lifestyle?

Here are some excerpts of what they had to say:

"Although there are some wonderful "under-thirties" out there -- and I am pleased to know and work with some, there is a pervasive level of self-absorption present in this age group," writes bttl. "Teaching this generation at a college has not been always enjoyable. While I have had students who were hardworking, caring and committed, the majority are otherwise. The prevailing trend has been one of a sense of entitlement; to good grades (A's of course), minimal work required and constant pats on the back. Many of my students believe they possess superior intellect; after all, they've been told how wonderful they are since day one."

A writer named Joycelyn strongly disagreed. "I am almost 65 years old and have worked with kids most of my life. ... My experience and observation is this is a wonderful generation. They are thoughtful, kind, empathetic, and funny. ... [I]n my rather long career, I have never seen a less narcissistic generation than the current one. I have never seen a generation that was more attached to parents and respectful of values."

This conclusion shocked several readers, including bloggeddowninMKE, who is a 47-year-old working at a university: "Wow, no offense, but I have to wonder where you live, or perhaps you are getting the cream of the crop kids who are interested in service work. ... [Generation Y] seems extremely self-absorbed to me and lacking in values compared to friends of mine I grew up with who are closer to my age. Sure, there are some great kids out there, but the overall picture (kids wearing I-pod headphones continually and yacking on their cell phones in your face as you try to enjoy a cup of coffee) is not all that great from where I stand."

Although some readers said narcissism is simply a normal part of being a teen and is not unique to the Millennial Generation, most readers -- including those in the younger, Generation Y group, -- agreed with the study's conclusion that, yes, young adults have overdosed on self-infatuation.

What they couldn't agree on is why.

Some readers said that narcissism is borne out of necessity, not preference:

"Young people live in a world where everything costs and nothing is free. Where you need to grab or it is gone," Bobsays wrote. "Where older people sit on over-inflated houses-as-pensions because they are too chicken shit to come to terms with the people who stole their pension funds in the first place."

"Have you applied to college recently?" timebomb734 said. "[A]n effort to admit 'people,' not transcripts, has forced prospected students to be able to sell themselves as a package. It's been my experience as a 21-year-old that from an early point in education (usually middle school) children are forced to take inventory of themselves in order to be better able to define their personality in 100-word essays. This article was OK, but most definitely overlooks the noble intentions behind the need to narcissitize."

Timebomb734 also argued that being dubbed narcissistic is the result of not having time to do the same type of activist work that the boomer generation became known for: "By the time I'm done working my 40 hours a week between two jobs, attending school, maintaining social contacts, and engaging in the sparse-but-always-needed chillout time, there are not hours left for engaging in activism. ... Don't be so quick to compare us to the college students of the 60s whose parents (for the most part) could afford to pay for their school. Of course they protested! They had that luxury known as free time that has become foreign to today's college student."

An overwhelming number of young commenters agreed and not only rejected being compared to the boomer generation, but also blamed boomers for the social conditions that gave rise to narcissism.

"The boomers screwed people my age royally," medstudgeek wrote in a post titled Why don't you read 'Generation Debt' for starters. "Everything costs too much ... housing, college, health insurance, etc. If you're 100K in debt you're going to play along with the corporate masters to pay off your loans ... and is this an accident? ... [Y]ou boomers polluted the environment, drove the country into debt (twice!), outsourced our jobs to India, and made all of us narcissistic with your 'self-esteem' movement, and now you're blaming the victim. Young people have Myspace pages? The horror."

For Ayla87, the reasons for Generation Y's narcissism are abundant:

Lets start with our families. 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. Thats a lot of broken homes and step children. What are you saying to your child when you divorce his or her mother because 'things aren't working out between us'? You're saying that you don't care about anyone's problems but your own, and you'll take the easiest way out if possible. ...
Now lets start with the schools. The pressure is tremendous. In fact, I challenge everyone over the age of 40 to go back to high school and re-earn their diploma. Lets see how long you last. The only focus in high school now is to get into college. Kids are pressured into taking as many hard courses that they can on top of the required course load. Many of them join clubs, sports teams and organizations on top of that so they can polish up their applications to sometimes up to twenty colleges. Schools are now requiring community service to graduate. Violence in schools is up, and so is zero tolerance. Kids can now get suspended or expelled now for things they do outside of the school, where frankly, it's not the school's place. Students are so pre-occupied with themselves and what they need to do to just to get out of highschool alive, that they tune out everything else.
Oh, and have I mentioned how hard it is to find a job? ... It took me six months to find a decent job, with benefits and 40+ hours. On top of a full time college course load mind you. I can't imagine how other kids are doing. Jobs are being outsourced in record numbers, and you're now starting to find college graduates working minimum wage jobs just to survive. ...
Those are just the three main problems we face today. I haven't even begun to talk about the social pecking order that's been created because of this, or the materialism that helps feed it. We didn't create the world we've lived in thus far, it was created for us by our parents. We 'don't care' because we don't have time too, we're busy living up to everyone else's expectations. We're 'narcissistic' because we have no one to go to for support; we only have the groups of other kids that we made ourselves.
Several readers including skoog5600, who grew up in the U.S. but now lives in Japan, said the real root of narcissism is not related to age; it has to do with western culture:
The whole country is (generally speaking) narcissistic. It is a part of what defines the American culture, and one of many reasons why I moved out of the country and am now happily an expat. ...
If anyone wants to get a sense of what American culture is really life, get out. It's hard to see it when you're in the thick of it.
In a similar thread, xgroverx wrote that materialistic values, "spurred on by rampant capitalism and nationalism, have created a shallow culture which fails to meet the emotional needs of individuals. Those that have been raised in this culture feel a sense of emptiness and search relentlessly for something to fill the void, often looking for acceptance from others instead of self-acceptance. ... The narcissism of youth today is not a result of high self-esteem at all. Rather, quite the opposite; it's a reflection of low self-esteem and a feeling of emptiness."

Like xgroverx, most readers agreed that narcissism, whatever the cause, is likely a symptom of other more serious problems -- problems that affect more than one generation. And that's reason for all of us to be concerned.

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