Generation Y: Narcissistic and Self-Absorbed?

Over the last few months I’ve read many articles on “Generation Y,” and being one of that generation myself, I’m always curious when I come across such articles. Generational differences fascinate me, and I think some great anthropological studies could be done on these differences, but in the articles I read, I get a sense that the authors are often oblivious to where younger people are actually coming from, and are sometimes outright prejudiced. Of course, older generations have been lamenting the shortcomings of the younger generation for thousands of years: this is nothing new. I think we could do better, though. I’m wary of inferring that one generation is more “selfish” or “narcissistic” or “lazy” or “naive” than another. Generations express themselves in different ways. These expressions reveal nothing, in themselves, about the laziness or selfishness of a generation. “Selfish” and “lazy” are interpretations, based on the way the interpreter understands norms of social behaviour. Culture evolves, social norms change over time, situational contexts change. (Context. It’s a word I’ve used a lot lately!) Behaviour can be seen as different depending on context: many generations of people living together in Latin America, for example, where social norms are different, is often interpreted very differently than the phenomenon of young Americans living with their parents well into their 20’s. There is always a conservative strand in society that resists changing contexts, but context does inevitably change, and one’s old judgement of, say, what “immaturity” looks like can’t always be applied to new contexts.

I try to be transparent about this: I have my own agenda. I have my own vision of the world I would like to see (which hopefully includes yours since the world I want to see is diverse and inclusive of many ways of being). So, when it comes to young Americans living with their parents well into adulthood, I’m actually quite happy with this trend. There are many reasons for this. I think individualism in many ways has gone too far and that the fend-for-yourself mentality is unhealthy. This phenomenon of young adults living with their parents, as I see it, is a correction of this ultra-individualism; the possibility that we might actually be, in some ways, dependent on each other, given this ultra-individualism, is a very comforting thought to me. Also given the energy crisis and the concept of ecological footprint, perhaps we need to reconsider this idea that young people, when they reach a certain age, need to go off and live on their own. As one perceptive “boomer” of 60 said to me, there are people who have infrastructure and there are those who don’t. What’s going to need to happen increasingly, as the energy and resource crisis comes to a head, is the sharing of infrastructure.  Sharing of resources. In terms of energy and resource use it’s much more efficient for young adults and their parents (and grandparents, who may be in nursing homes?!) to live in the same household. Another reason I see this as a hopeful trend: I would agree with conservatives, there may be a crisis of family in this country, but the compartmentalising of families into such small units is now contributing to this crisis. I see this trend as potentially strengthening family ties. This generation has close bonds with our parents that our parents never had with theirs! I think the perception of many young people is: “my parents have the infrastructure already. Why can’t I use it? Why do I have to spend all this time and energy to get my own place and then waste resources when I can just live at my parents’ place?” Hopefully that perception also comes with a sense of responsibility.

I do think this attitude is sincere, as though, as I’ve said, young people who stay with their parents may do so out of immaturity, the rise of this phenomenon doesn’t mean young people are becoming less mature. (Again I think of the fundamental attribution error.) I have a sense about my generation, and I haven’t confirmed it — (it may just be the type of older people I’m familiar with) — that when people of my generation do have their own place, they’re exceedingly generous with it. They tend to be much more open about sharing their place with friends and loved ones. Compared to older generations, who I sense as putting up boundaries and declaring a sense of ownership, I see younger generations as giving up ownership for a sense of community. Just as they want to feel welcome in their parents’ house, they want family and friends to feel welcome in their own. They’re less concerned with ownership and more concerned with how the place can be shared. This, to me, is very encouraging. Immaturity and inability to take responsibility for oneself or others may be the shadow side of this, though I don’t think it applies to everybody.

There’s always a shadow. A couple months ago in the Utne Reader, there was an article about Generation Y and our self-absorbtion, especially when it comes to our presence on the Internet. It’s MySpace, my everything! Some people are clearly stereotypes of this self-absorption, and I agree, there’s no shortage of evidence for it if you spend a little time browsing MySpace. However, it’s paradoxical that many have perceived this generation as more community-oriented than past generations, but also more self-absorbed! The author of this article seemed to generalise, and I don’t think she fully grasped the relationship between young people and Internet technologies. As I recall (and I can’t find the issue to refer to it) she said we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves and bearing ourselves to the world with our hearts on our sleeves. She called that self-absorption. Self-absorption is the shadow-side of this, but the other side, I believe, is that we’re intimately in touch with ourselves. We have a lot of what Howard Gardner calls intrapersonal intelligence. We use writing and the Internet as a tool for self-growth. We understand the therapeutic importance of sharing and being heard (unlike some of older generations who seem to prefer the method of bottling it up.) I write about myself. I enjoy it, and if that makes me a narcissist, so be it. I also enjoy listening to others write about themselves. I value self-awareness and I value honesty about ourselves because that’s my understanding of how relationships are formed.

Of the articles I read, especially interesting to me was “Hey, Under-30s Crowd, Have you Overdosed on Narcissism?“, not for the article itself, but for the hundreds of interesting comments readers posted in response to it on AlterNet. For example:

nc green wrote: “Why doesn’t some enterprising researcher find out why it’s always the oldest generation, the one doing research into the evils of Generation {n+2}, that kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people for money, power and ideology? Better yet, why not study how the oldest generation always manages to guilt-trip Generation {n + 2}, into fighting their useless wars for them?”

justaperson wrote: “Happiness and good health are found in the medians not in the extremes. This generation may have been too bolstered and pampered, but the generations before them were often brought up too harshly. Too many children were beaten, emotionally and verbally abused, and taught to believe only in a bleak future.”

There’s prejudice from young people against older generations: “[Boomers] screwed this country up: politically, economically, and especially environmentally. So why should they still be allowed to vote? It’s like letting a defendant with a proven criminal record sit on the jury to their own trial.”

And there’s prejudice from older people against younger ones. Take this exchange, for example:

timebomb734 posted a comment titled “young people need to be narcissists”: “The pressure to obsessively define oneself is not limited to the realm of myspace, facebook, and youtube. Have you applied to college recently? In an effort to admit ‘people,’ not transcripts has forced prospective students to be able to sell themselves as a package. Its 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 is article was ok, but most definitely overlooks the noble intentions behind the need to narcissitize.”

aislinnluv responded with a comment entitled “hello failure of the educational system”: “proofread, use grammarcheck, think. if you are applying to college, the people who read your essay will be impressed if you can construct a logical, grammatically correct sentence or two. the thought expressed was valid; however, to excel among your peers you need to work on your english skills – and PLEASE don’t invent words.”

This is an example of what social psychologists would call confirmation bias. There’s no reason to believe that aislinnluv would have thought twice about grammar or the making up of words or insinuated that timebomb734 was a “failure of the educational system” if he didn’t have preconceived notions about the younger generation, or if he thought the comment had been written by an older person. (Certainly, comments were written by older people with comparable grammar, but thanks to the confirmation bias, this poor young person was singled out.)

The thread continues, with timebomb734 replying (righteously so, I believe, with the title “hello asshole”): “Sorry my post was unintelligible. It was 2am; it’s now 7am and I still haven’t been to bed. Unfortunately, I was up all night working on a paper because I attend a prestigious college. The lack of sleep, six straight hours of utter concentration, and use of analytical thinking skills must have caused a lapse in my English ability while I took a break to check out alternet. So, that’s my excuse. Do you have an excuse for being a complete and total assumptive moron?”

Now, I can completely understand why timebomb734 would be upset, but some others, responding to this post, used it as evidence that timebomb734 *is* narcissistic! (Two other concepts in social psychology come to mind here: first, the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which one person {in this case aislinnluv} acts in such a way as to provoke the behaviour in another that s/he suspected all along. And secondly, the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to assume that a person’s behaviour says something about who they are, in terms of personality (“this person is a narcissist”) as opposed to the result of some situational context (in this case, being unfairly criticised.) If these people knew something about social psychology, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to make these assumptions. Or, perhaps, they’re banking on other people being unfamiliar with the concepts of social psychology, and not calling them on it!

I couldn’t read this without weighing in myself, and I wrote in defense of timebomb734:

Aislinnluv’s comment was unexpected and quite sad. Who’s not thinking? I don’t think you have anything to apologise for. (Oops! British spelling and dangling participle! I guess I need to learn a thing or two to “excel among my peers.”) Calling the poster an asshole may have been a bit much, and I don’t think {aislinnluv’s post} is worthy of that kind of recognition, but hey. Such expression of indignation is considered an appropriate response to racism. Why not ageism?

That someone should have to resort to that kind of ad hominem attack is more a reflection on them than you. Your comment was intelligible to me, and anyone who wastes their time complaining about it probably doesn’t have anything better to do. I could easily criticise aislinnluv for failure to use any capital letters whatsoever, and misuse of punctuation (a single “-” is technically not a hyphen at all), and wonder how THAT poster ranks among his/her peers but what would be the point?

If you said you were 40 would anyone think to question your grammar or the word “narcissitize”? Would the content or syntax of your comment even be an issue? Sadly, I think not.

What’s wrong with inventing words? It happens all the time. That’s how words enter the lexicon and how our language stays vibrant. So what if our generation does it more often than others? If people with a grudge against our generation have to harrumph about our propensity to invent words (in an informal online discussion group, of all places) something is very wrong. Please stop stereotyping…

And people have very different takes on this generation.

Take case one: “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-absorbtion present in this age group. 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 that they possess superior intellect; after all, they’ve ben told how wonderful they are since day one. They are shocked at receiving a bad grade, and are angry and abusive when they do. I don’t think that self-esteem can be given- it should be earned. This generation has been dosed with it regularly and we are seeing the effects of this parenting style. I am also appalled at how unaware and unconcerned most of my students are with the world. They are concerned with their own friends, cell phones, You-Tube, facebook/myspace, etc and not with critical environmental, social or political issues… There are as I noted earlier, some wonderful twenty-somethings out there who are committed to making a difference, but it seems that most of their peers are only committed to getting totally wasted as many nights as they can.”

And case two: “I am almost 65 years old and have worked with kids most of my life. I am a court certified expert on child developement and parenting issues, having worked for over ten years with parents in danger of having their parental rights terminated… My experience and observation is that this is a wonderful generation. They are thoughtful, kind, empathetic, and funny. I would like to remind you that a recent study showed that the majority of people dying of drug overdoses are aging baby boomers — not Millenials. Of course this generation has some narcacistic members, every generation does. And, to some degree, all teens are self-centered. The major task of the teen is to give over childhood and develop an adult self. You can’t do this without being more self-centered than either children or adults. However, in my rather long career, I have never seen a less narciscistic generation than the current one. I have never seen a generation that was more attached to parents and respectful of values.”

A few comments about case one in particular: 1.) what if this need for getting A’s has to do with the immense pressure that’s placed on us? What if doing the minimal acceptible work has to do with this work being minimally relevant? What if we’re interested in MEANING and we’re not getting it? 2.) We don’t care about social/political issues? My parents’ generation is more likely to read the newspaper, yes, but I don’t see that they’re getting anything out of it. It doesn’t challenge their predetermined beliefs. And I don’t see them going out and acting on this understanding of the world, gleaned from newspapers, and attempting to make a positive difference in the world. 3.) Concern for one’s own friends is a GOOD thing. 4.) Young people I know are surprisingly aware of environmental issues. People I knew in high school, who at the time I would have least expected to come to such an awareness, are now thinking about sustainability. On the other hand, many of us are cynical, and feel powerless; this can come off as apathy and ignorance. 5.) “committed to getting totally wasted as many nights as they can.” Remind you of any other generations you know?

According to an article on CNN Money: “They’re ambitious, they’re demanding and they question everything, so if there isn’t a good reason for that long commute or late night, don’t expect them to do it. When it comes to loyalty, the companies they work for are last on their list – behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves.”

Bruce Tulgan, quoted in that article, says: “”This is the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world. The good news is they’re also going to be the most high-performing workforce in the history of the world. They walk in with more information in their heads, more information at their fingertips – and, sure, they have high expectations, but they have the highest expectations first and foremost for themselves.”

You may know from reading this blog that I’m interested in the REINVENTION of work. I believe that all true work is about bringing health and wholeness in some form to people and the planet. If a company displaces thousands of locals, pollutes local watersheds, takes advantage of employess, uses massive resources, and produces a product that is overconsumed and doesn’t serve to bring health and wholeness into the world, I’d say, it’s not genuine work. Practically, some people in this world must work at jobs that aren’t intrinsically meaningful, but I believe we can reinvent work so that it BECOMES meaningful. It’s hypocrisy to demand that work become meaningful if we continue to demand in our personal lives that which is superfluous: if we continue to overconsume and aren’t able to delay gratification when we want something. I hope my generation can learn to do that. However this trend of young people questioning everything in the workplace is very hopeful to me. I hope we never stop questioning, but I also hope we learn to cooperate. I hope we keep asking why we’re doing what we’re asked to do, but I hope that when it’s relevant and meaningful, we work with an unfettered passion. I hope we keep demanding meaning and relevance in what we do. I hope we don’t blindly accept the baby boomer mentality that economic growth is good for its own sake. (I believe it’s good only to the extent that it fulfills genuine human needs.)

If Generation Y doesn’t back down, we will transform work; and it’s bound to be much more meaningful… and interesting! … in the future.


~ by dewiniaeth on June 24, 2007.

11 Responses to “Generation Y: Narcissistic and Self-Absorbed?”

  1. Awesome post! Thank you. Your insight into your generation is refreshing.

  2. David_A._Winter

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  3. I’m 38, Generation X, but I have begun using myspace and facebook and after feeling weird about it at first, I really enjoy it. I have been surprised at the reaction I get from those as old or older than me. I think your essay here really gets at the heart of this matter.


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  5. Sounds crazy. I want to improve my incisive guard A joke for you peoples! Why do gorillas have big nostrils? Because they have big fingers.

  6. Sorry, but as a Gen Xer, the generation after us, whatever you want to call them, is extremely self-absorbed, narcissistic, entitled-seeming, and lacking in developed social skills. It’s just the way it is.

    • @prh

      and that’s coming from someone whose only supporting argument for your brazen assertions is “it’s just the way it is.” If you think that’s a sensible position to take after reading this article, then you’re the one with the problem.

      • “you’re the one with the problem” is a prime example of the faults we are finding in gen Y.

  7. This was a very well thoughtout blog for such a young adult. But I do agree with the Gen Xer that the current generation of 16-20 somethings are very me me me and more me please. I see it a lot here in Las Vegas it’s a very spoiled brattish town.

    So much so that back in 2008 when my husband and I took a two-week road trip to Oregan, Washington and Canada we were shocked to fine people with manners! We thought the whole country was as self-absorbed as Vegans.

    While this current generation was less entitled in the areas on our trip than they are here it is still hard to grasp a less respectful attitude toward their elders (us).

    I’m at the end of the Baby Boomers but I wouldn’t even think of behaving like a lot of these kids do today for fear my parents and my elders would smack my brains out for the thought I was harboring inside. Even some of my own nieces and nephews are rude, insensitive, me-oriented and they were not raised that way in their homes. Once they left home they changed, found their voice and now throw it back at us while expecting us to accept their disrespectful behavior.

    It’s not acceptable. Not at any age. Not from me, from you, from them. Not from anybody.

    If we all have something to say let’s at least do it with manners. Show some social graces please. I’m not asking for a lot. Just a little of your time with kindness. Thank you.

  8. There is more to this issue than the fact that so many young people are living with the parents. This younger generation (excluding a few that were not raised the same way) has grown up to have immediate expectations of others that leave older generations in shock & horror.

    This recent generation goes to an entry level job interview to negotiate wages, their parents decide what college they will attend, what they will study & where they will live. They expect to be given more understanding from bosses, co-workers, teachers, neighbours, friends, and family members than what is the norm.

    They have a disturbing lack of feeling & understanding for others including those less fortunate. They behave as if the world owes them something and they have some idea that people worse off than they are deserve their misfortune or did it to themselves.

    They have an “everyone out for themselves” mind set. They were raised to be very out-spoken & overly confident. Most of these kids can recite the human rights act, but would be lost at the request for a bible verse or prayer.

    They were taught to be tolerant, but not generous. They were taught the importance of speaking up, but not the value of being quiet. They were raised with technology, but without the skills necessary to live without it. They were taught to save the earth, but not work it. They were taught to love & respect themselves, but not others.

    I can hear many arguing already. Of course, my definition of love & respect may well be different than yours (especially if you are one of these young people).

    This generation we speak of complains A LOT, works far less, demands much more, is not content, is highly stressed, is deeply unhappy, and is very materialistic. They lean toward comfort & believe that comfort comes from material things. They have sadly lost touch with many basic skills and simple values (no thanks to their parents generation).

    I believe one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is to want their child to have more than they did growing up. This is something I have heard many times. I’ve also watched the children of these parents grow up and the failure in this choice. Children, in my opinion, should have a little bit of what they want and all of what they need. No child should “have everything” and no parent should strive to give them “more” unless it is love or a gift from the heart- not the store!

    It’s nice to see a young person making the effort to explore this issue, but it’s still too one sided for me. Bridging the gap cannot come from hearing both sides, but from understanding both sides and meeting somewhere down the middle. Let’s not forgot this new generation is still quite young and does not have the experience under their belt to understand the older generations side of the issue yet. My response is also one-sided, but I was here before you were & I watched your generation grow up.

  9. **I will add (all morals aside): Have you ever been in a store when the power goes out? If you ever are, observe the cashiers response. They shut down and are completely unable to function or process a payment. It is very sad, indeed. If you are not able to make simple math calculations, all the technology in the world can’t help you.

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