Why Won’t People Stop Accusing Millennials of Narcissism?

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People are still lobbing the same accusations at Millennials, even though evidence shows they’re not any more self-absorbed than their predecessors.

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Whether it’s Time‘s 2013 cover story “The Me, Me, Me Generation” or Kluger’s book, the same statistics are cited as proof of Millennial narcissism. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality, San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge found that narcissistic behaviors among college students studied over a 27-year period had increased significantly from the 1970s. A second study published in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health showed that 9.4 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds exhibit extreme narcissism, compared with 3.2 percent of those older than 65.

But there’s a problem with all of this evidence: The data is unreliable. “It’s incredibly unfair to call Millennials narcissistic, or to say they’re more so than previous generations,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the Twentysomething Years. Arnett has devoted a significant amount of time and research to disproving the statistics that San Diego State’s Twenge has built a career on. He says that her assertion that narcissistic behaviors among young people have risen 30 percent is flimsy, since she’s basing it around data collected from the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the results of which leave quite a bit up for interpretation. For example, does agreement with statements like “I am assertive” or “I wish I were more assertive” measure narcissism, self-esteem, or leadership?

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Culturally, narcissism has become a catchphrase of sorts for traits people deem unpleasant or unlikable in a person, similar to how people will say they have obsessive-compulsive disorder just because they’re fastidious or detail-oriented, rather than because they meet the actual clinical diagnosis. If you love to talk about yourself, but you also show empathy for others, you’re not a narcissist. If you’re extremely confident at work but you’re good at accepting criticism, you’re probably not a narcissist either.