I read a pretty interesting article in the New York Times today about narcissism in the Millennial generation called “Seeing Narcissists Everywhere.” Interesting, but not particularly shocking. The article centered on a psychologist named Jean M. Twenge who, in 2006, wrote a book called Generation Me that seemed to sort of jumpstart this national conversation. She wrote another book in 2009 entitled, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
As I stay, the story is a familiar one. Supposedly, my generation is the generation of self-obsession, laziness, materialism, and a lack of any sense of communal obligation or identification, as exemplified by the rise of social media and, per the NYT article’s paraphrase of Dr. Twenge, “America’s culture of self-esteem, in which parents praise every child as “special,” and feelings of self-worth are considered a prerequisite to success, rather than a result of it.” Now, first of all, I have a problem with self-worth being equated to narcissism, but that’s neither here nor there.
As the Times points out, Twenge has plenty of critics in the psychology community, from her methods to her interpretation of the data. Some cite the questions from a questionnaire she uses heavily, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, as “better designed to measure feelings of confidence and self-worth than actual narcissism.” If you click through that link, you can take the test yourself and be the judge of it yourself. The test asks you to choose between two statements that which better describes you. Some examples: “I have a natural talent for influencing people./I am not good at influencing people.” “I would do almost anything on a dare./I tend to be a fairly cautious person.” “The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me./If I ruled the world it would be a better place.”
My criticism is obviously a little more biased than that of Twenge’s colleagues. I belong to the generation in question. Here’s the part where I could tell stories of friends cutting themselves and battling eating disorders or struggling in a mire of seemingly inescapable depression. Or I could even tell stories of my peers sacrificing comfort, ease, and sometimes safety for the good of their friends and families. But instead of going too deep down that rabbit hole, I want to ask a question: if my generation really is what she says we are, is this any way to go about responding?
If the Millennial generation is a generation of ego and narcissism, trumpeting on the cover of every news magazine and the beginning of every talk show just how narcissistic we are and, implicitly, how much better your generation is, isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s not humbling, it’s infuriating. Where is the logic that targeting a generation about how awful they are and how much they don’t care about their community is going to get them to try and give back to the community attacking them?
It’s very hard to begin cross-generational relationships when you’re aware that other generations look down on you, and not just because of your age. This whole conversation is a self-defeating cycle. By telling us how much we’ve alienated ourselves from others, you’re alienating us further.
But there is a solution. Instead of screaming at us to join you, maybe try reaching out instead. Or, even better, lead by example. If you really want to get Millennials’ eyes off their phones, get your eyes off of yours. If you want us to start caring more about community, create a community that we can actually be a part of.
Apparently Dr. Twenge also consults for colleges and companies about how to work with Millennials. I sure hope she’s not telling you to target our narcissism problem.