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Gen Y: Really All That Narcissistic?


A study says so, but Tammy Erickson thinks it's really more about the younger generation having healthy self-esteem

It's popular today to point out that Gen Ys as children often received trophies for simple participation and extensive praise for just about any idea. Detractors criticize Y's (individuals born between 1980 and 2000) as products of a misguided movement in parenting and education designed to buffer children from the negative effects of competition and build self-esteem -- an approach, they argue, that has filled them with false self-confidence. Some claim that self-esteem without achievement to back it up has produced an unmotivated and self-aggrandizing generation. Ouch!

Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, goes on to conclude that Ys are narcissistic: focused only on themselves and incapable of acknowledging or appreciating others' points of view or circumstances. Twenge's conclusions are based on her analysis of the data from a standardized narcissistic personality inventory, in which respondents score themselves against statements such as "I think I am a special person." Analyzing data from published reports, Twenge concluded that the average college student is 30 percent more narcissistic in 2006 than was the average student in 1982.

I find this conclusion quite dramatic -- true narcissism is a serious disorder -- and quite different from my actual experiences with Gen Ys. I wonder if we are seeing something similar to a reenactment of the old telephone game -- where one person says something to another, who passes it along to a third, who inevitably gets the message a tiny bit wrong -- just off by enough so as to render it fundamentally misleading.

Here's what I think may have happened. There is a very real difference between clinical narcissism and healthy self-esteem. However, the semantics with which we describe the difference are fairly slight and may have been influenced by the changing cultural context. The dictionary even defines "narcissism" -- okay, granted, the fourth definition -- as "the attribute of the human psyche characterized by admiration of oneself but within normal limits." And some of the descriptors include: people who love themselves, are optimistic, achievers, self promoting, self assured, success driven, and ambitious, think they can charm anyone, think they are better looking than most people (which they may or may not be), believe that they are special, are more a leader than a follower, and so on. Sound familiar to anyone? I suspect many Gen Ys have been encouraged from their earliest years to feel that most of these characteristics, at least to some degree, are highly desirable.

Think of the Supreme Court's struggle to define "obscenity" -- and the clear recognition that our shared definition is both community-specific and changing over time. What would have clearly been obscene in the 1950s would hardly raise an eyebrow in some communities today.

I wonder if the same isn't perhaps true for the language used in the instruments that researchers have used to conclude that Gen Ys are more narcissistic than generations past? Could it be that our cultural norms have shifted? That the parenting messages Ys received throughout their adolescence influence the way that generation would answer the standardized inventory? Shifted the implications of the various descriptors?

For example, in 1982, saying that you were a "special person" would have been a fairly odd thing to do. However, today, after a lifetime of eating off those darn red "You Are Special Today" plates, that phrase has lost its punch. You would probably be a bit odd -- or at least a slow learner -- if you hadn't been conditioned to believe that they correct answer to the question of whether or not you are a special person is an unqualified "yes." But I doubt that answer, given our current cultural norms around this sort of language, packs the same clinical punch that it did a quarter of a century ago.

The critics are concerned that the culture of praise Ys experienced as a child will reach deeply into the adult world, suggesting that they feel insecure if they're not regularly complimented. Bosses are being made to feel the need to lavish praise on young adults with the threat that they will wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit.

I'll let a member of Gen Y rebut this last point. "Young workers today aren't all spoiled attaboy-addicts," says Ryan Paugh, 23-year-old co-founder of EmployeeEvolution.com. While he agrees that twentysomethings today may be hungrier for feedback than previous generations were, he adds, "People think of praise in the coddling sense. But what we want is guidance and mentoring -- and praise when [my emphasis] we're on track.

What do you think? Have our cultural norms changed? Are Gen Ys really narcissistic?

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