“The National Institutes of Health found that for people in their 20s, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is three times as high than the generation that’s 65 or older…”
Millennials have been loaded with negative stereotypes: lazy, entitled, or what seems to be the media favorite, narcissistic. A recent Time magazine article managed to fit all three adjectives into one title in the cover-story, “The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” Ouch.
— Rachel Gall, So-Called Millennial.com
The burning question of whether the much-debated Millennial Generation (people born between about 1981 and 2004,according to William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory, which is based on historical cycles, and uses a set of dates I prefer to the more popular dates used in mass media that refer to anyone born from 1976 to 1991 or so as “Generation Y”) are entitled, narcissistic spoiled brats continues to be a popular and controversial topic.
Like every youth generation ever since the Baby Boomers started thumbing their noses at The Establishment’s stultifying conformity back in the ’60s with their pot, patchouli, and peace signs, when the media first discovered the coming of age Millennials about a decade ago, its initial reaction was one of disdain and dismissal–it was immediately assumed that all Millennials were spoiled, indulged narcissists who cared about no one but themselves, their iPhones and iPods, and having the best looking and coolest MySpace or Facebook profile.
“[you are] so self-obsessed. Tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys, and Snapchatting your YOLOS.” Our social media feeds are being filled with our favorite subjects: Me, Me, and Me……“Us Baby Boomers are very upset, because self-absorption is kinda our thing.”
–comedian Stephen Colbert
But recently, writers and bloggers all over the web and in the news are beginning to question the validity of the narcissistic Millennial stereotype. Two fairly recent articles–from opposite sides of the political spectrum, no less: Are Millennials Deluded Narcissists (Forbes Magazine) and The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial (The Atlantic Monthly), both defend Millennials and offered reasons why they may not be all that narcissistic, or at least why any narcissism they do have should be blamed on other things like the narcissistic, materialistic, and individualistic society they grew up in, a society that keeps up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians) and thinks greed is good. There are many other articles and news pieces that have been making the same arguments. New York Magazine posted this insightful article, completely disputing the idea that Millennials are no-good narcissistic Red Bull-guzzling basement dwellers taking advantage of their parents’ generosity.
Even when they still have the N label pinned to them, at least the accusers are placing the blame on things like the economy, lack of decent jobs, the extortionist prices of higher education and decent health care, and the astronomical amounts of money Millennial college grads owe for student loans that were supposed to make it possible for them to earn the kind of money to be able to pay back the loan and become productive middle class citizens. But instead, being in debt to Sally Mae in a stagnating economic environment burdened this disappointed and angry generation of unemployed and underemployed young people–20-somethings with college or even graduate degrees–with having to take low-paying McJobs or put up with the cold and factory-like environment of call centers (but which pay far less and offer fewer benefits than factory work, whose workers at least had the unions on their side). Then, to add insult to injury, those McJobs pay such dismally low wages there’s little or no hope of ever being able to pay back the loans they hoped would give them a foot in the door to a successful life, or even allow them to move out of their childhood home.
Most Millennials, unless they are very lucky, very talented and manage to procure the right connections and contacts, find at some point they will probably default on their student loans, which in turn earn them the accusation from conservative foghorns like Fox News, that they are entitled takers and moochers, feeding shamelessly off the government teat and living, Morlock-like, in the damp dark caverns of mom and dad’s basement, growing fat and pasty as they play with their collection of high tech gadgets that enable them to become an Internet star if the video or meme they just made goes viral.
In fact, going viral on the interwebs may be the most sure way a Millennial can ever become successful in our current sick and unstable economy and general diminishing quality of life for all but the very rich. Millennials are being forced to sink or swim in a society that has become increasingly compassionless and narcissism-glorifying. So they’re finding their own well of hope and opportunity, and that well seems to spring from social media, Youtube and reality TV.
Don’t knock it. Going viral by sheer luck and the fortuitous timing of a Youtube video is basically what happened to Justin Beiber; crime victim and folk hero Antoine Dodson, whose impassioned and unintentially hilarious rant on a local news station was transformed into a huge iTunes hit and made him an overnight star; and many other Millennial pop stars. Probably the biggest success story of all is that of Mark Zuckerburg, the multibillionaire twentysomething founder and CEO of Facebook, which he started in his spare time as an ingenious way to chat online to his college buddies from his dorm room at Harvard.
If you have a halfway decent voice, you can win a record deal or at least a little temporary fame by auditioning for reality/game shows like The Voice, America Has Talent, or American Idol. Hey, you could be the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood! If you can cook (and can tolerate the constant narcissistic rants of the cooking shows’ mean hosts such as Gordon Ramsey from Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef), well you can win your own restaurant and become rich.
What if you have no talents at all? No problem. You can still get on a reality show, even if you’re a teen mom who never graduated from high school, or a bitchy girl who likes to get into catfights with other bitchy girls. You can get rich just by acting like a jerk on TV, or doing nothing at all. And let’s be honest here: that sure beats working in Wal-Mart’s underwear department and not being able to pay your rent because your student loan debt exceeds what you earn in your dead end job. Who wouldn’t do it? Reality shows may be dumb and glorify stupidity and bad behavior, but we can blame their popularity on the uncertainty of the hope of gainful employment obtained in more traditional, socially acceptable ways.
So what generation wins the title of Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?
Personally, I would give that dubious honor to the Boomers (born from 1943-1960 according to Strauss and Howe; the popular media range is 1946-1964), the pig-in-a-python generation that pretty much turned the conformist, narrow minded, and yet community oriented and moderately altruistic Pax Americana of the post-war years into the self-worshipping, narcissistic, greedy, materialistic, hedonistic, glory mongering morass of misery and despair it has become since Reagan’s trickle down economics became sanctioned as a way to piss (trickle down) on the poor; since Rush Limbaugh’s ugly epithets toward everyone who wasn’t white, conservative, Christian, heterosexual and male became widely accepted as sound advice; since G.W. Bush gave us permission to “Go shopping!” after the 9/11 disaster and its shortlived mood of national solidarity after the attacks.
Millennials didn’t create or want this narcissistic, selfish society. They were born and raised during a time of economic uncertainty, philandering presidents whose actions became widely discussed, 24/7 coverage of heroes-turned-villains (O.J. Simpson), and a general atmosphere of increasing political discord and animosity toward those who weren’t like yourself. Millennials were often raised by single parents who were struggling to make ends meet in our crumbling society, or passed back and forth between divorced parents. Millennials are reacting the only way they can react to a society that denigrates them, gives them no opportunities, ships potential jobs overseas, makes it impossible to earn enough money to move out of their parents’ homes, and generally places them in a no-win situation.
Where Boomers could protest Vietnam and attend a huge 4 day rock festival held on a farm, and win publicity (if not glorification) in the media over their countercultural activities, Millennials’ “Occupy” movement of late 2011–a movement that wasn’t anti-establishment or countercultural but just an expression of their desire to be treated fairly and be given more opportunities–was quickly silenced by the media. A year later, you barely heard of it anymore. We are still hearing about the Vietnam and civil rights protests of the 1960s and the womens’ and gay rights movements of the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong–those were all good causes and I agree with them–but why are Millennials being silenced for nothing more radical than wanting a decent job and a measure of respect?
Although born at the butt-end of the Boom generation (and thereby almost X), I don’t consider myself a Boomer and find myself balking at my inclusion within it; nor do I truly identify with Gen-Xers. I actually consider myself a member of Generation Jones (a subgeneration that straddles both Boom and X and contains characteristics of both Boomers and Xers and includes a few of their own). Anyway, I highly recommend reading Strauss and Howe’s books, 1991’s Generations and its 1997 followup, The Fourth Turning, both which describe the way history runs in cycles of four “seasons” that produce four corresponding archetypal generational types that repeat themselves at approximately 80 year intervals, and how the interplay of the generational “constellation” and the turning (national mood) at hand impacts history and society.
But I have digressed from my original point. Boomers as the most narcissistic generation ever is not an unpopular notion. Politics, big religion and entertainment is glutted with narcissistic, bombastic Boomers who bloviate over their greatness, judge the rest of us harshly, shove religion down our throats, and show their hypocrisy by demanding obedience, family values, and morality when they themselves showed their disdain for the very same things when they were younger.
Boomers started the “Me Decade” of the 1970s–an unbridled era of vanity, designer drugs, designer jeans, pleasure seeking and hedonism; before that, during their younger, more idealistic phase, Boomers naively promised they could change the world through music, eastern forms of meditation, and psychedelic drugs. During the 1980s, they morphed into the selfish, greedy Yuppies, and by the 1990s, they had taken over the political landscape, becoming ever more bombastic, judgmental and just plain uncivil and nasty to anyone who disagreed with them.
Staying young and fit forever became the collective goal of the Boomer generation once they became disillusioned with their youthful idealism following Woodstock and Watergate. Perhaps due to their huge numbers and a firey passion and culture of cool that first enchanted and then took over the American imagination as early as the late 1960s, they grew up into adults who thought they were immortal, invincible, forever young and vital. They started the health and organic food craze of the late 1970s and 1980s and has continued to this day. They told us how we should all eat, look, exercise, worship, raise our children, and live our lives. And if you didn’t follow their rules and became sick or poor, well that was your own fault for lacking self discipline and strength of will. Even into their 60s and early 70s, Boomers are getting facelifts and liposuction, in a sad attempt to resurrect the appearance they had 30 or more years ago, Of course they’re just getting old like everyone else, but they refuse to confront it.
What about Generation X?
Poor Generation X (born 1961-1981, according to Strauss and Howe) is like the ignored middle child–or even the scapegoated child in a narcissistic or dysfunctional family. Having children was unpopular when they were being born, with more and more women shunning motherhood in favor of moving up the corporate ladder. Telling someone you were pregnant was usually met with side-eye by the cool people, and if you had the gall to admit you wanted to have more than two children, people looked at you like you were an unenlightened throwback to the 1950s. Getting on the “Pill” was what every young woman wanted to do.
Movies made about children during the 1960s and 1970s depicted kids as evil, demonic, bratty or badly behaved. Child psychologists recommended letting kids do whatever they wanted, which basically meant neglecting them. During the child-hating 1970s, “Latchkey” kids became the norm rather than the exception. Even “throwaway” kids, kicked out of their homes by parents who cared more about themselves than about their children, weren’t especially uncommon, especially in urban areas.
Not surprisingly, Generation X grew up with collective low self esteem, and while their humor can be dry, cynical, and full of snark, it is almost always self-deprecating. They have grown into adults in their late 30’s to early 50’s who tend to embrace traditional values, take on DIY projects, are politically and morally conservative, and believe in practical solutions rather than unproved theories. They don’t trust those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They’re overprotective of their children and highly critical of the Boomers before them.
Middle aged Gen-Xers appear to accept the aging process fairly well, pretty much resigned to the inevitable. Hey, it’s better than the alternative. They’re not lining up at plastic surgeon’s offices for facelifts and body sculpting. While there are definitely narcissistic Gen-Xers (and I could list a lot), their generation as a whole seems the opposite of narcissistic–perhaps they’re avoidant or suffering collective PTSD. They are having problems in the workplace too–squeezed between older Boomers who refuse to retire, and Millennials wanting to take their places at the lower level jobs many Gen-Xers haven’t been able to move up from because of Boomers who refuse to pass on the torch.
Millennials are not a generation of narcissists; they are the victims of the narcissistic society they are trying to fit into without too much success. Their behavior shows frustrated young people who are just trying to find their footing and their place in the world, but no one seems to want to help give them a hand up, just blame them for failing to navigate the obstacles they never put there and never asked for.
Disclaimer: I’m well aware that every generation has its good and bad individuals, and there are certainly narcissistic Millennials and Gen-Xers, as well as unselfish and truly good Boomers. I’m generalizing about the generations as a whole, not their individual members.