Douthat tries to square the conventional wisdom that millennials are especially idealistic with a new study showing that today's college kids are less empathetic than their counterparts of the '80s and '90s:
[M]aybe they actually go hand in hand. There’s a kind of humanitarianism that’s more interested in an abstract “humanity” than in actual people, and a kind of idealism that’s hard to distinguish from moral vanity. Perhaps this is the spirit that’s at work among the empathy-deficient world-changers of Generation Y visible, for instance, in the way that community service has become a self-interested resume-padding exercise for ambitious young climbers, or in the way that Barack Obama’s rhetoric (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” etc.) managed to appeal to younger voters’ idealism and flatter their egos all at once.
On the other hand, this could also be grounds for a defense of narcissism, at least up to a point. Maybe too much empathy is crippling, and a little solipsism is a necessary spur to action. If a little “look out world, here I come” self-centeredness is what it takes to get young people involved in charity work or political campaigning, the theory might go, then so much the better for self-centeredness!