Study: Opportunities in Young Adulthood Linked to Later Narcissism

People who come of age during a recession are less likely to be narcissists later in life. The humbling experience of struggling through a down economy as a young adult seems to leave its mark.

There has been much debate over which generation, exactly, is the “Me” generation. Is it Millennials? Is it Baby Boomers? People have been taking selfies for pretty much as long as there have been cameras, after all. And painting them before that. There have always been and will always be narcissists, and, seemingly, we will always be horrified by their entitlement. But if there are generational differences in narcissism, a new study published in Psychological Science suggests that they might be attributable to the economy.

Emily Bianchi of Emory University notes in the study that “economic recessions tend to be particularly devastating for young adults,” who are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid during a down economy than older adults with more experience. It stands to reason that such an experience could have a lasting effect, that what you get (or don’t get) when you’re just starting out as a working adult could shape your views of what you think you deserve.

To test the connection between narcissism and the economy, first a group of 1,572 people born between 1947 and 1994 completed an online survey, which measured their narcissism using the 40-question Narcissism Personality Inventory. It also measured their self-esteem, narcissism’s more positive, healthy cousin. Bianchi looked at this data in conjunction with the average national unemployment rate when participants were between the ages of 18 and 25, and found that higher unemployment rates during participants’ young adulthood were linked to lower narcissism scores later in life, even when controlling for gender and education. She also found that the state of the economy when participants were a little older, between 26 and 33 years old, did not have a similar correlation with narcissism. A second, larger study, looking at data from more than 30,000 people in the U.S. had similar results.

Lastly, to see if these different levels of narcissism were related to any appreciable differences in behavior, Bianchi looked at CEO compensation. Previous research has shown that more narcissistic CEOs tend to pay themselves more, relative to the next most-highly-paid person at the company. In a study of more than 2,000 CEOs of major publicly traded companies in the U.S. during 2007—that year chosen because before the financial crisis started in 2008, “compensation decisions were not likely to be constrained by public scrutiny and economic turmoil”—CEOs that entered adulthood in worse economies had smaller gaps between their compensation and that of the next most-highly-paid person in their companies.

“People who came of age during tumultuous economic times were less likely to endorse items suggesting that they were unique, special, and entitled to superior outcomes relative to people who entered adulthood in more prosperous times,” the study reads.

It seems that the humbling experience of struggling through a recession shapes people, leaving them less narcissistic than they might have been had they found success in a thriving economy. However, the study notes that this could be both good and bad for the humbler children of recessions. “Narcissists are often well-liked in initial interactions and are effective at claiming resources for themselves,” Bianchi writes. “In this regard, the present results could help explain why entering the workforce in an economic boom continues to confer advantages even decades into people’s careers.”