Millennials are the "ME ME ME GENERATION," writes Joel Stein for the cover of Time magazine, which is apparently a marked departure from the Baby Boomers, who were the plain old "Me Generation" (one me, no caps) and who created the "Me Decade" in the 1970s, and who coined the phrase, "But enough about me… what do you think about me?" in the 1980s when they were raising the next narcissists, Generation X. Sometimes you get the sense that these magazines' cultural writers have very little experience with the entire American culture, and prefer to make their grand analyses based on what people they know in the gentrified parts of cities like New York and Los Angeles were talking about at brunch last weekend. The type of young person that magazine writers come across most frequently are magazine interns. Because the media industry is high-status, but, at least early on, very low pay in a very expensive city, it attracts a lot of rich kids. Entitled, arrogant, spoiled, preening — those are the alleged signature traits of Millennials, as diagnosed by countless magazine writers. Those traits curiously align perfectly with the signature traits of a rich kid. Have you seen your intern on Rich Kids of Instagram? If so, he or she is probably not the best guide to crafting the composite personality of a generation that fought three wars for you.
To Stein's credit, he has some sociological research to make his case — he brings "the cold, hard data." However, much of his data can be countered by other data. For example, Stein writes:
Their development is stunted: more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80 percent of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60 percent did.
Yes, people are marrying later and the economy sucks. The unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, a full point lower, if Washington — you might know them as "old people" — hadn't implemented spending cuts in 2011, The New York Times reports. As for laziness, the chart at right shows that as worker productivity has soared, wages have remained stagnant. We're all working hard, we're just not getting paid.
But here is Stein's most important bit of data:
The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that's now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.
About that. There is another paper over at NIH.gov that argues that that is kind of maybe completely wrong. In a 2010 paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science and titled "It Is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me," Brent W. Roberts. Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva write:
First, we show that when new data on narcissism are folded into preexisting meta-analytic data, there is no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades. Second, we show, in contrast, that age changes in narcissism are both replicable and comparatively large in comparison to generational changes in narcissism.
Basically, it's not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it's that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It's like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences. Further, they write:
In turn, when older people are told that younger people are getting increasingly narcissistic, they may be prone to agree because they confuse the claim for generational change with the fact that younger people are simply more narcissistic than they are. The confusion leads to an increased likelihood that older individuals will agree with the Generation Me argument despite its lack of empirical support.
Hahaha, you doddering old confused fools! Generation Abe Simpson!
For some visual evidence of this phenomenon, here is a century or so of culture writers declaring the youth to be self-obsessed little monsters.
The Atlantic, September 1907: In the cover story, "Why American Marriages Fail," Anna A. Rogers warned, "The rock upon which most of the flower-bedecked marriage barges go to pieces is the latter-day cult of individualism; the worship of the brazen calf of the Self."
Life, May 17, 1968: "The Generation Gap." An uncle and his 20-year-old nephew detail their experiences living together one summer. It goes how you'd expect, except that Uncle Ernie tried weed for the first time. Like, one time, Ernie met his nephew's friends at a diner:
Then somebody said, "Would you take the Dow account?"
"You bet," I said.
"Even though they make napalm?" he asked. ...
Even as I said it I knew the phrase to make a living could have absolutely no meaning to these children of the affluent society.
New York, August 23, 1976: "The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Tom Wolfe opened this story with a sobering account of some kind of Los Angeles thing in which a couple hundred people got together and pressed "the reset button" on something that really bothered them, and for one lady, that thing was hemorrhoids. "In her experience lies the explanation of certain grand puzzles of the 1970s, a period that will come to be known as the Me Decade."
New York Times, October 17, 1976: "'76 Politics Fail to Disturb Campus Calm and Cynicism." The youth were too busy navel gazing to care about politics. "The Now Generation has become the Me Generation," the Times said. A photo of a napping youth read, "A student at UCLA was more interested in an afternoon nap last week than a speech by Gary Familian, a Democratic House candidate."
The Washington Monthly, February 1980: Greg Easterbrook wrote about how young people were having trouble coupling in "Fear of Success" (subhed: "If you want me, she said, I’ll be hiding under the bed"). And while he said we can't blame everything on self-obsession, he did acknowledge a major social trend. "It is tempting to see willing disappointment in romance as a symptom of self-obsession: since no lover can rival in grandeur the upper-case Self, what is to be gained from giving one's affection? But me-mania is a fashion, not a level of spirit." This was plugged on the cover as "THE NOT-ME GENERATION."
Newsweek, December 30, 1985: "The Video Generation." There they are, those preening narcissists who have to document every banal moment with their cutting-edge communications technology.
Time, July 16, 1990: Cover: "Twentysomething." Inside: "Proceeding With Caution." Yes, like every generation, Gen X was a bunch of screwups: "They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder… They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial… They postpone marriage because they dread divorce." However, in 1990, Time ranked them as not as terrible as their parents on at least one score: "By and large, the 18-to-29 group scornfully rejects the habits and values of the baby boomers, viewing that group as self-centered, fickle and impractical." That scorn does not lead to being much different. "Like Madonna in her hit song 'Vogue,' this generation knows how to 'strike a pose.'"
Swing, September 1996: "Generational Warfare." Look out old man, there's a well-groomed nihilist in his sexual prime coming your way.
Time, August 6, 2007: "It's All About Me." China's "twentysomethings" had boldly gone where every other generation had gone before.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.