Will the Real Gen Y Please Stand Up

March 2, 2007 | By Neil Howe, William Strauss

Is the narcissism of young people a fearsome national problem? Absolutely, according to a new study by San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge. In a book published last year, “Generation Me,” and a new report issued this week, Twenge draws a portrait of under-socialized young people fated to depression, self-destruction, violence and civic decay as they grow older.

Her study, “Egos Inflating Over Time,” draws on 25 years of personality surveys that test youth for narcissism. Today’s teenagers stand condemned for being more likely to agree with statements such as “I think I am a special person.” The study’s conclusions fuel endless negative media commentary on today’s kids that will always find an audience—stories about crime, cheating, sexual license and celebrity worship.

But Twenge and others are wildly mistaken about the Millennial generation—those born since the early 1980s, which some persist in calling Generation Y. No matter what teens say on surveys, there is scant evidence that they act more selfishly. In fact, the trends in youth behavior support the opposite conclusion—namely, that Millennials have much greater regard for each other, their parents and the community than Gen X’ers or baby boomers had at the same phase of life.

Consider crime as an obvious index of self-centered behavior. Since 1994, the rate at which people under age 25 commit serious violent crimes has fallen by more than 60%. Even as states build new prisons, the incarcerated population under age 25 is shrinking.

Or look at the rate of pregnancy and abortion for girls under age 18, both of which are down by roughly one-third since the mid-’90s. Apparently (experts say) teenagers are having sex less and protecting themselves more, backtracking against the sexual revolution ignited by the boomers.

Drug abuse too is a classic barometer of self-involved behavior. According to the highly regarded annual Monitoring the Future survey, cigarette and alcohol consumption in grades 8, 10 and 12 are now at their lowest levels since the survey began in 1975. The rate of illicit drug use is much lower for today’s kids than it was for their parents when they were in high school.

Selfish kids would seem unlikely to get along with their parents. Yet several surveys indicate that today’s teenagers are very close to their moms and dads. Record numbers claim they “share their parents values” or “have no problem with any family member.” Increasingly they say they want to live near their parents later in life—a reassuring prospect if Social Security collapses under the demographic weight of the boomers.

A healthy civic indicator is the boom in youth volunteering, a finding the “Egos” study discounts because so many high schools require community service. But other indicators point to the same positive trend. Voting rates for Americans 25 and younger have surged since the late 1990s. According to the UCLA College Freshman survey, 76% of new college arrivals, a record high, now say that “raising a family” is a very important goal—and a record low, only 27%, agree that “realistically, there is little an individual can do to change society.”

But the scolders of the young argue on. Many are themselves boomers, a generation that pushed up most indicators of self-seeking behavior during their own youth: violence, risk, rage and rebellion. The original Me Generation has spent a lifetime obsessed with the journey within. Thanks to boomers, a vocabulary of self-esteem and self-love so permeates today’s schools and media that professors like Twenge can now blame kids for obligingly repeating it back to them on personality tests.

Whenever youth behavior seems clearly positive, critics cynically find a way to dismiss it. If teenagers are doing more homework, passing more AP tests and making longer-term life plans, that just shows how selfishly they want to get ahead. If they flock to social network sites for mutual support, that’s a sign of me-first showboating. If youth suicide rates have fallen, that’s only because of new drug therapies. In order to claim that kids are “more miserable than ever before,” Twenge needs to deny that they’re emotionally healthier.

No message from 40- and 50-year-olds to today’s 20-year-olds could be so perverse and contrary to fact as the accusation of selfishness. Boomers and Xers would do a lot better by finding within themselves the sort of authentic moral leadership that will inspire Millennials to build a better society as they mature.

The older generations also should go easy on themselves. They should be proud that maybe they’ve raised their children pretty well after all—even if those children are not turning out to be as endearingly ego-centric as themselves.

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