Generation Gap

By Jeremy Adam Smith | January 17, 2008 | 0 comments

A new study questions the notion — pushed by curmudgeonly newspaper editorials and books like Jean Twenge's "Generation Me" — that today's young people are more narcissistic and self-absorbed than previous generations. The New York Times reports:

"There's a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Kali H. Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. Ms. Trzesniewski, along with colleagues at the University of California, Davis, and Michigan State University, will publish research in the journal Psychological Science next month showing there have been very few changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of youth over the last 30 years. In other words, the minute-by-minute Twitter broadcasts of today are the navel-gazing est seminars of 1978.

I was born in 1970. I have long doubted that members of my generation (usually called Gen X) or the ones that came after (that would be Y and Z) are somehow more full of themselves than the Baby Boomers or even the so-called Greatest Generation. I've seen people my age volunteer, march in the streets, vote, help each other out, and, recently, have children.

Note the chronology: People born after the 1960s have been having kids later and later in life. Whereas older generations had kids in their teens and early twenties — which resulted in lives shaped by early obligation and responsibility, especially for women — today it is commonplace for people to wait until they are well into their thirties. This creates what sociologists have been calling a "new independent life stage," an historically unprecedented period of life that lasts from leaving home at 18 to the start of parenthood, which is often delayed until we have had an opportunity to get an education, establish careers, and travel a bit.

The implications of the independent life stage are profound, and it was a hot topic of discussion at last year's meeting of the Council on Contemporary Families. In a new book, "The Age of Independence," Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld uses 150 years of census microdata to argue that this new, highly mobile life stage has reduced pressure to marry according to the wishes of parents and contributed powerfully to the growth of egalitarian, interracial, and same-sex families, as well as new movements for civil and human rights. In the Times article, developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett says that the new life stage is "a temporary condition of being self-focused, not a permanent generational characteristic."

This new social condition might contribute to the impression that recent generations are more narcissistic, but in my experience, many of their members are engaged with the political and civic life of the country and the world, and they can and do make necessary sacrifices when they become parents. This does not, of course, mean that narcissism and social isolation don't exist–but there is little evidence that these qualities were invented by Generations X, Y, or Z.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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