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Has Generation Y overdosed on self-esteem?

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2007



A little smug self-absorption might be a time-honored trait of at least some subsets of the under-30 crowd.

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But over the past few decades the prevailing disposition among college students – today labeled Generation Y or Millennials – has slid into full-blown narcissism, according to a study released this week.

The "all about me" shift means much more than lots of traffic at self-revelatory websites such as YouTube and Facebook. It points, says the study's author, to a generation's lack of empathy, its inability to form relationships – and worse.

"Research shows [narcissists] are aggressive when they have been insulted or threatened," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and lead author of the report, called "Egos Inflating Over Time." "They tend to have problems with impulse control, so that means they're more likely to, for example, be pathological gamblers [or] commit white-collar crimes."

For some, the study validates their suspicions of educational and parenting techniques that put undue emphasis on the positive: tot-level self-esteem boosterism, luxury-as-necessity entitlement, and what one calls "instant fame-ification."

"I can't imagine you can do a study on Gen-X, Gen-Y, Gen-Z and not have the takeaway be an inappropriate application of self-esteem," says James Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and an author of books on cultural shifts in the US. The trend is apparent even in student grading. "Grade inflation is just [another] adaptation of Lake Wobegon to everyday life. Everyone is 'above average,' " he says.

But others – including proponents of the self-esteem movement, workforce experts, and students invited to assess the study's unflattering mirror – take issue with the apparent lack of nuance in the study, still being reviewed for publication in a scholarly journal.

These young adults are "hard to define," says Jody Turner of the Los Angeles business-strategy consultancy CultureofFuture.com. "Most kids coming out of college are looking at ways of contributing but not giving up their material goals," she says, and finding ways to do that by marrying Gen-X creativity with the "community desire" of other generations.

"You do have to be careful. There's a lot of conflicting evidence," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who has studied youths and morality. "Millennials are also among the most hardworking and least inclined to self-destructive behavior," she says. "They've behaved better than the Gen-Xers or the baby boomers.... They're closer to their parents than [were] previous generations."

Still, according to the study, 30 percent more college students showed "elevated narcissism" in 2006 compared with 1982. Over 25 years, researchers have posed a series of "narcissistic personality inventory" questions, each with two possible answers, to more than 16,000 students, with the latest survey conducted last year.

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