The State of the American Millennial Mind

With concern for the state of the American Millennial mind, the narcissism of Millennials often appears in recent social scholarship, revealing that the current generation of young people tend to estimate themselves more highly than previous generations. Surely, history shows evidence of America’s inclination toward a more individualistic and rise-in-self culture, thanks to capitalism and society’s recent technological advancements. Yet in extrapolating data across time, Jean Twenge, a professor from San Diego State University who leads the conversation in generational narcissism, concludes that though there are positive benefits of the rise in self including equality and tolerance, this influx of individualism like any cultural system comes with negative consequences of materialistic culture, increased narcissism, and a decline in intellectual and civic interest in our younger generations (Twenge 2016). Though narcissism is alive in American culture and self-belief is in fact a prominent trait of the Millennial generation, due to the recent developments of tolerance and equality for diversity as well as the complexity of narcissism in psychology research, we cannot indefinitely say that narcissism is an obtrusively negative characteristic impacting society.

Contrary to popular belief, the term narcissism, often defined as the selfish pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistical pride, exceeds this negative stereotype. In social and psychology research, scholars consider narcissism, originating from ancient Greek mythology about Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond, as a complex and controversial subject. Popularized by Sigmund Freud in his 1914 essay On Narcissism, narcissism evolved into an intensively researched concept in psychoanalytical theory. With a vast set of variations of narcissism discovered within psychology scholarship, most types fall within two major categories: adaptive narcissism and maladaptive narcissism (Davis, Claridge & Brewer 1996, Wink 1991, Wink 1992, Wink 1996). Adaptive narcissism, or synonymously known as healthy narcissism, is associated with interest in self-image, passion for leadership, and assertive ambition. Having multiple subdivisions, maladaptive narcissism aligns with arrogance, disregard for others, a need to feel superior and with extremity could harmfully impact one’s capacity to maintain meaningful relationships (Freud 1914, Hill & Lapsley 2016, Kuebrich 2016, Wink 1991). Exploring the significance of narcissism’s complexity unveils further challenges with deciding whether or not narcissism and the promotion of self-belief is a negative trait of our current American culture and the Millennial generation. Further, Jean Twenge’s self-report data with the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) between 1982—2006 fails to address the morality of narcissism as a personality trait (Raskin & Hall, 1979; Raskin & Hall, 1981; Raskin & Terry, 1988). Though beneficially insightful in terms of the gradual increase of narcissism in America, this data only records a combined sum score of adaptive and maladaptive types of narcissism, which limits our capacity to determine if the Millennial generation is embodying a healthy or pathological variation of narcissism (Twenge 2006, Twenge et al. 2008, Twenge & Campbell 2009).

Defined as a group of individuals who became adults roughly around the early 2000s, the Millennial generation, spans over 20 years from approximately 1980 to 2000, which equates for roughly 80 million individuals who are vastly different in age, race, personality, and political view (Fry 2016, Kuebrich 2016). Supporting this perspective, Pew Research shows that Millennials are one of the most diverse generations by age and race, suggesting that Millennials cannot simply be subjected to one attitude. Considering that the generational gap is the biggest age grouping in American history, Millennials naturally have a myriad of views and social perspectives. For instance, the political views of Millennials differ significantly across racial and ethnic lines. “About half of white Millennials (51%) say they are political independents. The remainder divide between the Republican (24%) and Democratic (19%) parties. Among non-white Millennials, about as many (47%) say they are independent. But nearly twice as many (37%) identify as Democrats while just 9% identify as Republicans” (Pew Research March 2014). Furthermore in terms of research validity, Twenge’s work primarily focuses on late-high school and college students. For instance, her survey roughly spans 355,000 self-report responses, which is not entirely accurate, representing at most 4.43% of the 80 million Millennials (Chee 2013, Twenge 2016). With this massive stretch of diversity, we can surely conclude from Twenge’s data that there is a general increase of narcissism in America’s younger generation in comparison to previous generations, but we cannot conclude if Millennials lean more toward individualism — the ideology of valuing self-reliance and importance of self-worth — or pathological narcissism — the flaw of valuing excessive selfishness and grandiose view of one’s own talents. For instance, the Millennial generation strays from political allegiances, marriage, or religious affiliations, suggesting an influx of independence in intellect and lifestyle, but not necessarily for selfish or entitled needs. On the other hand, opting for technology and social media platforms as a new form of community and building meaningful relationships, Millennials easily and quite frequently convey a need for attention through likes, views and comments (Douthat 2014).

With a general understanding that narcissism is clearly on the rise, considering causes and factors influencing this increase is a natural tangent. More interestingly is this increase’s correlation to the decline in interest of philosophy, civic awareness and issues external from the self. Shown in Twenge’s studies, the promotion of self-belief certainly could be a potential influence increasing narcissism and decreasing intellectual and civic interest in America (Twenge 2016). However, this conclusion creates a causal fallacy. For instance, as there are different types of narcissism, such as vulnerable narcissism, self-belief instability can easily contribute to narcissism just as a rise in the self does (Rhodewalt, Madrian & Cheney, 1998). Another example refers to Bandura and his research in self-efficacy. In his research, self-belief may not be the direct cause of success, but higher levels of self-belief, or synonymously self-efficacy, are key to instilling the motivation and ambition to attempt new things and success (Bandura 1994). Subsequently a rise in self is a clear potential influence, due to many factors from overprotective parents boosting self-esteem, social media addictions and even income inequality, but another challenge presents itself: societal’s decline in intellectual interest and civic engagement may stem from the excessive promotion of self-belief, but the causal fallacy lies in the possibility for other causes in this decline. As an example, the cognitive overload and depthless exposure of knowledge in today’s Information Age can cause burnout and a decline in decision quality and intellectual interest (Gross 1964, Toffler 1971, Simmel 1903, Speier et al. 1999). Because information overload can cause intellectual disinterest, we can see there are other influences regarding the interest of intellectual or philosophical issues. Moreover, a lack of personal impact or slow progression of social change can induce a feeling of powerlessness and a decline in external political efficacy, the government’s ability to meet expectations and system persistence — and internal political efficacy — the individual’s judgment in one’s capacity for social engagement and understanding politics (Balch 1974). Because decreased political efficacy leads to lower polarization of ideological orientation and lower participation in social and political matters, research suggests the possibility for other causal factors affecting the decline in civic engagement (Sulitzeanu-Kenan & Halperin 2013). However, other research suggests that the technological advancements that continue to alter our capacity for social advocacy potentially indicates an incline of civic engagement from online petitions, digitally-mediated support groups and hotlines to support marginalized communities. Instances include nonprofits like The Trevor Project, which provides online support for the LGBT youth and Planned Parenthood, which pioneers in advocating for health education in regards to sexual and reproductive information with programs such as Global Mobile that support other countries like Africa (Planned Parenthood 2017). In addition, Pew Research in 2009 discovered that out of the 36% of Americans who participated in political activity in 2008, 83% communicated with others in regards to their political activity and 51% of those communicating indicated the use of technology (text messaging, social media, phone calls, emails) aiding that communication process (Smith et al. 2009). Furthermore, though evidence across Twenge’s research shows that even with narcissism seemingly increasing, this increase is only gradual, suggesting that this is not a sudden generational split between the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennial generation or even an abrupt effect of the past decade’s technology boom. Moreover, history proves that the rise of self began before the Millennial generation. For instance, Christopher Lasch’s 1979 publication The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations offers a critical perspective of American culture that predates Twenge’s implications of a sudden rise-in-self movement in the Millennial generation (Kuebrich 2016). If anything, we can only infer that the cultural shift toward promoting self-belief is a factor increasing our nation’s levels of narcissism — not the ethicality of narcissism or its exclusive impact on the current state of the American Millennial mind.

Conclusively, Millennials do in fact show levels of narcissism, more increased than some previous generations (Twenge 2016). However, without accurately extrapolating the data to understand what types of narcissism runs across this data and adequately addressing the diverse nuances within the Millennial generation, we cannot indefinitely say that Millennials are pathologically narcissistic or brimming with an insidious trait of excessive self-belief. Secondly, we may infer that the rise of self-belief may be a contributing factor to increased levels of narcissism. Building upon the discourse around the rise in the emphasis of self, data does reveal an increase in individualism, narcissism and self-belief, which are all good indications of this movement. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that this influx of self-belief and narcissism is the sole causal factor of intellectual and civic disinterest due to causal fallacy — there may very well be other external factors at play. Because of the complexity of narcissism, the lack of research clarifying these variations, the diversity of the Millennial generation and the possibility for other implications instigating intellectual and civic disinterest, we cannot judge the morality of narcissism as a trending personality trait. Ultimately, Jean Twenge does a fantastic job of pioneering the discourse of the Millennial state of mind, but I hope this paper inspires new avenues of research because the more we learn, the more often we find more questions. Without more research, we cannot say for certain if the American Millennial mind is in danger and we cannot simply create assumptions based off of what we do not know. Regardless of these trends, I am inspired to fight this stereotype as an American Millennial by productively focusing my time in this world on learning how to better contribute to the progression of knowledge and to challenge the world’s inequalities. As I continue my studies this fall, I will strive toward researching how we can better implement media in improving tolerance and social activism for stigmatized identities because I believe the instigation of equality and an incline toward intellectual interest begins with opening the dialogue and welcoming a change in the state of mind.


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