The era of the ego

Today’s youth have commonly been referred to as “Generation Me,” but how fair and accurate are these stereotypes?

Recent psychological studies have dispelled stereotypes that describe this generation’s youth as egotistical, entitled and less satisfied.
Recent psychological studies have dispelled stereotypes that describe this generation’s youth as egotistical, entitled and less satisfied.

Picture this: You’re walking down the street on the way to class. You’re texting your friend or possibly thinking about your term paper coming up.

Or maybe you’re noticing your reflection in the nearest window—wow, you look cute—and you’re basically too preoccupied to notice your friend just tried to wave at you, or that the guy walking behind you with the huge bag needed help opening the door. Sound familiar?

Don’t worry, apparently we’re all narcissists.

At least, that’s partly why our generation has been dubbed “Generation Me,” which describes the generation of people born from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

Jean M. Twenge’s book, Generation Me, was published in 2006 and explains “Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled—and more miserable than ever before.”

It’s no surprise, really—don’t we always hear our elders describe today’s youth as having bigger egos than ever, but are least willing to work?

But who can really blame us? In an age where we’re constantly told we can do anything, we start to believe that we really can—and should—have everything and achieve all we want in life.

However, along with these sentiments are reminders of today’s bleak economy and competitive job market, which may also explain why our generation is described as less happy and satisfied; we’re told we can have it all, but it will be impossible to get.

It’s almost no surprise that the “GenMe” label is so prevalent.

Dan Rosenbluth, Artsci ’11, said he can also see where this stereotype comes from.

“One of the key characteristics of our generation is a defiance towards the very idea of labels in general,” he said. “But maybe there’s some degree of truth to the ‘GenMe’ thing.”

Rosenbluth said he has noticed today’s society also seems to focus on different values.

“We care about profile pictures more than political problems,” he said. “So, yeah, we’re all narcissistic; a Facebook profile is the only thing we can really control right now.”

However, according to a study published in the January 2011 issue of Psychological Science, this perception may not be wholly true. Brain scans from the experiment have shown that young adults eventually grow out of constant “me” thinking.

During the study, 62 people were divided into three age groups (12 to 14, 15 to 17 and 18 to 22) and participated in a trust game in which a hypothetical player gave them money.

The participants were told whether they received half (considered low-risk) or all (high-risk) of the hypothetical player’s money and must decide whether to reciprocate and by how much. As the game continues, the amount of money increases. According to the results, the 15 to 17 and 18 to 22 age groups reciprocated more in the high-risk rather than low-risk trials. In other words, they were more likely to notice when Player 1 trusted them more and risked more.

However, the 12 to 14 age group didn’t seem to recognize when their partner was being generous; they were more likely to think of themselves the whole time.

Brain scans were also conducted in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) during the trials. All three groups showed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which involves achieving personal goals and more selfish thinking.

However, only the youngest age group showed activity in this area when performing reciprocating tasks as well.

According to the researchers, the activity in the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) of the brain was increased in the older groups during the trials. This area of the brain is involved with understanding others’ perspectives and intentions.

The researchers indicated that this could mean the younger group thinks more selfishly and isn’t yet able to think as much about other people.

According to another study recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “GenMe” may not be as self-centered and unsatisfied as people commonly perceive.

During the experiment, over 477,000 high school seniors graduating in 1976 to 2006 were asked questions to measure factors such as egotism and self-esteem.

They were asked questions such as “How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?” and indicate on a number scale how much above or below the status quo they thought they ranked.

They were also asked to rate their agreement on questions such as “On the whole I am satisfied with myself.”

According to the results, there were actually very small differences between the generations in their self-esteem and egotism.

However, the study did indicate that younger generations had more expectations in terms of their education.

Annette Burfoot, an associate professor in the department of sociology, said she has had contact with “the younger generation” for the past 20 years while in her profession.

“I have noticed changes in this regard and I have found that there is more energy coming from the student body focussed on individual achievement and in the spirit of entitlement,” she told the Journal in an email.

However, she said, individual people are not necessarily to blame.  

“As costs of post-secondary education rise and the campus rhetoric turns to ‘academic excellence’ it’s not surprising that students see themselves more like clients than students and that they feel pressured to achieve,” she said.

Burfoot said grade inflation can also contribute to stereotypes of entitlement, and economic and cultural changes over the years have also influenced how generations behave.

“We are living in prosperous times with fewer children per capita which means, crudely, we all have more to buy.”

She said we also see the value of education differently.  

“We are also living in a consumerist society where personal identities and social class are bound up with purchasing, and purchasing a degree and all that being a graduate means comes into play.” Paul Bowman, manager of Career Education and Counseling at Queen’s Career Services, said his experiences with students often don’t match up with the common stereotypes of “GenMe.”

“I can’t count the number of students who come into my office and say they want to make a positive difference in their world,” he said. “It definitely says that those myths about this generation being narcissistic to be without much substance.”

However, Bowman did note that it’s still important to do everything within your power to not play into those stereotypes, such as being late on the job. It’s also useful be aware of the values of previous generations in order to get a leg up in the job market, he said.

There are three generations currently in the workplace, he said, with the “Baby Boomer” generation as the oldest.

“What they value is loyalty,” he said. “That’s a generation that puts their job first.”

The next generation, “Generation X,” value competence, he said.

“They’re more about meeting the requirements of the job.”

The current generation tends to value a work-life balance. If you have a boss from the Baby Boomer or Generation X eras, you should be aware that they may not have the same values as you, Bowman said.

“For your boss, work comes first and life comes next.” He said he also remembers useful advice from a Queen’s alum who spoke at a conference on campus a few years ago.

“His phrase was ‘put learning before earning,’ ” he said, which means to not be afraid to take the first few years on the job market to be curious, meet people and learn about the industry you’re pursuing.

“The payoff will come down the road and the payoff will be substantial.”

With files from Sara Melvin

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