The Narcissism and Idealism of Millennials

Studies paint two contradictory portraits of young people today. On the one hand, we are "more idealistic, more civic-minded, and more engaged with the world than [our] cynical Gen X predecessors," but on the other hand, we are ever-more narcissistic (thanks to the web?) and devoid of empathy compared to generations past.

Ross Douthat on his blog wisely ponders this contradiction:

There’s a kind of humanitarianism that’s more interested in an abstract “humanity” than in actual people, and a kind of idealism that’s hard to distinguish from moral vanity. Perhaps this is the spirit that’s at work among the empathy-deficient world-changers of Generation Y — visible, for instance, in the way that community service has become a self-interested resume-padding exercise for ambitious young climbers, or in the way that Barack Obama’s rhetoric (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” etc.) managed to appeal to younger voters’ idealism and flatter their egos all at once.

On the other hand, this could also be grounds for a defense of narcissism, at least up to a point. Maybe too much empathy is crippling, and a little solipsism is a necessary spur to action. If a little “look out world, here I come” self-centeredness is what it takes to get young people involved in charity work or political campaigning, the theory might go, then so much the better for self-centeredness!

Certainly there’s some truth to the idea that high achievement, humanitarian or otherwise, often goes hand in hand with a certain arrogance and self-involvement, and that the kind of people who change the world in dramatic ways aren’t always the kind of people you’d want as next-door neighbors. (Orwell’s famous line about saints being judged guilty till proven innocent may have some relevance here.) But then again, most of the college students being surveyed in this study aren’t going to grow up to be Charles De Gaulle or Winston Churchill — or Barack Obama, for that matter. The solipsism of great men may be forgivable and even necessary in some cases. But I’m more skeptical of the idea that mass narcissism is the key to a better world.


A few years ago I wrote a commentary for public radio's "Marketplace" on generational generalizations.

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