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.

9 comments on “The Narcissism and Idealism of Millennials
  • The “resume-padding” is an interesting comment. Maybe in job interviews potential gen-y employers should inquire about how well someone performed community service as opposed to the fact that they simply checked it off the list.

    I feel that a year-long community service effort could be easily be scored as a “good thing” without even digging into what the person actually accomplished.

    BT gen-y’s financial plan

  • I have a hard time believing that were are less empathetic than previous generations. Wouldn’t the fact that we are more civic-minded and “worldy” show that we actually care about our communities? And in order to care about your community wouldn’t you have to try to understand those who make up your community? It seems kind of contradictory to me.

    Also, by bringing up the internet in relation to our narcissism, are you referring to social media such as MySpace and Facebook?

  • Stay selfish to stay relevant is as old as humanity. Magnanimity is often selfishness lowlighted. If charity were to be absolute and remains out of sight of promotional limelight, most of the institutional charities would have been focusing inwards to their insiders, tribe or countrymen than to the big wide world out there. But it has always been the yoke of the incumbent generation (earlier it was X, now Y) to bear the brunt of narcissistic label pasted by the previous generations, even as no generation had delivered up on pure-play charity.

  • Generalizing about generations is a weak way of analyzing trends. Instead, just get right in there and look at the trend itself, over time, without creating artificial temporal boundaries. Is narcissism increasing? Are motivations changing? Let’s apply Occam’s Razor and see that “generations” are not very useful as categories.

    Also, Douthat mis-uses the term “solipsism.” Yes, I see that some definitions include “extreme egocentrism,” but given that we have terms like narcissism and egocentrism, perhaps we should set this term aside for cases where there may be some actual absence of a theory of mind – e.g., babies are actually solipsistic in that they don’t grasp that there are other minds.

  • The narcissism has been indirectly encouraged by the previous generation who raised us and created the culture we live in. Who is it that requires community service to get into school? It’s not millenials. No one even used Twitter really and then all the stupid news stations and talk shows started talking about it, whose in charge of that? Not millenials. Who puts Kim Kardashian on TV? This is a top down thing, not bottom up.

  • In the specific case of Kim Kardashian, it’s definitely “bottom-up.”

    I apologise. It was just too easy.

    Slightly more seriously, the civic-minded narcissism (or narcissistic civic-mindedness) of Millenials might have a pleasing if unintended consequence: making people realise that charity isn’t about giving to others.

  • In reply to DaveJ:

    Douthat doesn’t misuse ‘solipsism’. Especially from his traditionalist Christian conservative viewpoint, worldviews that are essentially narcissistic or self-centered are indeed necessarily rooted in a metaphysical solipsism.

    Also, I think Ross is right on, especially the part about abstraction replacing real commitment. Abstract commitment is an example of people liking the idea of something, as in the case of liking the idea of being a humanitarian, egalitarian, what-have-you person. Unfortunately real commitment would too often interfere with concerns that are at bottom about their own comfort and preference and “free choice”.

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