Selfies Aside, Millennials Are More Humble Than Boomers

It’s hard out there for a Millennial. They’re chastised for taking selfies, for Kardashifying celebrity culture, and for living with their parents way longer than anyone, including their parents, thinks is good for them. But it turns out that they might not be as wrapped up in themselves as everyone else thinks. According toa Psychological Science study (PDF) by Emily Bianchi, an assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, people who start their careers during a recession are considerably less narcissistic than people who come of age (coughBoomerscough) during periods of relative prosperity.

“I was very interested in the studies that came out four or five years ago that said narcissism had increased among college students since the 1980s,” Bianchi explains, referring to work by psychologists such as Jean Twenge, who has documented a noticeable rise in self-importance among young people over the decades. She continues:

But then during the recession I was reading a lot of first hand accounts of college graduates who expressed gratitude even though they, through no fault of their own, were entering the workforce during the worst economy in generations. So I wondered if the great recession might have tempered their narcissism.

Bianchi conducted three studies: a simple online survey, an analysis of thousands of face-to-face interviews, and a correlation of chief executive officer pay grades relative to the unemployment rate when the CEO first entered the workforce. In all three, she found that there was a distinct correlation between the economic conditions during someone’s first few years of work and their level of narcissism later in life. In 2010, for example, the unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 was 20 percent, compared to 8.2 percent for adults aged 25 to 54. “That’s likely to make them reassess their entitlement and uniqueness in a way that wasn’t true for people who graduated college in the 1990s and felt like they could do anything,” Bianchi says. It’s interesting that in the first two studies, men tended to be slightly more narcissistic than women.

Most surprising to Bianchi was how people’s new-found humility persisted even as the economy improved and they advanced in their careers. She studied the 2007 pre-recession compensation of 2,095 CEOs from major public companies and found that those who started working when the economy was good tended to pay themselves 1.3 times as much in salary and bonuses as those who entered the job market during hard economic times. (The CEOs’ salaries were compared to those of executives in their own companies, not with other CEOs’.) This time, there was no gender difference—96 percent of the CEOs were men. “That was probably the most depressing result for me—there weren’t very many women to count,” Binachi says.

So why does the narcissistic, selfie-taking, Millennial stereotype still exist? Part of the reason is because Internet culture makes it easy to see—and judge—what they’re doing. A further reason, Bianchi says, may simply be that Millennials are at the stage of life in which people are naturally the most self-centered. A typical twentysomething has left  parents behind but has not yet married or started a family. A Millennial really has only one person to care for. Past studies have shown that people become less self-absorbed as they age; families and children shift their attention, and adversity and failure deflate exaggerated self-importance. In other words, if you think Millennials have been humbled by the recession now, just wait until they’re 40.

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