Think for a moment about what your parents’ lives were like when they were in college or high school. When you consider the differences between their experiences and your own, you might think of technology first: They would not have had a cell phone or a Facebook page. They probably didn’t have e-mail or even access to the Internet. Your parents may have been raised much differently than you were, too, with more focus on children being obedient (Alwin, 1996) and less on building self-esteem. A self-esteem coloring book like this one (right) would have been considered strange before the 1980s—most people had never heard of self-esteem until the 1970s or later. In contrast to “way back then,” if you played on a sports team as a child, you might have gotten a trophy just for playing, something that didn’t happen when your parents were young.
Even if you grew up in the same town your parents did, the culture in which you were raised was probably very different. Culture varies across time just as it varies across regions of the world, and culture shapes who we are as individuals. In other words, the differences among generations are not just perceptions—they are real (see, e.g., Twenge, 2000; Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004).
I became interested in generational differences when I was an undergraduate majoring in sociology and psychology at the University of Chicago in the 1990s. The students in my sample didn’t score the way the 1970s test manual said they should on a scale of stereotypically masculine personality traits (things like assertiveness, individuality, and leadership ability). Most of the women, and many of the men too, had scores much higher than the 1970s norms. At the time, I thought I just had weird friends. When I got the same result on another campus the next year, though, I realized it was true: My generation really was different. But two samples weren’t enough to do a comprehensive study of change over time, so I found all of the articles that used the scale (the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, 1974) over a twenty-year period. Sure enough, stereotypically masculine personality traits steadily rose between the 1970s and the 1990s, and the correlation between mean scores and year of data collection was significant and positive (Twenge, 1997a). Both women and men scored higher on the scale over time, so younger generations were more likely to describe themselves as assertive, individualistic, and high in leadership ability.
Although correlating mean scores with the year of data collection was a fairly simple research technique, I was surprised to find it had never been done before. Traditional meta-analyses compared effect sizes over studies, but not mean scores. After a friend suggested I should name the method something that sounded important, I labeled it cross-temporal meta-analysis.
I’ve done 16 or so generational studies now, and my database has grown to 2 million young people who filled out one psychological questionnaire or another sometime between the 1930s and now. Most of this data comes from published journal articles that report the mean score of their sample on popular psychological scales. Some of these scales measure psychological problems like anxiety and depression; others measure self-views such as self-esteem, narcissism, and assertiveness. Some measure classic psychological concepts like locus of control and extraversion. I describe most of these studies (and lots of examples from people and pop culture) in my book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006).Most of the respondents in these studies are high school or college students, because much psychological data has been collected on these groups. Because some of the scales have been used since the 1930s (and all since the 1970s), it is possible to see how different generations responded to questions when they were young. This method, called time-lag, looks at different people at different points in time (thus it’s different from a longitudinal study, which follows the same people and examines age differences instead). A time-lag study that uses historical data is much better than doing a survey at one time (called a cross-sectional study), when it’s tough to tell if differences are caused by age or by generation. Who knows—maybe your parents were really cool when they were in college.
Personality psychologists have found that genetics explains much of the difference among people in personality traits like extraversion, anxiety/neuroticism, and even narcissism (Vernon, Villani, Vickers, & Harris, 2008). Surprisingly, the family who raised you has relatively little influence on your personality— about 5% to 10%. So there must be other environmental influences. Peers are one, regional culture is another, and your generation (the culture of your times) is a third. Most of my studies have found that a 50-year difference in birth year explains about 20% of the differences in personality traits (Twenge, 2008; see Figure 1). Surprisingly, your generation has more of an influence on your personality than the family who raised you.
Figure 1 | The amount of variance in personality explained by generation depends on how many years separate two people. The graph below shows the approximate percentage of variance in personality explained for different age gaps. For example, if you are 30 years younger than someone, about 9% of the differences in your personality and hers can be explained by generational change.
So how are the generations different? Younger generations tend to score higher on measures of anxiety, neuroticism, and poor mental health (Twenge, 2000; Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, & Lacefield, 2008) and more report experiencing depression (Lewinsohn, Rohde, Seeley, & Fischer, 1993). Modern life really is more stressful, partially because families are not as close and people find it harder to maintain close friendships (a sociological study found that people in 2004 were much less likely to say they had someone they could consider a close friend than people in 1985: McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). Current technology might continue this trend if more people interact with others primarily over the Internet instead of in person.
Many generational differences can be traced back to the shifts in culture mentioned earlier: The emphasis on freedom and selfesteem. As psychologists have documented, cultures differ in their levels of individualism (focusing on the needs of the self) versus collectivism (focusing on the needs of others and the society (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). American culture—and many others around the world—have become more individualistic over the last few decades (Fukuyama, 1999; Seligman, 1990).
Perhaps as a result, younger generations score higher in positive individualistic traits such as agency (Twenge, 1997a), assertiveness (Twenge, 2001), and self-esteem (Twenge & Campbell, 2001), but also in negative ones such as narcissistic personality traits (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008; note that the measure used in the study looks at normal variations in narcissistic personality and not necessarily narcissistic personality disorder). Like all studies comparing groups, these are differences in averages. So not everyone in your generation is more individualistic than people from your parents’ generation, but on average younger generations score higher on these traits, valuing the individual’s needs and wants over those of the society. Younger generations are also much more tolerant and open-minded in their attitudes toward women and minorities (e.g., Twenge, 1997b), one of the largest upsides to individualism.
But there are downsides as well, especially with narcissism on the rise. If you’ve heard professors complain that students today behave as if they are more entitled, they are apparently right. Narcissists are self-centered and find it difficult to take someone else’s perspective. Although this approach has some benefits for the self in the short term, it rarely works well in the long term and is often destructive to relationships and to other people (Campbell & Buffardi, in press). So if you’ve heard someone say, “I have to put myself first to succeed because things are so competitive,” they might be making a mistake. Narcissistic people sometimes succeed in the short term, but their relationships often falter (Miller, Campbell, & Pilkonis, 2007) and their self-views keep them from setting the right goals. College students with unrealistically positive self-views are actually more likely to drop out of college (Robins & Beer, 2001). Overconfidence has just as many problems as underconfidence, but American culture today actively encourages overconfidence. Growing up, you were probably told, “believe in yourself and anything is possible,” “never give up on your dreams,” and “you can be anything you want to be.” All of these encourage overconfidence, not true confidence.
How does technology interact with narcissism? New research (Buffardi & Campbell, in press) shows that students who score higher in narcissism have more “friends” on Facebook. Another study found that people high in narcissism were more careful with their appearance when photographed (Vazire, Naumann, Rentfrow, & Gosling, in press). This is an exciting area for future research. For example, do people’s narcissistic personality traits lead them to use technology in different ways, or does the technology itself (like putting so many photographs of yourself online) build narcissistic traits?
Businesses are already beginning to change to adapt to the new culture of high expectations and praise. Some companies have hired “praise consultants,” with one store in Texas hiring a woman to throw several pounds of confetti every week (Zaslow, 2007). Other companies are creating more democratic workplaces, because their individualistic new employees don’t like having a boss. Others are now more lenient with flexible work schedules, because more employees don’t understand why they can’t go to the beach when the weather is good as long as they get their work done.
Over the next few years, both universities and businesses will face a crucial choice: How much are they going to change for the new generation, and how much is the new generation going to have to adapt to the world? Every generation has changed their world, often for the better. My hope is that the new generation will hang on to the good parts of individualism—like tolerance—while abandoning the false idea that you have to be narcissistic and entitled to succeed.
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Jean M. Twenge, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University (CA), is the author of more than 60 scientific publications and the book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006). She frequently gives talks and seminars on teaching and working with today’s young generation to education and corporate audiences. She has also done experimental research in the area of social rejection. She holds a BA in sociology and an MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago, a PhD in personality psychology from the University of Michigan, and completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in social psychology at Case Western Reserve University.