You’re huddled around a table grabbing lunch with friends you haven’t seen in a week, and it seems as if there’s an impossible amount of conversation to catch up on. It’s been a tough week; you want your friends’ support. Just as you start to speak, a friend interrupts, telling everyone to check out their latest photo on Instagram. And just like that, the conversation is dead as everyone whips out their phones.
The above scenario seems natural, just another example of millennial self-absorption. The supposed millennial tendency toward anti-social narcissism has been so well-documented — by everyone from baby boomer columnists to celebrities — that American culture takes the stereotype for granted. Yet the myth of the apathetic, narcissistic millennial is just that: a myth.
When baby boomers and Gen Xers depict millennials as lazy narcissists, they are following a timeless tradition of criticizing the supposed moral and intellectual decline of the next generation. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates worried the rise of writing would spoil the younger generation’s minds by eliminating the need for memorization. Even the baby boomers were once the targets of the very same criticisms they level against the millennials. One needs to only glance at newspaper articles and magazine covers of the ’60s and ’70s to see that the elders of the time regarded boomers as lazy, self-indulgent and politically apathetic. New York Magazine epitomized this trend when it declared the 1970s the “Me Decade” in response to “a new religious wave” of narcissistic self-improvement. Claims of millennials’ narcissism and apathy simply don’t hold up in light of humanity’s youth-bashing history.
Headlines have made much commotion about studies from the National Institute of Health and San Diego State University about rising levels of narcissism among the millennial generation. However, these studies fall flat due to flawed methodology and ample counter-evidence. As psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett described in The Atlantic, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory asks simplistic questions such as “am I assertive?” which fail to accurately gauge the presence of narcissism. Other studies have shown that today’s youth behaves in much the same way as older generations did in their adolescence, and self-obsession is more related to the state of youth itself rather than generational differences. In other words, millennials aren’t uniquely self-centered. They’re just young.
In addition, millennials’ unprecedented acceptance of diverse and marginalized social groups runs contrary to the narrative of self-absorption. A comprehensive Pew survey indicating increasing acceptance of interracial marriage and affirmative action suggest rising racial tolerance among young Americans. In addition, a vast majority of young people support same-sex marriage and reject xenophobia. Millennial politics paint a picture of empathy and community, not self-absorption. In greater numbers than any previous generation, they reject the ultimate forms of collective narcissism known as white supremacy and the patriarchy.
Narratives of millennial laziness also seem to run contrary to evidence. A video of author Simon Sinek diagnosing the millennial plague of laziness recently went viral, reaching almost 7.5 million views on YouTube. Sinek claims a combination of participation trophies, helicopter parenting and social media have created a generation of unfocused slackers.
Yet again, the evidence paints a completely different picture. A recent survey by Project: Time Off found millennials far less likely to use vacation time and more likely to show dedication to their job than baby boomers or Gen Xers. Out of all U.S. workers who could be considered “martyrs” for their job, 43 percent are millennials. Furthermore, a survey detailed in the Harvard Business Review shows millennials value meaningful, socially useful work just as much as every other generation. The evidence proves millennials are not lazy. In fact, coming of age in the second-largest economic crisis in U.S. history and its ensuing job insecurity seems to have forged a generation of young workaholics.
Finally, reports of political apathy among millennials prove to be misleading. A Pew poll from early 2016 found millennials to be the least likely generation to vote. At face value, this report seems to be damning. However, a separate Pew report found millennials volunteer for nonprofits and advocacy groups at a higher rate than other generations. Perhaps living through a recession, two failed wars and extreme partisan divides have embittered the generation against institutional political authority and pushed millennials to take action into their own hands.
It’s also possible low voter turnout corresponds to age rather than generation. Though turnout rates have dipped in recent years, census data show young people have always voted less frequently than older generations.
Furthermore, the response to the 2016 elections has shown that young people are at the forefront of political activism. Anyone who has visited a college campus recently would likely be shocked to hear millennials are politically apathetic. Within my short time on campus I have witnessed seemingly countless marches bringing awareness to Native American rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, the importance of science and much more. Last year’s election seems to have only further energized young people to make political change. Millennials march for racial, gender and social justice in much the same way as baby boomers did in the ’60s and ’70s.
As the evidence shows, millennials’ love for Instagram hasn’t created a generation of apathetic narcissists. They are hard-working, empathetic individuals trying to carve out a space for themselves in the United States, just as the boomers and Gen Xers did before them.
Tom Aiello can be reached at email@example.com.