Generation Me Header

Generation Me book coverAbout the Book

Who is part of Generation Me?

Generation Me is another term for the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, often called Millennials. But it’s really more of a description than a label for specific birth years — it describes people who take it for granted that the self comes first. That movement touched many GenX’ers (born in the 1960s and 70s) as well, including me.

And of course, any birth year cutoff is arbitrary. Who’s to say the generation doesn’t start in 1979? Or 1983? It’s also inherently problematic to group people in 20-year blocks – someone born in 1980 had a different cultural experience from someone born in 1999. And if you were born in 1999 vs. 2000, are you really a different generation? In most studies, we’ve looked at birth year continuously, instead of grouping people into generations. These analyses show that generational change almost always happens slowly — there are rarely sudden changes in a year or two as some generational writers have contended. Generational change is cultural change, and that happens over the course of years and often decades.

How is Generation Me different from previous generations, especially from the "Me generation" of the 1970s?

Baby Boomers were sometimes called the "Me Generation" in the 1970s, but this was a premature and brief label: Boomers did not discover the self until young adulthood, and even then did everything in groups, from protests to seminars like est. Generation Me has never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first.

This worldview is captured, for example, in the phrases we so often hear: "Be yourself," "Believe in yourself," "You are special." These are some of our culture's most deeply entrenched beliefs, and Generation Me has grown up hearing them whispered in their ears like the subliminally conditioned children in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In the first edition, I argued that these phrases were uniquely modern, rarely used before the 1960s. As I describe in the revised edition, the Google Books ngram viewer – which premiered in 2010 — showed that this guess was correct. Try it yourself – Google “ngram viewer” and look up "Be yourself," "Believe in yourself," and "You are special" between 1900 and 2008 in American books. Even pronouns have changed: “I,” “me,” and “you,” are more common since 1960, and “we” and “us” less common.

How is this book different from other books on generations?

In short, because it has hard data on how the generations really differ. Many books on generations throw around ideas about social trends and pop culture, but don't have much data on the actual characteristics of people from different generations. This book has the data — it summarizes 20 years of research on the responses of 11 million young people. In this revised edition, I’ve included many studies drawing from U.S. nationally representative samples, including Monitoring the Future (8th, 10th, and 12th graders), the American Freshman Survey (entering college students), and the General Social Survey (adults). These studies have been conducted since the 1960s or 1970s, allowing a view of generational and cultural differences that takes age out of the equation (because they examine people of the same age at different points in time).

I also include studies using the method I call cross-temporal meta-analysis. I found research reports on children and college students who completed questionnaires measuring everything from anxiety to sexual behavior. Many of these questionnaires have been used since the 1950s or 1960s (some since the 1930s), providing a view of how today's young people differ from Boomers and previous generations. Every chapter is built around a research result, with lots of pop culture analysis and examples to bring the differences to life. To find out more about how I collected and analyzed this data, click here.

What is the book about?

We live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness. Today's young people have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Their expectations are very high just as the world is becoming more competitive, so there's a huge clash between their expectations and reality. More than any other generation in history, the children of Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood. Generation Me will give Boomers new insight into their offspring, and help those in their teens, twenties, and thirties finally make sense of their generation.

What’s new in the revised edition?

Lots! First, the picture of generational differences is much more clear, with 25 additional studies on every topic from religion to tolerance to positive self-views. There’s also an entirely new chapter on generations in the workplace, based partially on the first study to examine generational differences in work attitudes in a nationally representative sample collected over time. Second, social networking has changed the landscape for this generation and heightened some of their traits already in evidence during the first edition, such as attention seeking, information sharing, and impatience. Third, popular culture has, if anything, become even more self-focused since the first edition, with many more examples of over the top narcissism and individualistic thinking. On the good side, the culture now has much more inclusive attitudes – especially the long-overdue embrace of LGBT youth and same-sex marriage.

I’m a manager. How do I work with this generation?

The first step is to understand how Generation Me is different from previous generations — and how they aren’t. Many generational consultants will make statements about generational differences, but look carefully at their materials: How did they arrive at these conclusions? Saying Millennials experienced certain events, and thus have certain characteristics, is not data — it’s a wild guess. In this era of evidence-based management, that is not a good approach. Instead, managers need actual data on how the generations differ. Look for numbers.  

It’s also not enough to have a one-time sample — because then any differences could be due to age or generation, and it’s impossible to separate the two. If differences are due to age, the same recruiting strategies that worked 30 years ago will work now. Ideally, we should be comparing the generations when they were the same age, so we know that things have really changed. Fortunately, as I detail in the completely new chapter on the workplace in the revised edition, there’s more and more data like this on generational differences in work attitudes. For example, in 2010 my colleagues and I published the first paper on generational differences in work attitudes in an over-time, nationally representative sample. The generational differences in other attitudes and personality traits also have an impact on how workers relate to each other. If you’re interested in learning more about how your business can draw on these data — and, even more important — how to apply them to better recruit, retain, and manage this generation, click here.

Wait. Haven’t older people always said the younger generation was self-centered?

Maybe, but that observation isn’t particularly relevant for this data, which examines what young people say about themselves. I completely agree that older folks’ observations are not a useful source of data about generational differences. That’s why the studies rely on the voices of the generation itself.

Let’s assume for a moment that people have “always” made this observation. If so, they may have “always” been right, because individualism has been increasing in Western cultures for a long time — possibly since the Renaissance, and at least since the Boomers. The changes didn’t happen all at once — they were gradual, with each generation more self-focused than the last.

Oh, and that quote from Socrates about the ill-manners of ancient youth that is so often used to illustrate this point? (“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority …”) Socrates never wrote that — a British graduate student did, in 1907.

But isn’t it good to have high self-esteem? After all, you have to believe in yourself to succeed.

Apparently, you don’t. In the U.S., the ethnic group with the lowest self-esteem is Asian-Americans, and they achieve the most academically and have the highest median income. That’s probably because Asian culture encourages self-improvement instead of self-enhancement. Overall, self-esteem does not cause good grades, better work performance, or good behavior. It does seem to protect against depression, but that’s likely because low self-esteem is often rooted in difficult family situations.

One crucial distinction: By “believe in yourself,” do you mean self-esteem or self-efficacy? Self-efficacy means believing that you can do something, which is important to success. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed. That’s why it’s best to encourage children with specific praise rather than general praise, and to tell them they can do things (not that they are a special princess, the best ever, etc. — the strategies often used to boost self-esteem).

When people have misunderstood my points in Generation Me, the disconnect often centers around their unshakable belief that supreme self-confidence is necessary for success. But it’s not — partially because there’s a big difference between thinking you’re great and actually being great. Our culture has blurred that distinction considerably in the last few decades — one of the reasons we have Generation Me.

Of course GenMe is self-centered. Young people always are and always have been.

Perhaps, but these data compare the generations at the same age — so youth is not the cause. For example, the Monitoring the Future survey of 12th graders has surveyed 17- and 18-year olds every year since 1976. Other studies compare college students during different decades. Everyone is the same age, so age cannot be the cause. GenMe is more self-focused than Boomers were at the same age.

Don’t these findings stereotype this generation?

No, because they are based on data from young people themselves. These are not my suppositions or observations about what young people are like; they are an analysis of young people’s own views and behaviors, compared to the views and behaviors of young people from previous generations. An analogy to other studies relying on average differences might be helpful. If a study finds that one drug is effective against a disease and another is not, does spread “negative stereotypes” about the ineffective drug? Of course not, and the method — comparing the average outcome in one group vs. another — is the same as the generational differences studies.

It’s not fair to group people into generations and say everyone born since the 1980s is the same. Are you saying all Millennials are self-centered?

No, I am not saying that. Like any study of group differences, the studies on generational differences examine average differences. That means not everyone is going to score at the average; there will be exceptions to the general rule. Thus the findings do not apply to “everyone.” But that’s true of virtually every scientific study — of sex differences, of cultural differences, of behavioral changes after experimental manipulations, of the effects of drugs. Women may cry less than men, but there are some men who cry a lot and some women who cry very little. Unless we’re going to say that every study using averages should be abandoned, there is no reason to discount generational differences studies because they compare averages.

Of course, it is not wise to make assumptions about any one individual before you’ve even met him or her. You shouldn’t assume a woman will be a typical woman, an Asian American will be a typical Asian American, or a GenMe’er will be a typical GenMe’er. That’s because people differ within groups. Don’t generalize from the average to one.

I’m a Millennial and I’m not self-centered.

Then you are the exception to the general trend — see above.

But aren’t the generational differences small?

How do you define “small”? It’s true that there is more variation within generations than between them — but that’s true for most psychological differences based on groups (for example, sex or race). For example, the difference between Boomers and GenMe in wanting a job with more than 2 weeks’ vacation is .41 standard deviations (or about r = .20). Is this small? It’s larger than many effect sizes in psychology. More important, it translates into larger differences at higher scores: Almost twice as many GenMe’ers thought vacations were “very important” compared to Boomers.

What constitutes a “small” effect is a completely subjective judgment. The size of the “obesity epidemic” over time is .31 SDs. The effect of secondhand smoke on lung cancer is .08 SDs. The average effect size in experimental social psychology research is .42 SDs. Do these differences not matter?

Differences also multiply at higher and lower points in the distribution of scores. For example, the difference in narcissism scores between 1982 and 2009 is .33 SDs. But the number who answered the majority of the questions in the narcissistic direction nearly doubled, from 18% to 30%. At the most extreme level, narcissistic personality disorder, three times as many people in their 20s (vs. their 60s) have experience with it. So the average young person is only a little more narcissistic, but there are two to three times as many who are very narcissistic. That’s noticeable, because they’re the ones who end up in your office.

By the way, this principle of larger differences at the high and low end doesn’t just apply to generations — it makes sense of many group differences. For example, the sex difference in aggressive behavior is about .50 SDs. But 4 to 5 times as many men are incarcerated for violent crimes.

You seem to be very negative about this generation.

I’m not. The longest chapter in Generation Me is on the equality revolution — how GenMe is much more willing to look past gender, race, and sexual orientation to see people as individuals, and more willing to extend the same rights to everyone. Sometimes people ask me if I want to go back to the 1950s — this change alone is the reason why my answer is “No.” This research has not received as much press attention, most likely because bad news is covered more than good news. The book also features other good news about this generation, such as the lower crime rate, suicide rate, and teen pregnancy rate. These behaviors are caused by many factors other than a generation’s psychology, however.

It is true that I have questioned some of the positive portrayals of this generation by others. For example, many claimed that Millennials were unusually concerned for others, civically and politically engaged, and focused on making the world a better place. Unfortunately, that conclusion is not supported by what Millennials themselves say and do, compared to GenX’ers and Boomers at the same age. It’s also not supported by an in-depth study of young people by Christian Smith completed in 2008 — presumably the peak year of youth political involvement during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Even then, Smith concluded that 94% of young people were politically and civically disengaged.

The good news is that some of these trends improved during the recession years. There are also some paradoxical trends: Among college students in 2013, the importance of both “helping others in difficulty” and “being very well-off financially” hit all-time highs. Part of this could be a measurement issue — recent students rate everything as more important. It could also capture a new “rich philanthropist” ideal among this group.

But lots of Millennials I know want to save the world!

Many Millennials are very interested in helping others — but there are no more who do, and maybe slightly fewer, than among GenX’ers and Boomers. Saying that the average is lower among Millennials than among previous generations does not mean that average is very low. It’s not. Most Millennials value helping others.

What about volunteering? Yes, the percentage of high school students who say they do community service has risen since the 1990s. Over this same time, however, high schools have begun to require community service for graduation. It’s still good that volunteering is up, but the impulse does not come from Millennials themselves — it comes from Boomer teachers and administrators.

Why are you blaming young people? Isn’t this all the Boomers’ fault?

In my view, it is not necessary to assign fault or blame. Cultures change, and generations reflect those changes. Some of those changes are positive and some are negative, another reason why using language like “fault” and “blame” doesn’t make sense. It also doesn’t make sense to focus on only one aspect of cultural change (such as this generation’s Boomer parents). Culture has many influences beyond parents, from media to teachers to peers. Similarly, these trends go far beyond self-esteem programs. They many have played a part in the increase in positive self-views, but many other cultural influences have as well. The shift in self-focused language that appears in the Google Books database suggests that this a pervasive, culture-wide change.

Generation Me uses a lot of examples from pop culture and quotes from real people. But couldn’t you have just selected those that fit your argument? And how can you say that pop culture examples are data?

They aren’t data, and I do not claim they are. Instead, they illustrate the data. Each chapter is built around a set of research results comparing the generations on their attitudes, behavior, and personality traits. The pop culture examples and quotes are just that — examples and illustrations. They complement the data and do not replace it. Why not include counterexamples? Because they wouldn’t be true to the average trends in the data. Recent technology such as the Google Books ngram viewer has also made it easier to turn some of those cultural observations into data over time.

I read somewhere that other researchers have not found the same increases in narcissism and self-esteem.

They do when a big confound is removed. One group said there was no change in narcissism in 8 samples of University of California students since 1982. But the samples from 1982 and 1996 were from UC-Berkeley and those after 2002 were all from UC-Davis, where students score unusually low on narcissism. That made it look like there was no change. But when we looked at just the UC-Davis samples — thus eliminating the confound — they increased in narcissism at the same rate that we found in our nationwide meta-analysis of 85 samples. Another researcher combined the Davis data with the nationwide data and found no change. But the Davis samples were very large and very recent. Putting in a simple control for campus (1 = Davis, 0 = not) to remove the confound, the results showed the same increase over time we found the first time. Yet some still cite the other papers as seeming proof narcissism hasn’t increased — even though that “debate” has been settled since 2010. Several other studies by other researchers have also found increases in narcissism, and new data suggests that other countries such as New Zealand, China, and South Korea also show increases in narcissism.

What about self-esteem? Three studies of college students and four studies of children and middle school students show increases. For example, college students are now more likely to rate themselves as above average. High school students, though, show generational differences in self-esteem in only one out of three studies — perhaps due to their specific developmental stage, or perhaps due to measurement issues. High school students do show other evidence of increasingly positive self-views, though: They report higher self-satisfaction, are more likely to believe they are above average in intelligence and school ability, believe they will be “very good” workers, spouses, and parents in the future, and have unrealistically high expectations for the future. This is where it pays to look at all of the data and ask, “What does most of it show?” Further discussion of the evidence can be found in this blog post.

I was born after 2000. What is my generation called?

No one knows yet. My favorite name is iGeneration, or iGen. This generation has been profoundly shaped by technology, including the Internet and of course iPhones and iPads. The "i" also captures self-focus: it can stand for the first person singular or be "i" for individual. At first I thought iGen would be a great label for those born in the 80s and 90s, but Millennials appears to have stuck (much to my disappointment — who remembers anything about the millennium anymore?) So perhaps it will catch on for the younger group, who takes technology even more for granted. You heard it here first.