in defence of my narcissistic generation

Gen-Y is narcissistic yah?

We take selfies and go on extended gap years. We live with our parents to fund our party lifestyle and expect our first job out of Uni to bring in the big bucks.

We’re commitment phobes and social media junkies. We ain’t got cash for food, but we always have three fiddy for a bag of coke.*

All we want is money, clothes, cars, sex and tech.


Well, according to Psychologist and author of “The Narcissism Epidemic and Living in the Age of Entitlement”, Jean Twenge.

Over the last decade, Twenge has conducted a series of surveys of College age students in the United States using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. She then compared her data with results from surveys done in past decades.

Her findings? A scandalous rise in narcissism amongst people in their 20s and 30s.

In an interview with Australian broadcaster Radio National, she made it clear that our narcissism is to society’s collective peril and that there is no direct link between self-esteem and success in any facet of our lives. She also believes that narcissism is causing the fast rising rates of depression and anxiety.

Wait, what?

She went on to emphasise the importance of hard work and not thinking of ourselves as special. Because despite popular opinion, we cannot simply do anything that we put our minds to.

Twenge believes that rather than thinking of ourselves as special, we only need to know that we’re loved and most children already know that. So peeps (I’m looking at you parents), stop overindulging your children and constantly reminding them how great they are.


There are two blaring issues with Twenge’s findings and the general stream of media commentary that depicts Gen-Y as self-obsessed and out of control.

Firstly, self-esteem and narcissism are not one and the same. Narcissism and vanity are direct products of low self-esteem. People who don’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, skinny enough, popular enough or generally enough, are much more likely to display narcissistic behaviours.

Constantly lambasting social media friends with selfies, buying lots of shiny things, wearing the right clothes and  compulsively socialising with not-quite-friends are clear symptoms of insecurity rather than an over abundance of self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the opposite of narcissism. Self-esteem is a measure of self-worth. What do we think of ourselves? How do we perceive ourselves in relation to others? Do we like who we are? Are we comfortable with how we look? Do we have enough confidence to go for opportunities and try new things without feeling that a failure reflects poorly on our essential self?

Secondly, by stating that we should strive to work hard, Twenge has unintentionally nodded at the real motivation behind the youth-bashing that is remoulded to fit each generation of 20 and 30 somethings.

Because let’s be honest here, doesn’t every older generation imbibe in nostalgic reflection of their own youth and compare it disfavourably with the contemporary young people?

The truth is that every young generation has hopes and dreams that differ from their parents. Many are idealistic and nearly all are certain that their lives will not turn out like that of their elders.

We break rules and adapt more easily to a changing environment. And yes, without the burden of responsibility for others, some of the more privileged among us spend a lot of time analysing our place within the world. As such, each older generation fears that the younger generation will not be controllable. That they won’t look after the aging population by propelling the economy.

However, perhaps most poignantly, older generations fear that the rejection of their social customs by the young calls into question practices that some people have valued themselves by for decades. Imagine being told that the way you have lived your whole life is outmoded and irrelevant.

If for example, the more privilieged among Gen Y discover that they don’t need to work hard for the next five decades, that in fact there may be other ways of living and enjoying life, it is tantamount to telling Gen X and Baby Boomers that the long decades of 9 to 5, the hard work that these generations have defined themselves by, is meaningless. Their sacrificed leisure time to meetings and a daily commute was pointless. A waste.

As for Twenge’s assertion that the narcissistic tendencies among young people that are supposedly causing everything from the global financial crisis to depression (really, Twenge, really?), I have two points. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that the bigwig stock brokers who orchestrated that financial clusterf*#! were not Gen Y.

Secondly, some people are narcissistic and self-interested. Some people are sociopaths who feel no remorse when they cause pain and anguish to others. That is a dark thread of humanity, not one generation in particular.

And while I’m on a roll, let’s examine depression and anxiety for a minute. Can we really say that narcissism causes depression? Correlation is not causation. I contend that anxiety and depression are caused by a myriad of factors, including but not limited to, physiological illness, nutrient deficiency, previous experiences and current life circumstances.

If someone is displaying narcissistic behaviours, could this not be a symptom of depression or anxiety? The desperate cry for approval and encouragement from one’s peers?

So instead of writing off an entire generation as fatally flawed, why don’t we examine the social pressures that may lead to the sorts of negative behaviours that are so visible through social media.

Instead of slamming and criticising someone who is being vain, let’s reach out with empathy and support. Let’s remind them how valuable and loved they are, even if they’re bragging and your first instinct is to sock them.

I think we could all use a little bit more love in our lives.

Got something to say? Go on, I know you do. Comment below comrade!

I would like to thank my Gen-Y housemates for the discussion that sprouted these ideas on narcissism and young people.

* Thank you Bondi Hipsters (The Life Organic) for that line