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The Kids Are All Right

Humans, like all organisms, are the product of evolution. And what evolution ‘cares’ about is genetic propagation: how many genes are passed from one generation to the next.

The Kids Are All Right

Loudly chomping on a stick of gum, Emily finished the last few words of her barely comprehensible text message: “BTW..that shit was cray. WTF!! : )” She laughed, and slid back into her seat to listen. The professor droned on about some dead playwright named Shakespeare. Who cares? The monotone began to recede as she opened her laptop and checked her Instagram, eagerly eyeing the number of “likes” her latest selfie had obtained. One thousand and twenty two! This thrilled her. However, her cheer temporarily soured as she remembered that her BMW was in the shop. How unfair. Now she had to ride home with her roommate Rebecca, a nerd who would force her to listen to pretentious “indie” bands on the drive home. Ugh. Her aged, out of touch, and pedantic professor finally ceased speaking of something called Hamlet and dismissed the class. Excitedly, Emily stood up, pulled down her pink “I love me” shirt, and walked out of the classroom. As she entered the hall, she quickly turned up the volume of her iPod, humming along to the lyrics of her favorite pop song: “I’m so fancy/can’t you taste this gold/Remember my name/bout to blow.”

If you believe that society is deteriorating as traditional values and moral verities decay, Emily is your worst nightmare: vain, selfish, impulsive, and dismissive of anything of transcendent value. You are also not alone. Many moral theorists, from Hesiod to Russell Kirk, have warned about the selfishness and moral vacuousness of the next generation. Recently, researchers have put forward data that seem to at least partially support such pessimism about Millennials. In fact, Jean Twenge’s excellent and entertaining book about these Millennials is tellingly entitled Generation Me.¹ She and W. Keith Campbell followed this book with the more ominously titled, The Narcissism Epidemic.²

Yet in this essay, we will forward a more optimistic perspective, arguing that although some of the data Twenge and her colleagues have advanced are correct, their interpretation of them is not. Some indicators of self-regard and even narcissism have increased from the 70s through to the 2000s, but these increases don’t reflect increasing narcissism; rather they reflect increasing humanism–a general emphasis on the value of all individuals, including the self.³

The kids are not only all right; in many ways, they are better than we are.


Since the early 2000s, Twenge and colleagues have advanced and analyzed data suggesting a secular increase in self-esteem and narcissism from at least the 1970s. Self-esteem, or one’s general attitude about the self, played a prominent role in many early social psychological theories, where it was considered an unalloyed good.4

However, in the late 90s and early 2000s, researchers began to question this assumption. Perhaps too much self-esteem is a dangerous delusion, leading to a bloated sense of entitlement, aggressive reactions to criticism, and inevitable disappointment as reality encroaches upon the inflated ego.

Twenge and her colleagues accept this latter view of self-esteem, viewing it as potentially problematic, especially when it is decoupled from actual achievement. And they believe that such a decoupling has occurred during the second half of the twentieth century as concerned parents and hippie gurus filled youth with silly platitudes about being special snowflakes capable of doing anything while doling out awards for simply showing up.

They support these contentions by examining the changes in scores on various measures of self-esteem across time and across cohorts. For example, they might look at the self-esteem scores of high school seniors in 1972, then in 1973, and then in 1978, and then compare these scores. This allows them to compare cohort scores and not just scores across time, (which might change simply because people lose or gain self-esteem as they age). Using this method, Twenge and Campbell reported a trend of increasing self-esteem from 1968 to 1994 among college students.5 In an update,6 they reported a continued trend of increasing self-esteem in middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and college students from 1988 to 2008.

However, more alarming than a secular increase in self-esteem, according to Twenge and her colleagues, is an increase in apparent narcissism.

The term “narcissism” comes the Greek myth of Narcissus, a particularly beautiful and prideful hunter who fell in love with his own image in a pool, shunning all things to stare at himself until he finally died. As the myth suggests, narcissism refers to a positive and inflated evaluation of the self, often coupled with excessive sensitivity to criticism and diminished empathy.7 Twenge and colleagues have found that college students endorsed roughly two more “narcissistic” items out of forty (e.g. “I am an extraordinary person” rather than “I am much like everybody else”) on the narcissistic personality inventory (NPI)8 since 1982.9 They have also found similar results in several follow up studies.10,11

According to Twenge and colleagues, the broader secular trends that explain these increases in self-esteem and narcissism are an increase in individualism, self-focus, materialism, and extrinsic goals more generally. Millennials are excessively individualistic and self-absorbed, obsessed with fame and material goods, uninterested in community and personal philosophies, and appalled by collective duty and responsibility. This explains why modern personal names are more unique than older ones (“Apple” today versus “Sarah” yesterday), why duty-related words are used less often in print today than they were in the 70s and 80s, why singular personal pronouns (I, me, my, mine) are used more often in print today than they were in previous decades, why sexual mores have significantly loosened since the 70s and 80s, but also, and more salubriously, why tolerance for others has increased, and why the sexes are today treated more equally than in the 70s and 80s.1,2,12,13,14,15

In some of Twenge and Campbell’s1 more speculative passages, they even blame American consumer debt and the financial crisis of ’07 and ’08 on increasing narcissism and individualism. They have lamented our “phony national economy,” which is sustained by self-obsessed consumers purchasing prestige goods with money they don’t have (p. 4).

Let’s pause here to review. Millennials, according to this perspective, are bursting with self-esteem, possibly because they have been coddled and catered to, encouraged and complimented, since birth.16 This incessant aggrandizement of the ego has, however, created a Frankenstein’s monster: a lumbering self-concept that is disconnected from reality and sensitive to insult, struggle, rejection, or denial. It is not difficult to see Emily, the student from the introduction, in this description. And, if Emily horrifies you, then the generation me narrative probably resonates. Today’s youth are obnoxious and self-absorbed, and, no hyperbole intended, they might just destroy civilization as we know it.

But, before you prepare your funeral dirge for Western civilization, we want to offer you another possibility. Millennials aren’t spoiled, self-absorbed narcissists; rather, they are sensitive humanists—flawed, certainly, but more caring, tolerant, and peaceful than any other generation. Actually, this should not be surprising. Western societies are more peaceful, humane, tolerant, and moral than at any time in history.17,18 It would be remarkable if such achievements weren’t accompanied by the flourishing of tolerance, pacifism, compassion, and cosmopolitanism. One may admire the charm and simplicity of life in a Norman Rockwell painting, but the data suggest that nostalgia is a better guide to art than to reality.

Genetics, Fear, and the Slippery Slope of Moral Authoritarianism
Sydney. London. Toronto.


We believe that the constellation of traits that define Millennials, although superficially similar to extreme individualism, is actually more accurately described as humanism.19 However, to understand fully the nature of this development—of increasing humanism across time—it is useful to start at the start: human nature.

Humans, like all organisms, are the product of evolution. And what evolution ‘cares’ about is genetic propagation: how many genes are passed from one generation to the next. Traits that favored this process were selected and preserved by evolution; and traits that didn’t were gradually eliminated.20

This broader evolutionary goal to propagate genetic material most likely would have led to a motivation to control—to control resources, to control the self, and to control other people.21 So are we all relentless sadists and control freaks? Not necessarily, because humans evolved in social coalitions and thus had to thwart certain selfish impulses for the benefit of the coalition. The exigencies of social coalitions gave rise to a moral sense, a mental mechanism that views some behavior as good, fair, laudable, and other behavior as selfish, disgusting, and punishable.22 Ultimately, the soldier in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket who dons a helmet that reads “born to kill” while simultaneously wearing a peace symbol on his coat was right: humans are dual creatures, capable of great generosity and cooperation, but also capable of great destruction and depravity.

To some degree, the personality traits that manifest in any society are determined by the surrounding social and technological environment. Some cultures encourage the development of traits closer to the dark side of our duality: in relatively unstable and impoverished societies, for example, the natural tendencies of dominance, submission, intolerance, and strict hierarchy are encouraged because life is fragile and survival requires a cohesive community.

Other cultures, however, encourage the development of traits closer to the light side of our duality: in relatively affluent and law-based societies, natural tendencies of autonomy, compassion, and egalitarianism can prevail. This explains how personality traits and social and moral values can change across time. And we believe that several secular trends have conspired to elicit many of humans’ best traits while curtailing their worst.17 Below we describe these trends.


1:) Increased wealth: As wealth increases, threats to one’s existence decline and autonomy increases because coalitional dependence declines (people don’t need each other as much as they did before) and because people have the resources to do what they want to do. (For example, you can leave your peer group and family and move from Boston to San Antonio to study the arts. You can explore the world by yourself, develop and pursue your own interests, and sustain yourself without toiling in a field all day).

2:) Establishment of markets: Markets promote autonomy because they promote nonzero interactions whereby one individual can benefit from the free behavior of another individual. They also promote self-control and rationality because they require the exercise of both to satisfy best one’s desires in a marketplace and to develop skills that will benefit others and thus be rewarded. Because markets punish people who refuse goods and services to others who are willing to pay, they also encourage tolerance. Conversely, markets discourage coercion because the market system depends upon relatively free interactions between individuals.

3:) Establishment of rule of law and effective regulatory regimes: Rule of law promotes moral judiciousness and egalitarianism and self-control. It encourages egalitarianism because the premise of the rule of law is that all individuals are subject to the law, that is, they are equal before the law. It encourages moral judiciousness and self-control because both allow an individual to earn rewards in a society that is shaped around basic legal doctrines and that punishes transgressors (for example, if one steals and gets caught, one loses the rewards of civilization). Conversely, the rule of law discourages sadism, coercion, and intolerance. The law is designed to eliminate, as much as possible, the non-norm based manipulation of people, which means it generally proscribes violence; also, the law attempts to be universal, which means it usually deters intolerance and discrimination.

4:) Expansion of education: Education promotes rationality, autonomy, self-control, and moral judiciousness. Education empowers individuals to control their own lives and to engage with public policies, concerns, social ills—with culture in general, in other words. It also encourages egalitarianism because it reduces the power of an educated elite, spreading knowledge more broadly across a population. (You know how to read and how to discover information for yourself. You don’t need to rely on experts for everything).

5:) Democratization: Democratization encourages rationality and autonomy. Because citizens are allowed and encouraged to participate in political life, they are rewarded for exercising their reason to make wise political decisions. Furthermore, they achieve autonomy because they are responsible for their own political arrangements and institutions. Democratization also promotes egalitarianism because each citizen has a unique and equal vote in the political process. As with the rule of law, each citizen in a democracy is ideally equal in the political system.

6:) Increase of communication channels (television stations and newspapers; and more recently, social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram): The new media foster tolerance and autonomy and compassion. They encourage tolerance and compassion because they associate distant people, connecting them so that they can share similar experiences, desires, hopes, so that that they can, in other words, share their humanness with each other. They also promote autonomy because they allow individuals a unique platform to express opinions, desires, fashions, and consume knowledge without the observation or approval of authority figures.

These trends ultimately lead to increasing human empowerment.3 Although complicated,19,23 the basic story is that the above forces allow individuals to control their own lives and to follow their intrinsic motivations, as people who engage in coercion, aggression, or other violations of the autonomy of others are punished and stripped of social status.24 These new values may appear individualistic, even narcissistic, because people become more skeptical of authority and social control, shy away from collectivistic enterprises, and cease to conform to traditional norms, which are perceived as staid, unfashionable, and ruinous of individual autonomy. However, these values are actually humanistic, emphasizing control, inclusiveness, equality of opportunity, volunteerism, and rationality. Scores on some narcissism instruments, such as the NPI may increase, but probably reflect Millennials’ increasing evaluation of individuals in general not just themselves. As Inglehart and Welzel wrote about this trend in 2005:

We argue that self-expression values are not egocentric but humanistic; they emphasize not only autonomy for oneself but for others as well, motivating movements for the rights of children, women, gays and lesbians, handicapped people, and ethnic minorities and such universal goals as environmental protection and ecological sustainability. This wide range of anti-discriminatory social movements reflects a broad trend that places increasing emphasis on humanistic norms.19 (p. 12).


If our contention that Millennials are more humanistic than previous generations, not narcissistic or just individualistic is correct, then one would expect to find supporting evidence in real world trends, some of which would directly contradict the argument that they are more narcissistic. For example, increasing humanism would predict decreasing violence and bullying; whereas, increasing narcissism would predict the opposite.25,26,27 We don’t have time to cover all of these trends in an essay of this size, but we can cover a few of the most important.

1:) Decreasing violence and bullying: Consistent with predictions from the humanist perspective, violence and bullying have been declining since the 90s. Among people aged 10-24, homicide rates have plummeted since the 90s. In 1993, the homicide rate among this age group was 15.9 per 100,000; in 2010, it was 7.5.28 From 2003-2011, violent victimization rates decreased among children and youth aged 2-17. For just a few examples, physical assault declined by 33%; sexual victimization by 27%; and maltreatment by 26%. Overall, of 50 analyzed trends, 27 saw statistically significant declines, and none saw statistically significant increases.29

Several studies have documented similar results about bullying. Finkelhor30 has found that violent victimization at school has declined around 74% from 1992 to 2010, that bullying victimization declined 26%, and that bullying perpetration declined 55%. The Health Behavior in School-Aged Children surveys document a decline in bullying victimization, perpetration, and fighting from 1998-2010.31 It should be noted, however, that reports of cyber bullying have been increasing relatively consistently during the 2000s.32,33

2:) Decreasing reckless behaviors: Also consistent with the humanistic perspective, real world indicators of responsibility, value for human life, and self-control have been increasing, with some possible exceptions. Teenage birth rates have plummeted from 59.9 births per 1,000 women in 1990, to 24.2 per 1,000 women in 2014.34 Similarly, abortion rates have declined dramatically since a peak in the early 80s.35 The use of cigarettes and alcohol has also waned since the 80s. In 1980, 9.2% of incoming college students reported frequent cigarette use; in 2014, only 1.7% of incoming students reported frequent use.36 Overall, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), the number of 9th-12th graders who smoked at least one cigarette in the previous 30 days rose from 1991 to 1997 (from 27.5% to 36.4%) before plummeting to 15.7% in 2013.37

Furthermore, alcohol use among adolescents and young adults has declined from 1991 to 2013.38 Relatedly, the proportion of high school students who reported ever drinking and driving has also declined dramatically from 1991 to 2011.39 In general, automobile safety and responsibility have increased. Seat belt usage, perhaps the single most important component of automobile safety, has increased substantially since the 80s, rising from 14% to 82%.40 Since 1991, more teens report using seatbelts when riding with other drivers.41 These trends, among others, have led to a dramatic decline in automobile fatalities since the 1970s and even since the 1990s.42

3:) Increasing tolerance, compassion, engagement: Twenge and her colleagues agree that tolerance has been increasing since the 1970s; however, they argue that the chief cause of this trend is increasing individualism, not humanism or compassion.43 Here, therefore, we will forward some data on increasing tolerance (which is certainly important), but focus more on trends that appear to indicate increasing compassion and civic engagement.

Since the early 1990s, tolerance toward gays and lesbians (and other alternative sexualities) has increased precipitously. For example, according to data from the general social surveys (GSS), the percentage of Americans who answered that homosexuality is “always wrong” dropped from 75% in 1987 to 43.5% in 2010; conversely, the percentage of Americans who reported that homosexuality is “not wrong at all” increased from 11.6% in 1987 to 40.6% in 2010.44 Pew data indicate similar increases in tolerance for gay marriage. Seventy percent of Millennials support gay marriage, compared to 59% of Generation Xers and 45% of Baby Boomers.45 Tolerance toward different viewpoints, cultures, and ethnic groups has also increased substantially since the 70s.3

Male or Female: There’s Nothing In Between
Since the dawn of our species, the evolution of two distinct sexes has been fundamental to human reproduction. There is no such thing as a ‘sex spectrum.’

During this same period, respect and compassion for animals has increased, with animal rights activists and philosophers rising from relative obscurity in the 1970s to prominence in the 2000s and beyond. Google Ngram, a Google program that searches all scanned books for instances of a word or phrase, indicates a substantial increase in the use of phrases related to compassion for animals such as “animal rights,” “animal suffering,” “animal liberation,” and “animal cruelty” since the 1980s (some of these peaked in the early 2000s, but were substantially higher in 2008 than in 1980). From 2001 to 2014, attitudes toward animal testing reflected this increasing compassion. In 2001, 31% of young adults found animal testing morally objectionable compared to 54% in 2013.46 And even since 2008, indicators of compassion toward animals have been increasing. For example, the percentage of 18-49 year olds who believe that animals should have the same rights as humans increased from 22% in 2008 to 31% in 2015.47

One often-voiced complaint against Millennials is that they are disengaged and cynical, lacking civic enthusiasm and desire to engage with the political system.48 We believe that although there has been a decline in traditional forms of political participation such as voting and a decline in joining traditional social groups such as the Boy Scouts, (both of which are forms of social behavior that are based on deference to authority and submission to large networks of people) there has been an increase in other direct forms of political participation. These other forms of participation include boycotting products and an increase in voluntary associations such as campus protest groups (think, also, of Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party).3,23 In 2010, 32.1% of incoming college Freshman indicated that there was a “very good chance” that they would engage in volunteer or community service work, the highest on record, and substantially more than the 16.9% who answered the same in 1990.49 Similarly, Dalton23 has documented that people in the 2000s were more likely to have participated directly in a political campaign, to have signed a petition, to have participated in a civic group, to have participated in community action, and to have protested than in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s.

In summary, most real-world trends support the contention that Millennials are more humanistic than previous generations, not just more individualistic or narcissistic. As we noted, some symptoms of humanism and hyper-individualism, like some symptoms of anger and excitement (increased pulse rate, sweat, vasodilation), appear remarkably similar without further analysis. And just as one can only discriminate between anger and excitement by observing the entire suite of symptoms they impel, so one can only discriminate between hyper-individualism and humanism by examining the entire panoply of behaviors they impel.

Hyper-individualism, for example, predicts increases in violence and bullying across time. Not only are there not increases in violence and bullying, but also there are actually dramatic decreases. Furthermore, many of the trends since the 70s suggest a heightened appreciation of the value of human (and other sentient) life. In general, Millennials are more cautious and responsible with automobiles and drugs than other generations, probably because of this aforementioned value they place on life. Last, some of the most remarkable cultural changes since the 70s indicate a profound increase in compassion for outsiders of all kinds (e.g., the poor, the marginalized, minority groups, women, animals, et cetera). Because concern for others is actually a contraindication of narcissism, this trend seems especially to refute the hypothesis that Millennials are more narcissistic and self-obsessed than previous generations.


We have argued that the popular view of Millennials as self-absorbed, cynical narcissists is erroneous. Instead, we have contended that Millennials are more humanistic than other generations, and that their apparent narcissism is actually a symptom of their desire for autonomy and their high evaluation of the importance of humans in general. This means that Millennials are more likely to think that they are special, unique, and important, because they are more likely to think that everyone is special, unique, and important. They are also probably more sensitive than other generations, more quick to complain about a policy, an insult, or a certain state of affairs, and less likely to complacently accept perceived injustices.

These developments may lead to some unfortunate side-effects such as the selfie-stick and omnipresent social media—and even to more troubling side-effects such as college students attempting to stifle free speech or pleading to place “trigger warnings” on pieces of classical literature. But, all things considered, it is difficult to see these developments as anything other than beneficial and laudable. The conservative moralist in most of us may never warm to Emily, the student from the introduction, but consider this.

Emily may not appreciate Shakespeare, but she is more likely than her parents to appreciate diversity, to care about vulnerable others, to devote her time to protests or petitions, to eat healthy meals, to exercise regularly, to refrain from smoking, to drive responsibly, to question authority. If her skepticism about hierarchy and established institutions is excessive, it will probably temper with time. It is almost certain that the young and the old, the next and the now, will conflict and bicker on a variety of issues. The aged will cling to their culture, and the young will laugh at it. And this is healthy. The youth probably have more vigor and optimism than wisdom, and the aged probably less imagination for change than commitment to stability. Just because Millennials are better, in a number of ways, than other generations, doesn’t mean that they are correct about everything.

Civilization requires those who desire to preserve and protect it as much as it requires those who desire to challenge and change it. It is important, however, to check natural biases about youth with data. Those who see doom on the horizon, in other words, should inspect their immediate surroundings more closely. Who knows, they might just like what they see.


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