Generation Me vs. We: How To Make Sense of Millennials’ Dual Personalities

Millennials get a mixed reputation. While some call us narcissistic and shallow, others are inspired by our connectedness and drive for social change. Are we all about ourselves or others?

The Huffington Post recently featured two opposing studies regarding millennial values that’ve left a few scratching heads. One article reported a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that deemed millennials as more self-centered and focused on extrinsic motivators, such as money and fame, than Baby Boomers or GenXers were at our age. Ouch. Yet, only a few months later, the same newspaper reported on another study that 75% of millennials donate financially to charity and 63% donate time–statistics that seem to negate our previous narcissistic image.

So, which is it: Generation Me or We?

If you look at the numbers, the answer is pretty clear. But since these studies are so different, I’ll be using them for different purposes. The first demonstrates a trend and mindset for a generation analyzing nation-wide data over 40+ years. The second describes how non-profits effectively engage millennials based on a much smaller and biased survey population.  In this two-part article, I’ll report my findings after reading each study thoroughly  and then how non-profits can use this data to their advantage.

First, let’s talk methods. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, whose findings overwhelmingly supports the Generation Me theory, analyzes data going back to 1975 from two nationally representative samples: high school seniors and college freshmen at four year universities. While the second group is more selective, each was filtered carefully to represent the national demographics at the time. The survey focused primarily on what is most important in life (life goals), the importance of empathy (concern for others) and being involved in the community (civic orientation). The study distinguished these questions based on extrinsic values (those relying on external feedback such as fame, money, popularity) vs. intrinsic values (those relying on internal feedback like self-acceptance, actualization and community) to establish whether an action was motivated by narcissism or self-esteem.

What did all this data tell us? Compared to Baby Boomers (surveyed in 1966-78) and GenXers (79-99), Millennials (2000-2009) are across the board Generation Me.

Millennials are more motivated by extrinsic goals than intrinsic ones, more narcissistic, less concerned for others, less civically and communally engaged than either of the previous generations at our age. In terms of life goals, “being very well off financially” rose four ranks while “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment” dropped three ranks from Baby Boomer’s answers at 17 and 18. My English professors would say that we are true children of the post-modern literature movement, with “finding purpose and meaning in my life” dropping three ranks from Baby Boomers (although it still ranks higher than money for millennials). The only silver lining for millennials? Significant increases in volunteering–probably due to increased high school and college requirements.

As a self-proclaimed millennial cheerleader and environmentalist, this study was a bitter pill to swallow. At Tufts, I was surrounded by active citizens passionate about making the world a better place. Then again, every twentysomething wants to change the world. Are millennials just a little more jaded than our predecessors?

With the limits of self-report data, we just might not be giving ourselves enough credit. One question, asking “would you ever write to a politician” I would answer no, thinking of letters. But that report would be false, considering I have participated in multiple email and social media campaigns for causes I believe in. While millennials reported themselves less likely to engage in political action, we turned out in record numbers for the 2008 election race. When I see these potential shortcomings just in the political sphere, I wonder what other data misreports might have happened due to language?

The numbers are convincing and this study was thorough: we are Generation Me. However, it might not be as bad as we think. Stay tuned next time for how nonprofits can harness millennial potential using data from this study and the Millennial Impact Report.

Thanks for reading! Lindsey Kirchoff

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5 thoughts on “Generation Me vs. We: How To Make Sense of Millennials’ Dual Personalities

  1. Another great post, Lindsey! Our generation is so hard to peg, isn’t it? Dual personality is a good way to put it. If I can’t even figure out where I belong and I’m part of the darn demographic, then I can’t imagine how tough it is for marketers to figure out…

    One of my hangups is the positively enormous age range that supposedly includes Millennials. I’ve read articles claiming that people born between 1980-2000 belong in the Millennial category, but that seems SO vast to me! And don’t even get me started on the numerous “nicknames” for this generation. I’ve heard “Generation Y,” “Generation Me,” “Generation We,” and “Echo Boomers.” Which one is it? I don’t see this many nicknames for any other generation, so why in the world is ours so damn confusing?

    I’m still plugging away at my Millennial article…I have to keep changing it after I read new articles with (supposedly) new insights. Sigh…

    • Thanks so much Jill! Your comments just make my day. I can’t wait to read your article. There is so much information out there! Lucky for me, it gives a lot of inspiration for blog articles.

      Hard to peg is right! We’re one of the biggest generations out there. How can you possibly find trends to simplify a group so vast? But then there are the shared experiences, cultures and mindsets that come with being the same age together…it’s pretty fascinating.

      The nicknames! There are so many! I can’t wait for everyone to decide on just one (my favorite is millennials for sure). I might have to start doing a poll. Maybe there’s no set name since we’re the babies of the bunch? Or all those supposedly new insights that keep coming?

      Please let me know as soon as your article comes out! I’d be happy to help in any way I can. Best of luck!

  2. Lindsey- awesome post! We’ve been thinking a lot about this at MTV as well – we think a lot of the study is flawed given the outdated language & concepts used, as you suggest above. Your example of “would I ever write a politician” is perfect, as people are more likely to engage virtually. And data points like “I would participate in a community action program” are irrelevant as well (as our Millennials point out .. what on earth is a “community action program”?) Take a look at our thoughts on @MTVInsights ! ow.ly/bxh2n

    • Thanks Alison! I’m glad you enjoyed reading–I found this article particularly interesting to research. If there’s anything I learned from my college social psychology classes, it’s that there are a number of factors that influence people’s self-report data, especially wording.

      I always like reading the MTVInsights blog, but I found this particular article especially hopeful. The millennials described in your article are much closer to the ones I recognize in my friends, alumni and collaborators. Maybe it’s just being a twentysomething, but almost everyone I know is searching for some great life meaning, which is why Twenge’s observations were so surprising. I especially enjoyed your point about eco-consciousness being engrained in our consciousness vs. an aspiration. As an environmental science major, this outlook gives me some much-needed hope!

      In other news, is there a way to subscribe to the MTVInsights blog via email? The RSS link is giving me trouble and I’d love to be updated on new posts. Please feel free to email me at howtomarkettome@gmail.com.

  3. david says:

    No, you aren’t jaded. Not even slightly. That’s the problem. Your generation essentially just takes everything at face value. I think this has to do with two factors, both technological:

    1) Most millennials have an almost completely constructed identity. By “constructed identity” I mean one that you constantly are editing, building, refining, etc.. You are constantly presenting yourself as something, because that’s what living is now, presenting an image of a person rather than being a person. So, in this case that you mention, of course it is desirable to seem charitable or whatever, so that’s the image I’m going to try to construct. Now, say, in the environmental case, this runs into some problems, because I also want to appear to be prosperous and so on, so I need the appropriate consumer goods for this, but you can make up for this by, I don’t know, sticking a Sierra Club bumper sticker on your Subaru, which I think is just about the perfect summary of things.

    See, the thing is, (and this is what explains your “dual personalities” thing, which you might more accurately describe as “no personality”) you are sharing the space with which you construct your identity with marketers, who are ever so able and willing to help you construct your identity; and so, the attitude of the millennial (oh, we are very special, and critical readers, and immune to marketing, and you have to speak to us specially, and so on) is just really … well, it is laughable. You are the most uncritical, unthinking, unaware generation of all time: hey, we (I’m 37) may have watched TV all day, but when the TV was turned off, we had to go outside. Not you guys. You have the TV on all day, everyday, every second of the day, and this is my second point:

    2) Most millennials watch TV all day, everyday. By TV, I include every glowing screen. The myth of that you are expressing yourself, and all this, well, it’s not really happening. Instead, the world is mediated for you by glowing screens, which despite the illusion of being two-way communication, is really one way. The medium is the message. And the message here is: this is life, this is what human life is, it is what I do in response to the stimuli from this flickering screen. Now, honestly, what chance do you think you have? The irony is, you are told constantly about how authentic you are, and how you are a special generation and so on. But really, you are the marketers’ dream come true: a permanent audience, just waiting for instructions on how to feel, and what to do, and what to do next, and what’s important.

    I’m sorry, but it’s true. There also probably isn’t a lot you can do about it except turn off your cell phone and have a cup of tea. Just drink the tea and don’t blab all about how you are a “tea drinker” to your “friends.”

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