Millennials Are Defined by Access, Not Narcissism

Sorry TIME, I don’t buy it.

time_millennials_me_narcissism_coverCover Credit: Andrew B Myers for TIME. Read full article here (behind a $5 paywall).

Calling millennials the “Me Me Me Generation” is like writing a biography of Neil Armstrong called “The Nice Guy From Ohio”.  It may be true, but it misses the point. Neil Armstrong is remarkable because he landed on the moon. Millennials are special because we have access to more information, and therefore choices, than any other generation before us. That’s the trait that most defines our behavior and sets us apart from previous generations at our age. Not narcissism.

Call us the “Decisions Decisions Decisions” Generation Instead.

Think about it. Any question we’ve ever had about anything ever can be answered with a Google search. We don’t even have to wait for a computer to ask, we can even do it climbing a mountain if our smartphone gets reception. With social media, we talk, collaborate and listen to the thoughts of anyone in the world, including our favorite rock stars, industry leaders, the Dalai Lama or even the President of the United States. We maintain social networks of hundreds of people, some we may never have met in person or seen in years. Any passion, any interest, any job, any art form, any skill, any business, we can pursue with the cost of an internet connection. And what do we think of all these revolutionary developments? Nothing. It’s entirely ordinary–we’ve grown up with them.

Millennials have made it to the moon. Now, we’ve just got to decide what to do there.

All these options make us feel incredibly optimistic and empowered, despite high unemployment rates and the Great Recession. According to the Time‘s article, 89% of millennials are confident that eventually they will get what they want out of life. We expect jobs to not just pay our bills but, “deliver self-actualization”; if they don’t, we’ll just keep looking, book gigs online or start our own business. Our dating pools are larger than ever and full of more opportunities to meet someone perfect.

The down side? All these options are incredibly overwhelming! Decisions, decisions, decisions. We take a longer time to settle down. Why should we with so many choices available? According to The New York Times, one-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. We’re not getting married, buying houses or having kids until much later than generations before us. Heck, we’re not even committing to owning a car—46% of 18-24 year old drivers would choose the internet instead.

Joel Stein covers many of these points in his story, and even ends with the fact that millennials will be defined by our choices not narcissism, but you have to read a few pages to get there. He writes later on:

[Millennials] put off life choices because they can choose from a huge array of career options, some of which…didn’t exist 10 years ago. What idiot would try to work her way up at a company when she’s going to have an average of seven jobs before age 26? Because of online dating…they no longer have to marry someone from their high school class or even their home country…Because technology allows women to get pregnant in their 40s, they’re more free to postpone big decisions. The median age for an American woman’s first marriage went from 20.6 in 1967 to 26.9 in 2011. And while all that choice might end in disappointment, it’s a lottery worth playing.

Now, this is the part that resonates most. I should know, I’m a 23 year old millennial living it! This data is much more telling about my generation than the fact that three times as many middle school girls want to be a celebrity’s personal assistant instead of a Senator–a statistic Stein starts off the article with (plus, with Senate at such a low approval rate, is it any surprise that these girls would choose another profession?).

Our biggest fear isn’t repression by The Man (I’m looking at you Gen X), but instead missing out. We’re excited to pursue new passions and opportunities, but wary about committing to them if they’re not just right. Many of them aren’t yet–the Time‘s article features Sean Lyons, co-editor of Managing the New Workforce: International Perspectives on the Millennial Generation, explaining that “‘this generation has the highest likelihood of having unmet expectations with respect to their careers”‘. He calls this a “crisis of unmet expectations” which, I would argue extends well beyond careers.

When you didn’t grow up being able to apply to any job in the world online, it’s hard to understand why someone unemployed might be paralyzed searching for a job, let alone a “dream job”. When someone’s not limited to people they know your high school or college class, why not wait a while to find your perfect mate before getting married? It’s easy to laugh off someone who spends all day glued to their smartphone or pursuing their own frivolous interests on social media. But how can you resist when the opportunity to read anything  or talk with anyone is always at your fingertips and you’ve grown up with it all your life?  As Stein quotes Scott Heiss (TedX presenter of “Millennials: Who They Are and Why We Hate Them“), ‘”I think in many ways you’re blaming millennials for the technology that happens to exist right now”‘.

When millennials have such high expectations, you might say we’re entitled or arrogant for wanting more. Narcissistic even. But that’s the subheader, not the headline. We obsess about the size of our social following because we have the opportunity to have and maintain more relationships than ever.  We’re preoccupied with our self-image because we have more information and channels to learn about, define and express ourselves. Finally, we hold ourselves, our careers and others to high expectations  because the power exists to meet our expectations. Our generation’s greatest challenge will be consolidating reality with this crisis of unmet expectations.

*Image from NoExcusesHR*

*Image from NoExcusesHR*

Stein’s article is interesting, thorough and worth reading for the wide range of data he covers alone. But framing the content around narcissism instead of the incredible choices we have is all wrong.  It’s not just TIME magazine missing the big picture, publications from Forbes, The New York Times and Psychology Today are all buzzing about millennial narcissism. Even The Atlantic, who were quick to skewer TIME‘s cover story, wrote about how the internet turns young people into self-centered like- and tweet-aholics desperate for affirmation just a few months ago.

In and of itself, I could go either way on the millennial narcissism debate. Either the developmental or generational argument for millennials could be true and research exists to support both sides. In general, teens and twentysomethings are usually a little more self-centered than other age groups regardless of generation–after all, they are in the process of defining themselves independently for the first time. This represents the developmental argument for millennials’ narcissism, as expertly summarized in The Atlantic’s article “Every Every Every Generation is a Me Me Me Generation“. But millennials are the first generation to grow up with an “About Me” section. We’re coming of age much more concretely to a much wider audience. Who wouldn’t focus more on self-image? This (again, debated) increase in narcissism may be nothing more than a result of normal development stages exacerbated by existing technology. It certainly doesn’t help that we have a fad revolving solely around posting pictures of ourselves online (aka “selfies”).

But the big picture remains the same. Millennials are not defined by narcissism, but instead by the incredible opportunities available to us and the crisis of unmet expectations. I don’t know if we’ll “save us all” (or even what that means), but I do know I feel lucky to be a part of my generation, selfies and all.

Thanks for reading! Lindsey Kirchoff

PS. This video of Joel Stein spending a day like a millennial is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time–well done TIME. Enjoy!


11 thoughts on “Millennials Are Defined by Access, Not Narcissism

  1. Your point about us fearing we’ll miss out on something was spot on, although I’m finding some people in the same age bracket as us are wary of even pursuing something unfamiliar and challenging.

    Fantastic article! I really enjoyed reading this. And that Joel Stein video was hilarious, thanks for sharing :)

  2. Hi Iman,

    Thanks for your comment. I definitely know people (myself included on occasion!) who are wary of pursuing or looking into something entirely new, challenging or out of their comfort zone. Just because we’re millennials doesn’t mean we’ll go skydiving in Bolivia after starting a successful venture (because, why not?).

    I’d say it’s the access to all these options is what makes millennials different, not that we’ll all necessarily pursue them. In fact, many of us may be paralyzed by all these options and end up staying in watching cat videos on YouTube (#millennial problems) OR drawn to the more familiar things we already know and love (ex. see my article on why millennials watch children’s movies


  3. Hi Lindsey,

    Thanks for sending me the link to this. On the whole I agree with you. In the past the majority of people followed an almost pre-destined future – or at the very least it was heavily structured with little room for personal choice. Job security meant 40 years in the same job. That doesn’t exist now. Job security now means investing in ourselves. Does that make us a narcissist? No it doesn’t have to. Of course, there is that side to this generation – perhaps it’s our shadow side? But what we value is taking our time in a world which has infinite choices and possibilities – rushing into things is not the best option for us. Hopefully we can avoid e.g. the family divorce or job dissatisfaction that has in some way come to define the baby-boomers by delaying or even making different choices. The world in many ways is now more malleable.

    What I’m trying to say is that I think we’re learning from the over-commitment of our parents and in turn are maybe not committing enough, but that’s progress in my opinion. Procrastination can be a good thing – it can be a way of making sure you are absolutely happy. Something I have come across recently is the Chinese principle of Wu-Wei – maybe that in some way defines us?

    I agree with the large quote from Joel Stein above that playing the lottery of choice is a chance worth taking.

    A theory that can explain what it’s like to be a millennial? If you’re not aware of it read about the economic principle of opportunity cost – we have to constantly weight this up – if we do X we can’t do Y. And we have a lot of choices! Hence the delay in making one! And sometimes paralysis!

    Interestingly though, just read that Gen X was also called the Me generation by newspapers in the UK.

    Anyway that’s enough from me!

  4. […] This blog posting by Lindsey Kirchoff accurately depicts what I believe to be the core of millennials lack of commitment. She states that with the vast and endless opportunities presented to Gen-Y, it has become increasingly difficult to be sure of our decision making. We are consumed by technology, sharing, and communication, so the difficulty of devoting ourselves to one service or concept makes sense. […]

  5. matth5 says:

    You’re so right that we have such a large array of information, literally at our fingertips.
    I really like that you talk about us being the decision generation. We’ve come so far with technology and information that it’s up to us where we go from here. There has been so much change over just the past couple decades.
    I think we’re so confident we’ll get what we what because we do have so much available to us.
    If you’re interested in some blogs about millennial marketing, like your own, you could check out the YAYA Connection blog. I’m part of the blog team for this semester. – Mary

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Mary. I’m always on the lookout for great millennial marketing blogs, so feel free to comment with a link so I can check it out. Glad you enjoyed the read and best of luck this semester.

  6. […] Yes, things look grim. But it’s almost impossible not to be optimistic when you think of the doors that technology has opened for us. Look at it this way: […]

  7. […] Market to Me (Your guide to getting into the Millennial market) blog writes a great post entitled Millennials Want to be Defined by Access not Narcissism. Lidsey states, “Millennials are special because we have access to more information, and […]

  8. […] in the early 1980s held an average of 7.2 jobs from 18-28 years of age. After all, millennials are defined by access and it’s never been easier to see and explore other job […]

  9. Duane Hobbs says:

    Perhaps because they are so highly dependent on feedback loops for identity and decision making, and have minimal understanding of their own core values, and lack a sense of purpose to guide them, many millennials do strongly exhibit consistently narcissistic behavior.

    (Note that this labeling applies to the behavior not to the demographic we’re calling a generation. This same behavioral pattern is widely practiced in capitalist consumer cultures globally. So, your point about access is important. Millennials are far from being the only narcissists.)

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