You’ve probably heard that millennials (many of whom, by the way, are entering their mid-thirties) are self-obsessed, or obsessed with others, or coddled and conceited, or idealistic and energetic. Forget about it. It’s all bullshit.
The idea that we can assign universal characteristics to generations is largely false; research published online last year and recently cited by Sanjay Srivastava, a University of Oregon psychologist, bolsters the case.
In 2010, as media attention on millennials reached a fever pitch, psychologists Kali Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan examined surveys of nearly 500,000 high school seniors between 1976 and 2006. They found “little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status over the last 30 years.”
Indeed, “a majority of the 2006 youth fall within the 1976 range of scores, even for the largest difference we found.” The largest difference was that modern youth have higher expectations to graduate from college. The researchers speculate that this is because many middle-class jobs now require such credentials, not because of intrinsic quality of people born between 1982 and 2002.
To be sure, it can be useful to compare economic situations and other empirical realities faced by different generations. Millennials do have lower incomes and more debt than their parents. But what social scientists can’t do is predict the personalities of people in that cohort, or how they will react to their circumstances.
Another finding in this research was a small but real increase in cynicism and fall in trust of others—but this trend began in the 1940s, predating even the famous Baby Boomers. The researchers observe that “this means that declines in trust are probably not restricted to the current generation of youth and instead reflect something more universal about changing American attitudes.”
The authors note that, despite other researchers finding similar evidence that generational cohorts don’t share an identity, the stereotype of the millennial personality remains widespread in media and society. The term “millennial” was coined by pop historians who argue that humanity is locked in repeating cycles of crisis, and embraced by hucksters like Steve Bannon, once president Donald Trump’s political svengali.
“Perhaps the more interesting psychological story concerns the persistence of beliefs about cohort-related changes when clear evidence of such effects is fairly limited,” the researchers conclude.