In 2010, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that college students then were 40% less empathetic than those of 1980, with the steepest decline occurring during the last 10 years leading into 2010. Spearheading the study’s research was the University of Michigan’s own Sara H. Konrath, who published her findings in an online Personality and Social Psychology Review. In this review, Ms. Konrath discusses how self-reported empathy levels of college students back in 2010 had dramatically declined since 1980, the greatest period of decline taking place during the last ten years leading up to 2010. Using a technique known as cross-temporal meta-analysis to measure whether the data collected at that time had changed over the years, Konrath was able to determine that 75% of students in 2010 described themselves as being less empathetic than the average student from 30 years ago.
A psychologist at San Diego State University by the name of Jean Twenge has also stated that during this same period, students also self-reported that narcissism was becoming more prevalent amongst young adults. Perhaps these statistics help explain why it is that Generation Y (anyone born between 1982-2002), also known as the millennials, stands accused of being far less empathetic than those before it. Cynical, lazy, egocentric. Add a false sense of entitlement, and you’ve got yourself the basis of why many Baby Boomers claim they are so frustrated with today’s youth and their demanding need for things around them to change in order to satisfy their preferences.
While Sarah Konrath and her associates examined 13,737 college students in the U.S., researchers were also analyzing 72 studies of students with a mean age of 20 from 1979 to 2000, all of whom were assessed using the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index Test, which focuses on empathetic concern and the emotional response to the distress of others. The test also evaluates perspective taking, or the ability to imagine another person’s perspective. The phrase “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” comes to mind here.
Those that scored higher on the empathy assessment were more likely to exhibit indicative behaviors relative to their ranking. These behaviors could be anything ranging from offering to help a complete stranger carry their groceries or belongings, assisting a blind person safely across the street, allowing someone to go ahead of you in line at the grocery store because they have less to purchase, showing compassion to a homeless person, or by simply helping anyone in general. The researchers reported that there had been a 48% decrease in empathetic concern, as well as a 34% decrease in perspective taking, between 1979 and 2009. The researchers also reported that today’s college students were less likely to have empathetic feelings for people less fortunate than themselves. Konrath, who is also an affiliate of the University of Rochester’s Department of Psychiatry, concluded that young adults nowadays make up one of the most self-concerned, competitive, confident, and individualistic cohorts in recent history. Researchers also cited a previous 2005 study that found a decreased level of empathetic concern amongst medical interns.
So why are people today this way? Movies, social media, and violent video games have oftentimes been identified as potential explanations for this rapid decrease in empathy amongst the millennials. Edward O’Brien has cited research being done at the University of Michigan, which states that exposure to violent media outlets numbs people to the pain of others. It is theorized that social media networking, which many have said is to blame for the increase in physically distant young adults, allows people today to create a buffer between themselves and the outside world. In the past 30 years, Americans have become more likely to live alone and less likely to join groups of any kind. Several studies have found that this type of isolation from the world can take a significant toll on people’s attitudes towards others. It is suggested that by isolating themselves, it has become subsequently easier for today’s young adults to ignore the pain of others, or more alarmingly, inflict pain upon others. I can’t help but speculate that the growing emphasis on self by young people has come with a decreased emphasis on others.
Konrath went on to argue that part of the explanation for decreased levels of empathy may be found by examining how today’s young adults were raised as children. Changes in parenting styles between 1980 and the present day may help reveal why it is we are seeing such a rapid decline in empathy and a sudden increase in narcissism. Where we once focused on nurturing, but not spoiling our children, and on success and competition, young people today may be too busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they do not have time to spend empathizing with others. I suppose when we consider Generation Y’s high aspirations and dismal economic prospects, and we factor in most young American’s risk-aversive, sedentary approach to life and work, we can see how someone like Joan Chiarmonte, head of the Roper Youth Report, would say that the gap between what young people have and what they want has never been greater. If you were around in the 60’s, then you might be reading this and thinking it all sounds vaguely familiar. In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article about the hippies, claiming that they were nothing more than dangerous, deluded, and lazy riff raff in desperate need of a crash course in civics. Go further back to the 1920’s and you will find that even back then, the youth of that time were described as being uncaring, shameless, lacking honor, and having no sense of duty. Knowing this, perhaps we need to ask if social scientists should be using scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes of today’s youth.
Psychology professor Jean Twenge of the San Diego State University stated that younger people are more self-assured than their parents, but observed that they were also more depressed. Since the creation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in 1979, thousands of students have completed this assessment while actively taking part in studies focused on things ranging from neural responses to others’ pain to levels of social conservatism. Using 14 years of research and 12 studies of generational differences based on data from 1.3 million young Americans, and by comparing the results of personality assessments distributed to baby boomers when they were under the age of 30 to those administered to millennials today, Twenge believes she knows why today’s youth is more confident, and more unhappy. Her findings became the basis of her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Before. She believes that this is a result of misplaced emphasis on the self-esteem movement of the last few decades. In her book, Twenge goes on to explain that those belonging to Generation Y “speak the language of self as their native tongue. The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue. Generation Me’s expectations are highly optimistic: They expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectation and crushing realities.”
Self-assured Generation Y takes many things for granted. Where Baby Boomers may have been self-absorbed, young Americans today are self-important. They know they are special, they know they are independent, and they do not feel the need to contemplate these things. English teachers in the U.S. have reported an increasing number of students who are completely detached from the rest of the world, largely, they say, because they do not read or watch the news and are not exposed to it at home. They think that this detachment spread into their personal relationships, which are fast and frequent, and sometimes carried out primarily through electronic means. It is thought that this is why their interpersonal skills are best described as being cold. While these are certainly generalizations, as there are many empathetic young people out there, a large number of educators have discussed witnessing such trends in their classrooms, which is something that has been the subject of many lunchroom discussions in recent years.
We have seen what years of research, studies, and observation reveal about Generation Y’s shortcomings. But there are, as they say, two sides to every coin. So what exactly is it that this generation has going for it? A significant amount of data collected from recent studies shows millennials are actually surprisingly collaborative people. Experts say their research concludes that they are also talented, open-minded, versatile, and that many of their qualities, including their fondness for social media, make them well suited to the new economy. We can compare findings and statistics gathered today to those from the 80’s, but must do so with the understanding that the world we live in today is a very different world indeed. Consider all of the advances we have made in science, technology, and medicine alone. Look at how education has evolved, and all of the history, both good and bad, that has been made over the last 50+ years. Seeing these changes, and knowing how they’ve redefined the way we live our lives, is it really that surprising that people have changed over the years as well?
Professionally, Generation Y expects only that the workplace reflect their values, and they place great emphasis on the potential for personal growth. They seek out work that is meaningful to them, but their families always come first. Rebecca Ryan, author of Live First, Work Second, says that millennials love their parents. She goes on to describe them as individuals who abhor conflict, love to work in groups, and argues that they are not complainers or victims. She states that they are hard workers who simply want employment that is challenging to them. The Cone Millennial Case Study conducted back in 2006 found that today’s youth genuinely care about the companies they work for. More than half in their 20’s stated that they would rather be employed by companies that provide volunteer opportunities. They feel very strongly about working for a company that cares about and contributes to society, and are likely to refuse employment with a company seen as being irresponsible. Generation Y is also said to be highly motivated by their friendships, so much so that workers will choose jobs that allow them to be with or close to their friends.
Sun Life Financial in Canada recently took a poll that determined 90% of people aged 18-24 felt a great deal of stress due to economic instability and underemployment. Elliott Blair Smith, a reporter with Bloomberg News, wrote an article about professionals entering the U.S. workforce. In it he writes that they are finding careers that were once gateways to high paying and upwardly mobile lives. However, what they are finding now is that these once lucrative career paths are turning out to be nothing more than detours and dead ends. Evidence of this can be seen in how the average income for individuals aged 25-34 has fallen by 8% since 2007. Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University professor and senior research fellow, believes that this generation will earn significantly less income during its lifetime. Sadly, this shift to a downwardly mobile lifestyle may be a lasting one. Bloomberg News reports that middle-income jobs are disappearing, as is evident when we consider the number of financial counselors and loan offices between the ages of 25-34, and how it has dropped by 40% since 2007. What’s more, the number of hours worked by young legal associates in law firms has also been steadily dropping. But perhaps the millennials have a game plan. Joanne Sujanski, of the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Key Group, has been analyzing employment trends for nearly three decades. Her findings revealed that many millennials are actually turning their backs on what we would consider being traditional corporate careers, and are instead choosing to start their own businesses. Author of When Generations Collide, David Stillman, explains that Generation Y is of the “think mentality,” and oftentimes we see them go into business with friends. Additionally, the Pew Research Center Poll has also shown that Americans that are 18 years of age or older, and who are also entrepreneurs, are significantly more satisfied with their yearly income and their work life than those employed by corporations (who the heck wouldn’t be?).
Generation Y also brings its own special blend of characteristics to the political arena. A report by the New America Foundation entitled “Yes We Can: The Emergence of Millennials As A Political Foundation” states that “Millennials have brought with them a very different set of attitudes and behaviors than those of the youth who preceded them: a confidence and conventionality, a preference for the group consensus, an aversion to personal risk, and a self-image which tells them they are special and worthy of protection.” Additionally, the report went on to state that the individuals that make up Generation Y will, over their lifetimes, greatly strengthen the connection between citizens and the communities in which they live, between ordinary people and public institutions at all levels of government, and when they assume national leadership, they will then forge a new social contract.
Suffice it to say that a few things are pretty clear regarding Generation Y. Their views regarding a number of matters is drastically different than those of the Baby Boom generation. Furthermore, our troubled economic times are clearing having an adverse affect on their lives, impacting them on both a social and economic level. Much of the evidence on one side seems to conflict with what studies supporting the opposing view have found. But even with all that we’ve just covered, I think that it’s probably best that we not use scientific research as a means to fuel unfounded stereotypes about young Americans. There’s a lot of information out there on the matter. Some conclusions are good and some bad. I guess only time will tell who was right in the end.