science says boomers are the real snowflake generation

The longest ever study of intergenerational narcissistic traits finds that millennials are not as sensitive and self-absorbed as boomers.
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According to just about every story seeking to pat baby boomers on the back, millennials are a bunch of self-involved know-nothings who get offended at the drop of a hat while the boomers are stoics who walked to school uphill both ways, carrying all their siblings on their backs, and were grateful for the experience. Of course, if you wish them happy holidays in December, do a little math showing that their $6 per hour job in the 1970s is the equivalent of $36 per hour today, or respond to one of their litanies of complaints with “ok, boomer,” you’ll inevitably get a torrent of self-aggrandizing commentary and laments about kids and immigrants destroying America, mom, baseball, and apple pie, along with chain eateries, napkins, golf, beer, and anything else struggling in modern times.

This isn’t just snark for the sake of inter-generational rivalry. It’s backed up by Michigan State University’s study on narcissistic traits, the longest of its kind. Its goal was to look at both how self-absorbed 13 to 77-year olds can be, and whether their attitudes change with age based on numerous interviews about their personalities, family, and professional lives. One key measure of narcissism is defensives, or how well an individual can take criticism and how likely they are to lash out when confronted with it. Someone who scores high on the self-absorption spectrum is functionally allergic to all criticism. Someone low on it is a living doormat, another unhealthy extreme. The vast majority of test subjects score somewhere in the healthy middle.

Since ages were a key data point, researchers were able to compare this trait, along with other key indicators of narcissism, between generations. Their findings? In stark contrast to popular perception, when it comes to criticism, millennials are empirically more stoic than boomers and take negative feedback in slightly better stride. According to the authors, older generations started out as more hyper-sensitive and willful, meaning that they were afflicted with “the type of narcissism where people are full of themselves” and impose their opinions on others, which explains their socially conservative stances and propensity to lash out at significant changes, a lousy combination for these uncertain, post-industrial times.

This data actually reflects the kinds of fights you see between boomers grousing about “kids these days” while the kids in question want them to leave their targets alone and stop trying to turn back the clock to an idealized time that’s not coming back, no matter how much right wing media waxes nostalgic about the good old days with rose-colored montages. And not only that, but millennials, like all other generations, will keep scoring lower on the narcissistic spectrum as they age since they’ll experience more and more events showing that they’re hardly the center of the universe and have flaws on which they need to work, especially after they hit their 40s.

Many boomers are also losing their narcissism and getting less sensitive and defensive, but the research shows they started off on a higher plateau and have already passed the 40-year mark at which these traits usually take a nosedive. Overall, they’ll go down as the more narcissistic generation complaining about their kids trying to make real changes despite their opposition and embrace of conspiracy-spewing right wing media which weaponizes nostalgia and fear for its financial and political gain. Or, in their words, if you want to trigger some snowflakes, you should target those doing the most complaining about them.

See: William J. Chopik, Kevin J. Grimm, (2019) Longitudinal changes and historic differences in narcissism from adolescence to older adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 2019; 34 (8): 1109 DOI: 10.1037/pag0000379

# science // boomers / narcissism / psychology


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