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Even Gen Z'ers Are Starting to Believe Clichés About Gen Z

There's no scientific consensus that today's young people are especially narcissistic or self-involved, but the public has bought into the notion—as have young people themselves.
Teenager Generation Z mental health

Kids these days! They're so narcissistic and entitled. At least, that's how older people see them.

And guess who largely agrees? Young people themselves.

New research finds that clichés about the generations now entering, or soon to enter, adulthood have thoroughly seeped into the consciousness of a largely credulous public. The notion that today's young adults are self-absorbed is an exaggeration, if not a distortion, of the academic literature, but it's widely accepted as fact.

While members of that generation are more likely to resist this characterization than older people, on the whole they have swallowed it as well. And the labeling leaves them, understandably, distressed.

"Almost all researchers agree that any age-group increases in narcissism are small in magnitude, with unknown effects," writes a research team led by psychologist Joshua Grubbs of Bowling Green State University.

"Despite these relatively small differences, and the uncertainty regarding their meaning, our findings suggest that people across the lifespan believe in these differences quite assuredly, often reporting rather dramatic differences in the extent to which they believe specific age groups exhibit these traits."

In the online journal PLoS One, the research team, which includes the veteran generational-differences scholar Jean Twenge, describes three studies, including a large one featuring more than 1,000 university undergraduates and 724 adults of various ages recruited online.

Participants filled out surveys designed to measure levels of entitlement and narcissism. Using smiley-to-frowny-faced emojis, they indicated how they would feel if they were called narcissistic or entitled.

In addition, they rated on a zero-to-100 scale how accurately certain adjectives describe different generations—specifically, adolescents (ages 12 to 17), young adults (18 to 25), adults (26 to 40), middle-aged adults (41 to 60), and older adults (60-plus). The descriptors included "calm," "emotionally stable," "warm," and, most importantly for this study, "narcissistic" and "entitled."

"We found consistent evidence that participants—including emerging adults—believe that adolescents and emerging adults are the most narcissistic, entitled, and overconfident age groups," the researchers report. This belief was weaker among younger people, suggesting that "older age groups are more credulous about such differences."

Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that "emerging adults do not like being labeled as narcissistic or entitled," even if they feel the label fits their age group. That said, these participants' reactions were relatively mild, suggesting they "are not extremely upset by such descriptions."

"Even so," the researchers add, "it is unclear whether or not repeated exposure to such messages in naturalistic settings may have different effects."

Whether or not this labeling causes long-term harm, these results provide still more evidence of how readily we are inclined to stereotype people. While generational clichés don't have the same negative impact as, say, racial profiling, they are another example of how lazy thinking distorts the way we view one another and allows us to feel superior, whatever generation we happen to belong to.