Maybe Millennials Aren’t Narcissists After All?

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“Millennials are narcissists!” It’s the easy, go-to media narrative about the current generation of young adults. 

But new research, published online this week in Psychological Science, suggests that we might have it all backward. Emory University scientists argue that people who enter the workforce during economic downturns — as millennials most certainly have — are actually much less likely to be narcissistic later in life, when compared to people who started their careers during more prosperous times.

In one of the three studies, the researchers analyzed survey data from more than 1,500 American adults from a variety of generations, including those born in the 1940s up to the late 1980s. And they found that the respondents who were 18 to 25 years old during the worst economic climate — when the average unemployment rate was 7.7 percent — scored lower on a narcissism scale than participants who were young adults during the best economic climate (when the average rate was 4.3 percent). This was true even after researchers controlled for gender and education levels. (And, yes, a “narcissism scale” sounds a little weird, but it was developed by psychologists in 1988 and has been used since then to scientifically measure the personality trait; you can take a version of the test for yourself here.)

A separate study in the paper analyzed the salaries of CEOs from more than 2,000 publicly traded companies. The researchers discovered that the CEOs who were 18 to 25 during sunnier economic climates paid themselves 2.26 times as much as the next most well-paid executive; compare that to CEOs who came of age during bleaker economic times, who paid themselves just 1.69 times as much (recent research has suggested that CEOs who pay themselves considerably more than colleagues immediately below them show higher rates of narcissism). You’re welcome in advance, future underlings!