Thousands of college students across the country are skipping the traditional beach vacations to perform volunteer work during their spring breaks. Others are making a difference after graduation by enrolling in programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. These humanitarians may be exceptions to the rule—recent studies have found that the majority of today’s young adults care more about helping themselves than helping others.
Psychology Today reported that a 2010 University of Michigan survey of 14,000 college students found that empathy, which is basically the ability to understand someone’s perspective and put yourself in their shoes, had decreased 40% since the late 1970s. The study caused a bit of a media frenzy when it was released, chastising today’s college students for being arrogant and narcissistic.
More recent findings seem to be in agreement with the 2010 study. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that young Americans born between 1982 and 2002, known as “Millennials,” “Generation Y” and even the “Facebook Generation,” are much less concerned about the environment and other people than they are about themselves. The results of this new study, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, show that Millennials have been raised to focus more on themselves and less on society and their community.
“The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ’you’re special.’ It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes,” explained Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and one of the study’s authors.
Supervisors report that recent college grads often have unreasonable expectations for entry-level salaries and reluctance to “work their way up the ladder” and USA Today states that despite a decline in prejudice based on race, gender and sexual orientation and a rise in volunteering compared to previous generations, most members of Generation Y place more value on money, fame, and image than self-acceptance and group affiliation.
Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of 2011’s Millennials, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America and 2008’s Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics do not completely agree with the picture the media is painting of the selfish “Generation Me.” Winograd points out higher voting rates and increased volunteer work after high school and argues that saying you want to be wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean you are self-absorbed.
Twenge may agree, cautioning that her study’s findings should not be considered outright criticism of Generation Y but rather a reflection of today’s culture.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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