Millenial materialism focused on own self-worth

by Kenneth Leonard

05_07_13_Opinion_ThinkstockMost people would probably say younger people are more spoiled and lazy than previous generations. San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge and Knox College psychology professor Tim Kesser have gone to great lengths to confirm the idea that young people today are lazier than their predecessors, publishing a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that claims materialism is on the rise, while work ethic is declining.

“Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them,” Twenge, author of the books “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before” and “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement,” said.

“That type of ‘fantasy gap’ is consistent with other studies showing a generational increase in narcissism and entitlement,” Twenge said.

Twenge arrived at this conclusion after reviewing data collected from 355,000 U.S. high school seniors between 1976 and 2007. Compared to high school graduates in the ‘70s, modern teens are allegedly more materialistic. Between 2005 and 2007, 62 percent of those surveyed said it’s important to have a lot of money, compared to 48 percent in 1976-78, according to Twenge’s study.

Also, 39 percent of students in 2005-07 confessed they didn’t want to work hard. Only 25 percent responded similarly in 1976-78.

Perhaps, the researchers have come to a hasty conclusion. Maybe students are just more honest nowadays, and less prone to lying about their willingness to work hard. I just don’t believe 52 percent of all teens in the ‘70s didn’t care about having a comfortable amount of cash, or that 75 percent wanted to work super hard. But, maybe they did. Maybe our parents’ generations really wanted to work hard and not make a lot of money, while today people expect to be rewarded for their labor.

How does one examine this data and draw the conclusion that millennials are materialistic? It sounds like we’re just smarter now. Awareness does not equal narcissism, and it’s not irrational to want nice things. If wanting to be compensated for our work and wanting to buy cool stuff after getting paid makes us lazy materialists, then we’re guilty. However, this seems like an unreasonable accusation.

Sure, we might not want to work hard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t put in hard work when we know a job is worthwhile.

The study also draws a link between materialism and psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. “This study shows how the social environment shapes adolescents attitudes,” Twenge said.  “When family life and economic conditions are unstable, youth may turn to material things for comfort. And when our society funds large amounts of advertising, youth are more likely to believe that ‘the good life’ is ‘the goods life.’”

While I appreciate Twenge’s clever wordplay, the link between materialism and misery isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s important to recognize the difference between correlation and causation. We can all think of miserable rich people, but there are certainly high-profile examples of wealthy people who are perfectly happy, normal and well-adjusted people.

The conclusions this study arrives at are easy to justify because they feed into stereotypes. They reinforce the fear of success that has led many people to never pursue their dreams and remain satisfied with mediocrity. There’s a reason why every generation has a superiority complex when relating to the up-and-coming generation. It makes them feel better about themselves.

Unfortunately, this biased thinking allows older people to stigmatize young people unfairly. Remember, the people who were being polled as high schoolers in the late ‘70s raised the current batch of young people. Where does Twenge think we all learned our values? Maybe the baby boomers learned that working hard without having much to show for it is senseless, and they passed this lesson along to their children.

Instead of finding fault with young people, researchers should attempt to be aware of the underlying causes behind the survey answers. That’s the only way for researchers and psychologists to come to responsible, accurate conclusions.