Is the Millennial Workforce Self-Absorbed? Yes, But It’s Complicated

There goes Maine, thinking it's better than the other states. Image: Olivier Le Moal / Shutterstock

Generations Y and Z are entitled narcissists. And they’re not just aware of it, they identify as such.

This is according to a pair of research articles published this year.

But it’s not that simple.

If you employ or manage Millennials or Gen Zers—the youngest current generation doesn’t seem to appreciate any of the admittedly cringe-worthy nicknames, like iGeneration—you’re likely Gen X or a Baby Boomer. And it’s possible that you harbor some less-than-flattering opinions of these two younger generations.

Lazy. Disloyal. Tech and social media addicted. Tradition and industry killers. Disruptors. Self-absorbed.

Media coverage the past several years hasn’t exactly been overwhelmingly kind to Millennials or Gen Z, with the former being bathed in a particularly negative light.

Here’s the thing: Older people tend to dump on younger generations. Boomers accused Gen X of being lazy, pessimistic, anti-establishment slackers bent on redefining adulthood to fit their own ideals.

Sound familiar, Millennials?

While it’s under debate in the academic world, there’s a belief that every generation goes through a “vanity phase” as they transition into young adults.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Not all research psychologists or academics focused on human behavior believe it, but many think it makes sense that people would be more conceited when they’re adolescents and emerging results.

Throw in social media, the ubiquitous nature of cell phones, and the addiction to both, and it’s not surprising either that older generations believe Millennials and digitally native Gen Z are self-obsessed.

The authors of a research article1 published to Plos One “found consistent evidence” that participants among their three sample groups (1,700 participants in total, some identified as “young adults aged 18-25,” some as Millennials) believed “adolescents and emerging adults are the most narcissistic, entitled, and overconfident.” Interestingly, several hundred participants were emerging adults.

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I’m no research psychologist—or any kind of psychologist, save for armchair—but that finding says to me that some Millennials, the subject of the study, self-identified as narcissists. Again, though, it’s not that simple.

That same study came to a couple interesting conclusions about narcissism and entitlement:

  • Popular media has spread and promoted the notion that emerging adults are the most entitled and narcissistic age group.
  • Emerging adults are not only likely aware of what popular media is saying about them, they believe that messaging is true.
  • Emerging adults believe narcissism and entitlement are negative characteristics.
  • Across all 1,700 study participants, if an individual had higher levels of narcissism and entitlement, they had more positive opinions of not only the actual terms but being referred to with them.

That last point is alarming. But another study2, co-led by Dr. Brent Roberts and co-authored by Dr. Emily Grijalva, suggests that narcissism appears to ebb as a person gets older.

Dr. Grijalva, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School, and Dr. Roberts, Professor of Psychology at University of Illinois, surveyed 237 of an original 486 participants from a study begun in 1992. The researchers made assessments of the participants first when they were 18 years old and freshman at the University of California, Berkeley—where Dr. Roberts earned his PhD in Personality Psychology—and reassessed them when they were 41 years old.

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Findings revealed that just three percent of the participants had become more narcissistic, whereas some maintained the same levels of narcissism (vanity in particular) at age 41 as they were assessed with at age 18. Dr. Grijalva noted that narcissistic participants were more likely to be found working as supervisors when reassessed more than two decades later.

She interpreted this specific result in two ways. First, that selfishness and arrogance may be rewarded by organizations with more power. Second, that because the participants who were in supervisory roles maintained higher levels of narcissism from ages 18 to 41, the jobs themselves were contributing factors.

Yes, your younger Millennial workforce is probably self-absorbed. Your Gen Z workforce is likely even more narcissistic than the Millennial team members, given their current ages. And if you’re now in your forties or older, you were probably self-absorbed between the ages of 18 and 25. Should you be less narcissistic today, congratulations—you matured. Expect most of Generations Y and Z to do the same.

Of course, it’s not really a great idea to look at the born-on dates of tens of millions of people and decide they all behave the same way. Some characteristics are inherent to specific generations—Gen Z grew up with cell phones, tablets and social media, hence the term “digital natives”—but others appear to be inherent to where we’re at in our development, hence the phrase, “We’ve all been there.”

Criticism is easy. It’s easier to label the desire to leapfrog entry-level positions and land in higher-level jobs as laziness than ambition. “They don’t want to pay their dues! They think they deserve more without even proving themselves!”

Some critics of Millennials have said they don’t want to work. It’s more accurate to say they don’t want to work dead-end, entry-level or “traditional” jobs. Many Millennials do want more for themselves, and they want it now. That sounds an awful lot like ambition.

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Let’s not forget that Gen X was characterized—at least in the media—as lazy bums when they were emerging adults. Those “slackers” now account for 55 percent of startup founders, wield $2.4 trillion in purchasing power, will be in the workforce for at least another thirty years. If they’re lazy rather than ambitious, they have a strange way of showing it.

It may be much more beneficial to Gen X and Boomer bar and restaurant owners, operators and managers to leverage the ambitions of their younger team members. Give them more responsibilities. Listen to their ideas—particularly when it comes to guests and recruits their age—and engage them with feedback. Look at traditional business models and get more creative with compensation and benefits. Take a real interest in Millennial and Gen Z careers, help them mature as professionals, be transparent, and reward those who want to move up within the business.


1. Grubbs, J., Exline, J., McCain, J., Campbell, W.K., Twenge, J. (2019, May). Emerging adult reactions to labeling regarding age-group differences in narcissism and entitlement.

2. Wetzel, E., Grijalva, E., Robins, R., Roberts, B. (2019, August). You’re still so vain: Changes in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age.

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