Americans have long been accused of having inflated egos, but it has recently become popular to accuse Americans of being narcissistic. This narcissism is now seen as being primarily an affliction of the young; although baby boomers are often seen as being able to give them a run for their money.
Some of the evidence for this is statistical.
Apparently 10% of folks in their 20s have had symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (compared to 3% of those 65 and older). Of course, it could be the case that youth naturally tend to have this symptoms and then outgrow them. However, if the current generation of kids is actually suffering more from such symptoms, then this would be a matter of concern.
Since many 20 somethings are in school, it is not surprising that much of the alleged evidence of narcissism involved education. As one example, 30% of college students believe that showing up to every class entitles them to a grade of B or better. There are also various bits of anecdotal evidence. For example, it is claimed that students now seem to be more inclined to expect make-up tests for when they miss class for no good reason (such as being too drunk to take a test).
While there are many questions that need to be dealt with in this context, I will address only two of them. The first is whether such behavior is something new. The second is whether such behavior is narcissistic or not.
In regards to the first question, I will rely on my experience as a professor. Overall, I would say that I have seen roughly the same degree and type of allegedly narcissistic behavior over the past eighteen years. For example, when I was a graduate student at Ohio State (1989-1993), students would ask me to arrange make up exams for them at special times and would argue that they should not fail because they did not want to fail. I’ve seen the same as a professor (1993-now). Over the years, I’ve also dealt with roughly the name number of incidents in which students have claimed that they deserve a good grade merely for attempting to do the work and showing up. Of course, this evidence is anecdotal and my sample might be biased in some ways.
I must admit that every semester I hear other faculty at my school and other schools talk about how the students get worse every year. However, I think that much of this is due to perception rather than a real difference. Having heard this so often, I’ve gone back and checked my grades over the years. What I found was that the grades tend to be about the same; although there are some individual classes that deviate from the norm (which is exactly what one would expect). I’ve also thought about the incidents that would seem narcissistic and the rate seems to have been fairly constant.
To explain this, people seem to have a natural tendency to “remember” things the way that they were not. For example, people talk about how good things used to be back when they were kids. Likewise, people tend to believe that people have gotten worse. However, that seems to be mostly a matter of selective memory.
Also, people have been talking about how bad the kids are since the time of Socrates-thus showing that this is nothing new. This does not mean that the kids are fine-it just means that this is nothing new.
Now, to the second question. Is the behavior in question really narcissistic? Obviously, this depends on what is meant by the term. It is tempting to slap labels on things in order to make things seem more dramatic or to sell books, but such labels should be carefully considered.
Many thinkers have argued that people are selfish and desire gain they do not deserve. In the Republic, Glaucon argues that people naturally want undue gain and are focused on their own good. However, such behavior seems to be selfish rather than narcissistic. Hobbes goes even further: he contends that people are psychological hedonists who are motivated only by gain or glory (the boosting of their ego). While such behavior could be described as narcissistic, it makes more sense to just stick with calling it selfish.
Narcissism certainly seems to go beyond merely being selfish or having unrealistic expectations about how people will treat you (such as giving grades or special make-ups). There are, obviously enough, people who are narcissistic, but this is nothing new.