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Gen Y: Less caring but more civic-minded. Huh?

One study finds college students less empathetic, but other studies disagree. Maybe their elders are just curmudgeons.

By Teresa Mears Jun 15, 2010 3:11PM
As if there weren't enough slamming of Generation Y as self-centered slackers, here comes another study that shows that today's college students are 40% less empathetic than the generations before them.


"Many people see the current group of college students -- sometimes called 'Generation Me' -- as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," said Sara Konrath, one of the researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Researchers there analyzed data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over 30 years, and found the greatest drop after 2000.


We'd advise everyone to run for the nearest retirement (oops, active adult) community but we should probably point out that other studies have found the millennial generation to be MORE civic-minded.  Since one day they'll be paying our Social Security and leading our country, we need them to care.


UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute's "American Freshman" survey (.pdf file) found that the percentage of freshmen in 2006 who ranked "the importance of helping others" as an important value was the highest in 20 years, at 66.7%. Helping others was ranked below only raising a family (75.5%) and "being well-off financially" (73.4%).

Ross Douthat of The New York Times' Evaluations blog explored how both these trends can exist simultaneously. He wrote:

Maybe too much empathy is crippling, and a little solipsism is a necessary spur to action. If a little "look out world, here I come" self-centeredness is what it takes to get young people involved in charity work or political campaigning, the theory might go, then so much the better for self-centeredness!

Neil Howe, co-author of "Millennials Rising" and other works that take a more optimistic view of the younger generation, points out at his LifeCourse blog that it's dangerous to draw conclusions about the personality of an entire generation from a one-shot written test. (You can take the test yourself here.) Howe wrote:

In other words, these questions are expressly designed to be touchy-feely. As many of us have suggested, such questions naturally put Millennials at a disadvantage. This generation pays more attention to collective outcomes than personal reactions, to results over motives, to "works" over "faith." 

Just as every generation of parents has complained about their children's music, so, too, have older generations perennially complained about the younger generation's values, Ray B. Williams points out in the Wired for Success blog at Psychology Today. He provides two examples:

  • A 1967 Time magazine article about hippies: "to their deeply worried parents throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics."
  • A 1920s Dallas Morning News story described the youth of the day as not caring about people and not "having any sense of shame, honor or duty."

Williams also raises the question of whether empathy is declining in society as a whole, among all age groups.

Are we becoming more narcissistic, less empathetic, led by GenMe, or are we moving toward a more empathetic age, one that has social justice, social responsibility, sustainability and concern for our environment as of paramount importance? It seems to me that both things are happening. We are moving to an new age of social concerns, while at the same time, the last throes of narcissistic, materialistic and "externally focused" values are embraced. A contradiction? Paradox? Perhaps, but thus is the nature of our universe.

Luckily, research continues apace. The Journal of Neurocience recently reported on a nasal spray that would help men rise to the empathy levels that women normally experience. Sorry, so far it's available only in the lab.

Is today's younger generation really less empathetic than the generations before it? Is society as a whole less thoughtful? Or are we seeing just another example of the older generation complaining about the younger?


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