Are Young Adults Too Confident?

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

Are Young Adults Too Confident?


Byline: Martha Irvine Associated Press

Among academics who track the behavior of young adults and teens, there's a touchy debate: Should the word "entitled" be used when talking about today's younger people? Are they overconfident in themselves?

Jean Twenge, author of the book "Generation Me," is in the middle of the discussion. The San Diego State University psychology professor has made a career out of finding data that she says shows that college students and others their age are more self-centered -- narcissistic even -- than past generations. Now she's turned up data showing that they also feel more superior about themselves than their elders did when they were young.

"There are some advantages and some disadvantages to self-esteem, so having some degree of confidence is often a good thing," says Twenge. But as she sees it, there's a growing disconnect between self-perception and reality.

"It's not just confidence. It's overconfidence."

And that, she says, can pose problems, in relationships and the workplace -- though others argue that it's not so easy to generalize.

"If you actually look at the data, you can't just condense it into a sound bite. It's more nuanced than that," says John Pryor, director of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research program, which produces an annual national survey of hundreds of thousands of college freshman, on which Twenge and her colleagues based their latest study.

That study was recently published online in the British journal Self and Identity.

Among other things, Twenge and her colleagues found that a growing percentage of incoming college freshmen rated themselves as "above average" in several categories, compared with college freshmen who were surveyed in the 1960s.

When it came to social self-confidence, about half of freshmen questioned in 2009 said they were above average, compared to fewer than a third in 1966. Meanwhile, 60 percent in 2009 rated their intellectual self-confidence as above average, compared with 39 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was given.

In the study, the authors also argue that intellectual confidence may have been bolstered by grade inflation, noting that, in 1966, only 19 percent of college students who were surveyed earned an "A" or "A-minus" average in high school, compared with 48 percent in 2009.

"So students might be more likely to think they're superior because they've been given better grades," Twenge says.

Statements like that can set off the generational firestorm.

Young people are quick to feel picked on -- and rightly so, says Kali Trzesniewski, an associate professor of human development at the University of California, Davis.

"People have been saying for generations that the next generation is crumbling the world," Trzesniewski says. "There are quotes going back to Socrates that say that kids are terrible."

But in her own research, she says she's been hard-pressed to find many differences when comparing one generation to the next -- and little evidence that even an increase in confidence has had a negative effect.

Many bosses and others in the workplace have long argued that recent college students often arrive with unreasonably high expectations for salary and an unwillingness to take criticism or to pay their dues.

"But a lot of them have a confidence that we wished we had," says psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor in the psychology department at Clark University in Massachusetts. He studies "emerging adulthood," a term that has been coined to describe the period from age 18 to 29 when many young adults are finding their footing.

Arnett doesn't object to Twenge's findings. But he adds: "I disagree with using those findings as a way to promote these negative stereotypes of young people, which I spend a lot of my time battling against."

He says those stereotypes also overshadow positive trends related to young people, in the last decade or so. …

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