Demanding narcissists or misunderstood modern hippies

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 14/06/2014
David Whyte
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ
DAVID WHYE: "There's a difference between selfishness and pure ambition."
Mike Egan
CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ
MIKE EGAN: "Employers seem to be a minor inconvenience in our young team members' exciting and fun-filled journey through life."

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Narcissists obsessed with counting Facebook ‘likes', or the most socially-minded generation yet?

"The youth of the present have their own way too much. No obedience or respect is exacted from them by father or mother in many instances, and they grow up selfish, overbearing and sometimes dangerous."

Sound familiar? It's obviously a critique of the millennials, the "me" generation now hitting their 20s and 30s. The generation who have grown up in an age of exhibitionist social media and selfies, and who ooze entitlement from every Instagrammed pore.

Only it's not. It's actually a quote from Christchurch newspaper The Star referring to the errant youth of 1878.

Young people have earned scorn from their seniors since time began, but few generations can have attracted as much discussion and disagreement as the so-called millennial generation, born between about 1982 and 2004.

If you believe the knockers, the only job they want is the CEO of me, and they expect to land it the day they graduate. That's if they've got time to work between counting the likes on their Facebook photos, sharing cat videos on Twitter and streaming Spotify on their outsized headphones.

But if you believe the staunch defenders, they're misunderstood modern hippies in digital drag, all peace, love and Facebook revolutions. Maybe with fewer narcotics and a double dose of narcissism.

So which is it?

When rockstar tech entrepreneur Rod Drury started at Ernst & Young some 25 years ago, he knew the drill - work your butt off and grind your way up.

Being an internationally successful tech startup, Drury's cloud accounting company Xero attracts many tech-savvy hipsters into their first job. Where in Drury's day there was structure, hierarchy and respect, now there's Snapchat, hashtags and Reddit.

"Our kids have the headphones on, listening to Spotify, they're on Facebook, they're instant messaging, all the time . . . I suspect our staff would be shocked if they went and saw how more traditional businesses worked: ‘What do you mean there's no barista there?'

"It really upsets me when people drift in at half past nine," Drury admits. "Because I'm used to being there before the accounting partner turns up and leaving after they've gone. So for me that was a bit of cultural change, to let that go."

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But let it go he did, because despite seeming constantly distracted, his young staff still produce good work. And work and personal life are more blurred, so they'll answer work emails from home or when they're out and about.

"Maybe they would be super more productive if they didn't do all that stuff, but maybe they would be less creative."

Wellington mobile gaming company PikPok is jam-packed with millennial mugs, among them 23-year-old programmer David Whyte.

There's no slide to shimmy down to your desk, and it looks like most modern offices. But there's a foosball table next to the projector screen (the competition got so heated they made a video about it), and there are whisky bottles on Whyte's desk for the whisky appreciation club they've started. Strictly out of work hours, obviously.

Whyte "started big", graduating from an Auckland video games course on the Friday and checking in at PikPok on the Monday. His mother told him to do what he loved, so he did.

When researching job options, he looked for companies sharing his values - uncompromised creativity. "Everyone here wants to do things on their own terms".

But that doesn't mean they're egotistical, he argues. "There's a difference between selfishness - me snatching opportunities because it's ‘me, me, me', and pure ambition. There's people who are driven and people who see something that really speaks to them and seek it out with a passion."

Millennials are also slammed for being jobhoppers. But Whyte has been here two years and reckons he'll stick around another five or so.

The millennials do have lofty goals. But they also have amazing opportunities: Whyte turned his gaming passion into a career, landed a job at a top app developer and was lead programmer developing a game with Transformers movie tie-in for United States cookie giant Oreo. So is it any wonder they expect big things?

What the millennials don't seem to grasp, cautions restaurateur Mike Egan, is that not everyone can have it all on day one.

The Restaurant Association president was so outraged by the sense of entitlement he encountered among young staff that he wrote a column on the association's website headed "Generation Me ME!"

"Employers seem to be a minor inconvenience in our young team members' exciting and fun-filled journey through life," he wrote.

As frequent first employers, cafes and restaurants end up being a "finishing school" for mollycoddled, self-indulged young people lacking work ethic, loyalty and common sense, Egan says.

Unlike Drury, who can accommodate Facebooking, tweeting staff so long as the work gets done, Egan can't have waiters checking phones mid-order, or headphone-hung heads lolling to a beat.

At the minor end, there's the odd feigned toilet trip to check Facebook and the protestations that they can't work New Year's Eve because they have to go to Rhythm and Vines. At the extreme end was a guy who quit his cafe job because he couldn't synchronise his lunch break with his girlfriend's.

"They see reality TV or people they idolise and go ‘Oh, wow, you can have it all'. They don't actually connect that that's like the 0.001 per cent," Egan says.

There was no better illustration of an entitlement culture than an angry email diatribe sent to this newspaper by a teenager demanding to know why she had not featured in a story about an event in which she was involved. She accused the journalist of laziness and having some personal connection to those featured.

Of course, some millennials are fantastic employees, Egan says. They're often rural kids who have grown up working on the farm. "They'll be the ones who will succeed and be the future."

One of the most common criticisms of the millennials is that they inhabit a shatterproof pleasuredome of narcissism, fuelled by social media that rewards exhibitionism with "likes", favourites and retweets.

In their 2011 study of New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey responses, called Narcissism Creep?, psychologists Chris Sibley and Marc Wilson found younger people were more narcissistic than older people.

What they couldn't say was whether this generation is more narcissistic than previous generations at the same age, or whether narcissism simply decreases with maturity as people have greater opportunity to fail.

Wilson believes it's both, based on research by chief millennials decrier and United States psychologist Jean Twenge, which showed that Californian youngsters in the mid-2000s were more narcissistic than their mid-1980s counterparts.

Wilson - a Victoria University associate professor - still enjoys teaching his first-year students as much as ever. They do have a greater sense of entitlement, but that doesn't necessarily reflect growing narcissism because higher fees increase expectations.

What does increased narcissism mean anyway? Wilson describes it as "more people who not only think they're the bee's knees and deserving of special entitlement, but who are resentful that others don't appreciate how whoop-de-doo awesome they are, and who can react dramatically to threats to their self-value".

Social media is definitely a narcissist's dream platform for expounding their awesomeness, but that doesn't mean it's the cause, Wilson says.

Whyte points out that it's not exclusively young people who post inane updates about what they ate for breakfast. "Maybe if you gave people from the 50s the tools we have now they would be posting annoying selfies as well."

He's not on Twitter and doesn't often use Facebook. Instead, he prefers Reddit for sharing useful links. "I like it because it's more about

sharing important ideas than sharing just about me."

Millennial Lara Greaves, who also works on the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS), wakes every morning to her phone alarm, reaches over and checks Facebook and emails.

But not everyone using social media is constantly posting life updates. The vast majority, including her, are "lurkers" - "someone who sees what everyone is up to, probably likes what the narcissist has been doing".

"A lot of my friends have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends. If everyone was posting everything about their day all the time and they were what we would think of as a narcissist then it would be completely overwhelming."

Having spent the past three years helping out with the NZAVS, the 24-year-old science master's student has a pretty good idea what makes her generation, and previous generations, tick.

While her generation is probably more secular and liberal, there are often greater similarities between generations than within them, she says. There are practical differences - work and personal life are more closely interwoven and she might work earlier and later but take time out to Facebook or meet a friend for lunch.

She also disputes the notion that millennials have short attention spans - plenty spend 30-40 minutes filling out an NZAVS questionnaire.

Social entrepreneur Silvia Zuur also rejects the idea that millennials are narcissistic and that social media is to blame.

"Social media is a tool. It's like blaming a hammer for building a crap house. It's how you use it. Facebook is, what, 10 years old? We're all like 10-year-old children on Facebook at the moment. We haven't actually had the maturity or the timeframe to know how to use it properly."

Zuur is the consummate socially-minded millennial, perhaps helped by the fact her mum founded a school and her dad works for World Wildlife Fund. The 29-year-old has helped at a school in Benin and worked with a Swiss youth organisation for three years helping everyone from young Swedish leaders to Los Angeles gang youth.

In 2012, she founded Chalkle, a social enterprise to share knowledge, using the online space to hook up teachers and prospective pupils for offline classes.

Even Chalkle's Wellington workspace screams do-gooders, the commuter bikes braced in beer crates outside the door. The office is shared with other community-minded businesses - a room full of mostly young faces that Zuur argues disprove the selfish-generation theory.

"I think it's ridiculous. It depends where you're looking. I spent three years working with young change-makers from the ages of 18-25. I would say none of them are motivated by personal wealth or by ‘me, me, me'."

Zuur is taking home less than the minimum wage to try to make Chalkle financially sustainable.

There's no doubt, she says, that any generation's world view is influenced by their environment, be it a war childhood or baby boomer childhood. In her case, growing up with cellphones and social media means she sees new technology as an opportunity rather than a barrier.

"Those external parameters do shape your way of thinking and viewing the world, but they don't define you."

What she does fear, however, is that the online/offline balance is out of kilter, with too many young people seeing online interactions as their real world.

Another perennial millennial whipping stick is political apathy. In 2011, 42 per cent of Kiwis aged 18-24 failed to vote.

Zuur, who does vote, blames the political system's failure to demonstrate its relevance to young people. However, that seems to feed the "me" generation theory - if it's not about me, I'm not interested.

But Zuur argues that young people want to create new systems, such as Chalkle, rather than reform the old.

Whyte warns that you can't gauge political apathy by the number of students waving placards on the street. "That's judging the way we participate by older generations - mum and dad go out and protest. Young people in the majority support gay marriage. Maybe they just show it in different ways."

Mobile marketing entrepreneur Derek Handley, who has spent the past two years volunteering for Virgin's Richard Branson, has a unique insight into the millennials thanks to a recent recruitment campaign, #theshouldertap.

It was based on the idea that a job should include "purpose" rather than just a title and hefty salary: "To see how many young people would consider leaving their current traditional corporate type careers, which are basically driven by the ‘me', and try to envisage a future career that is a merger of the me and the we."

Applications rolled in from top universities Harvard, Stanford, Oxford. There were Rhodes scholars, Fulbright scholars, corporate finance workers of three decades, social activists and entrepreneurs, and a swathe of young corporate types. The message: there are plenty of socially-minded young people.

The 1000 were whittled down to 100, who were asked to make videos offering solutions to young voter apathy or another social issue.

As a former marketer, Handley attributes poor youth voting numbers to lousy marketing. "It's overwhelmingly obvious that it's not that they don't care. They're not being marketed to, whereas they're being marketed every single thing else that they do in their lives."

Overall, he believes the millennials have the best-ever understanding of the big issues facing the planet. But it's not all good.

"The selfie isn't exactly the most selfless thing in humanity. To get from me to we takes real insight and action, not just clicks and views. Those things, I think, you have to get off the computer and off your phone to establish.

"Never before in humanity have we had so many young people waste so much time - literally years - trying to share things that are irrelevant to people they don't know, trying to impress people they might never meet. So it's a balance of these two things."

The last word goes to New Zealand's longest-standing principal Tom Gerrard, who has spent the past 38 years in charge of Auckland's Rosmini College.

Yes, the millennials sometimes have unrealistic expectations of stepping straight from school into the office, the salary and the car, Gerrard says. Yes, some of them make dicks of themselves on Facebook. ("Really, who the hell is interested in their private intimate details? It doesn't do anything for the reflective mind.")

But, ultimately, are they that different from their parents and grandparents?

"I don't see much difference from the 50s to the 80s to the 90s or to the millennium. As far as young people are concerned, I think they're kind, they're generous and, handled correctly, they're magnificent people."

BACK TO THE FUTURE

If you think the millennial generation are the first to cop criticism from their elders, think again. Here are some past gems:

"Modern children are selfish in the extreme . . . As a schoolmaster, I find that the average modern boy has become so accustomed to leaning on his parents that he is almost unable to stand on his own feet . . . Rightly or wrongly, I do not hold with the modern craze for unrestricted self-expression in the young." - Scots College headmaster J R Sutcliffe, 1932

"The young people of today are said to be idle and irresponsible, vulgar and pleasure-loving, rebellious and too much addicted to sport, crude and hasty, without reverence and discipline. No-one is going to deny that altogether, but there is a great deal that needs to be said in the defence of the youth of today . . . Any sweeping condemnation of them was both false and foolish. For the most part they were fearless and adventurous and gloriously free from snobbishness. They were also cool, alert and independent. If they were selfish they were probably no more so than their elders." - Rev W Bower Black, 1932

"A final word about youth. It will not always serve as an excuse". - "Cyrano" on youth and age, Auckland Star, 1936 

- The Dominion Post

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