Daily Archives: March 15, 2010

The Trophy Kids and the New Face of America by Gregory Hilton

The trophy kids are changing America’s workplace and its college campuses, and many recent books and studies have described some disturbing trends. It is difficult to stereotype an entire generation, but several best selling authors have used in-depth research to place the self centered label on today’s young people. The accusation is not new.
The Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Generation X (1961-1980) were often thought to be egotistical. Michael Douglas’ character in “Wall Street” became a mantra for the 1980s when he said “Greed is good.” Whitney Houston’s No. 1 hit song in 1986 declared “The Greatest Love of All” was loving yourself. There have been vain and narcissistic people throughout history. Donald Trump is not a youngster but he names everything he owns after himself.
Nevertheless, some striking generational changes are apparent and scientific studies are telling us a considerable amount about the lifestyles of our children. The trophy kids are often referred to as Millennials or Generation Y. The good news is that illegal drug use has declined, they have not been rebellious, and members of the current 18 to 30 year old age group have a far closer relationship with their parents than Baby Boomers. Peer pressure to drink alcohol, smoke and have premarital sex has also declined.
They entered the world as the most wanted generation of children in American history. Generation Y is composed of latch-key kids and others who grew up in a structured, busy and over planned world. These children were always told they were special, and the data says they have an abundance of ego.
Programs such as Blue’s Clues told them they could do anything they wanted, and they believe it. Many of them describe their parents as best friends, and 33% name one or both parents as heroes. They are staying at home far longer than previous generations. Without jobs and facing a large student loan burden, a significant number of them are not able to leave the nest until age 30.
These young people are starting their adult lives with tremendous challenges. Youth unemployment is a staggering 53%, a rate which has not been seen since the Great Depression. Only 41% of them have full time jobs, and today’s BA degree is roughly equivalent to 1960’s GED. The insurance plan I had in my early twenties was inexpensive, but that option is no longer available, and half of young Americans are going without health insurance.
My generation is giving them a huge national debt, and they will have to pay off our spending spree. They will also have to provide for our social security, health care and prescription drug benefits.
I am impressed with many young students, but I continue to be surprised by their self absorption and personal sense of entitlement. They have amazingly high self confidence.
Many of them have a hard time understanding that you have to pay your dues to earn a prestigious position or a luxury possession. Ron Alsop in “The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace” says:

A lot of older managers view them as spoiled brats. Unlike previous generations, Millennials, as a group, need almost constant direction in the workplace. They don’t excel at leadership or independent problem solving. They’re savvy about using technology, but kind of clueless when it comes to communicating face-to-face. The lackluster job market will invoke change. I hope and think this will make Millennials more resilient and less demanding. Your parents can’t do everything for you.

Listed below are various observations regarding the trophy kids. I looked at their self esteem, expectations, assertiveness and self-promotion, political involvement, family life, mental and physical health, as well as the impact they have had on campus and in the work place. My primary sources were the Roper Youth Report, the Pew Research Center, “Generation Me,” “Generation Myspace,” “The Trophy Kids Grow Up” and “Tuned Out: Why Americans under 40 Don’t Follow the News.”


Many young people have been raised with the idea of self-esteem being more important than achievement, and some observers believe this has caused them to place the self above all else. Today’s young parents are especially lenient with their children and reluctant to discipline them, suggesting that perhaps the next generation will be even worse off.

“Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable” (2006) by Dr. Jean Twenge is the most authoritative study on the trophy kids. The author is a psychology professor at San Diego State University and says it is time to “ditch the self-esteem movement.” Dr. Twenge believes it “is harming America’s youth vastly more than it helps. High self-esteem is not correlated with achievement in school or at work. It is correlated with criminality, narcissism, and bad relationships, though.”

Dr. Twenge states, “Narcissism is one of of the few personality traits that psychologists agree is almost completely negative. Narcissists are overly focused on themselves and lack empathy for others, which means they cannot see another person’s perspective. They also feel entitled to special privileges and believe they are superior to other people.”

In her study of surveys going back 70 years, Dr. Twenge made some startling discoveries. “In the early 1950’s, only 12% of teens aged 14 to 16 agreed with the statement ‘I am an important person.’ By the late 1980’s, an incredible 80% – almost seven times as many – claims they were important.” Over and over tests have shown that narcissistic behavior is growing in younger people.

A study released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press dubbed Americans age 18 to 25 as the “Look at Me” generation and reported that this group said that their top goals were fortune and fame.


Questionnaires were completed by 81,384 high school and college students on personality traits involving assertiveness, dominance, independence, and self-promotion. The average 1990s college student had a assertiveness score 75% higher than students from the 1970s. Students today answered in the affirmative when they were asked questions such as, “I am going to be a great person.”

The Pew Center report also recorded incidents of bad behavior in the classroom. After being told to surrender a toy, one kintergardener screamed, knocked over her desk, and threw books at the other children. Another 6-year-old told his teacher to “Shut up, bitch”. In a survey of 39 school districts, 93% agreed that kintergardeners have “more emotional and behavioral problems” today than even five years ago.

Teachers have always told students with poor grades to socialize less and hit the books more. Now students and parents want the requirements to be relaxed. The students believe poor grades are not their fault, and parents do not hesitate to raise objections. They will frequently call in complaints about “excessive homework” and other ordinary assignments.
Older faculty members say this rarely happened in the past, and they can not be completely frank with parents because of university rules. The truth is that many students are average, they skip classes, do not turn in all of their work, but they enlist parents in the fight for a better grade.

The vast majority of young people are not in college full time. Only an estimated 25% of 18-24-year-olds attend a four-year college full time.

For the first time in history more girls attend college than boys, and as of 2006, 44% of college students were male.

Teachers try to help students develop a greater sense of responsibility, but because of excessive parental pressure, academic standards have changed. Harvard’s grade inflation is so rampant that now 85% of students are graduating cum laude, while at Georgetown University the curve is A-.

Because of the fear of parental complaints, on the elementary and high school level it has become nearly impossible to fail or hold back a student. Some of these “helicopter parents” have done a poor job in setting limits. The Baby Boomers knew reasonable self-denial, but Generation Y does not want to wait for gratification.

There are many differences between young people today and what the Baby Boomers experienced. This is clearly demonstrated in any organized sport activity. In past generations trophies went to the winners, but today all participants receive an award. These students received praise just for participating and not necessarily for excelling in sports or academics. They were rewarded whether or not they made the grade or the home run to avoid damaging their self-esteem.

The extensive use of text messaging and other electronic forms of communication has contributed to inferior writing skills. Both professors and corporate managers complain about Millennials’ grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. There has also been a steep decline in analytical skills, critical thinking and academic engagement in general.

I am not surprised Asian youngsters are doing so well in American universities, laboratories and post-doctoral research centers. They come from cultures where rewards are not taken for granted and only come after considerable hard work. Parents today are plagued by the fear that their children’s lives will be emotionally and financially worse than their own. Unfortunately, many statistics back this up. Nevertheless, it would be better if parents let their children fail, because then these students would be better prepared for the real world.


According to three separate studies, young people’s narcissism is at an all-time high. Over 1 in 10 Americans in their 20s are now afflicted with a narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissism is defined as “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity.”

Only 1% to 2% of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode during their lifetime, even though they lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. According to a 1990s study, 21% of teens aged 15 to 17 had already experienced major depression. Other studies have also noted the huge change. Young people start dating earlier and they have delayed marriage longer than their parents. Survey data from “Generation Me” indicates they have more than doubled the amount of time in which to experience romantic failure and heartbreak. This is a major cause of depression.

In 2004, the American Pediatric Association found 20% of young women and 12% of young men reported high to very high levels of psychological distress. The same survey revealed that mental and behavioral problems were reported by one in five Americans aged 15-19 in 2004-2005. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people, second only to fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. Rates among 15-24 year old males have tripled between 1960 and 1990.

Compared with five years ago, 81% of college mental health service directors reported an increase in students with serious psychological problems. Pressure to succeed is one reason identified by some counselors.

The American Pediatric Association reports that around one in four 15-19 year olds are either overweight or obese, and notes a significant increase in these rates since 1995. America is among the top countries with the highest rates of type 1 diabetes among children.


Young people have never known a world that put duty before self. When the United States liberated Afghanistan, military enlistments went down, not up. What a contrast to the Greatest Generation which flocked to recruitment centers after Pearl Harbor. The lack of a military draft or required national service has now insulated two generations which no little of our armed forces and the sacrifices they make for our freedom.” – Candice Kelsey in Generation Myspace

Generation Y supported Barack Obama over John McCain by a 66% to 32% margin, but now their enthusiasm is waning. In the recent elections in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, their turn out rates were 15%, 17% and 19% respectively. By the beginning of 2010, a significant shift was seen and only 54% of Millennials said they leaned Democratic, while 40% identified with the Republicans. Their interest in social causes is far below the deeply felt activism demonstrated by their parents.

In 1966, 60% of college freshmen said that ‘Keeping up to date with political affairs’ was an important life goal. By 2000, only 28% agreed with that statement.

“Anything we do that’s political always falls flat,” Ricky Van Veen, 27, told The New York Times. He is editor in chief of CollegeHumor.com, a popular and successful Web site. ‘It doesn’t seem like young people now are into politics as much, especially compared to their parents’ generation. I think that could lend itself to the argument that there is more narcissism and they’re more concerned about themselves, not things going on around them.’”

David Mindich, author of “Tuned Out: Why Americans under 40 Don’t Follow the News”, interviewed 18-to-24-year-olds in 2002. He found that 60% could not name a single Supreme Court justice, 48% did not know what Roe vs Wade was, and 62% could not name any of the three countries Bush had identified as the ‘Axis of Evil'”.


“Seventy percent of late-1990s high school students expected to work in professional jobs, compared to 42% in the 1960s. In 1999, teens predicted they would be earning, on average, $75,000 by the age of thirty. The average income of a thirty-year-old that year was $27,000.”

Joan Chiaramonte, head of the Roper Youth Report, says “The gap between what young people have and what they want has never been greater. Their expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous.
“Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities such as housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities. More than any other generation in history, the children of Baby Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood.”

According to the Pew Center, 30 percent of college students agree with the statement: “If I show up to every class, I deserve at least a B.”


“While Millennials bring skills in multitasking, technology and working in teams, they tend to demonstrate less ability in oral and written communications and interpersonal interaction. They also have been socialized since childhood to get constant feedback and are going to look for it in the workplace too. As a result, some employers consider them high maintenance.” – Daphne Atkinson, vice president for industry relations at the Graduate Management Admission Council.


In a 2002 survey, 82% of 18-to-22-year-olds said their mothers worked outside the home at least some of the time when they were growing up, compared with 34% of the mothers of the World War II generation.

In 1924, a group of sociologists did a famous extensive study of the citizens of a place they called “Middletown.” It was later revealed to be Muncie, Indiana. When mothers were asked which traits they wanted their children to have, they named strict obedience, loyalty to church and good manners. In 1988, few mothers named those traits, and instead they chose independence and tolerance.


Books such as “Generation Me,” “Generation Myspace,” “The Trophy Kids Grow Up” and “Tuned Out: Why Americans under 40 Don’t Follow the News,” have similar conclusions. Once again, many of their observations are based on scientific research.
The most authoritative book is “Generation Me.” It presents, for the first time, the results of twelve studies on generational differences, based on data from 1.3 million young Americans. The author concludes that when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you. Or, in the words of a prescient Arab proverb, “Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers.”

A final point is that self-absorbed people have little skill or capacity to consider others. Will they be successful in their marriages or in raising children? Both require a tremendous amount of time thinking about others.