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by Vault Careers | April 26, 2011


Are successive generations becoming ever more self-obsessed? And if so, what does that mean for the managers, employees and workplaces of tomorrow?

Man Dancing at GlastonburyA recent piece in the New York Times pointed to the results of an interesting study: researchers programmed computers to analyze the lyrics of the most popular songs over the past few decades. The results: more I, less we or us. Or, as the article puts it: "a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music."

Before we jump on the popular-music-as-harbinger-of-doom train, keep in mind that the youth culture of every successive generation tends to upset the preceding ones—and that it often has very little to do with the kind of people who emerge from that group.

But still: it's hard not to wonder what the future will look like when today's "late adolescents and college students" hit full-fledged adulthood—especially when that group "love themselves more today than ever before," according to one of the psychologists who conducted the survey, quoted in the article.

But are people fundamentally changing that much? Are these narcissistic tendencies really all that new—or are kids these days just more likely to admit to those feelings?

As it turns out, the answer is a little of both:

"[Study co-author] Dr. Twenge acknowledges that students today may feel more free to admit that they agree with statements on the questionnaire like 'I am going to be a great person' and 'I like to look at myself in the mirror.' But self-report bias probably isn’t the only reason for the changing answers, she says, and in any case this new willingness to brag is in itself an important cultural change."

It's an important change indeed—and one that is sure to test workplace relationships in years to come. While managers and supervisors are likely to find themselves tested by employees with a high sense of self-regard, so too are those new recruits likely to face a period of adjustment as they settle into the working world.

Fortunately, the psychologists who conducted the survey also had some advice for today's self-obsessed youth, which happily also doubles as career advice:

“'As much as possible, take your ego out of the situation,' Dr. Twenge says. 'This is very difficult to do, but the perspective you gain is amazing. Ask yourself, "How would I look at this situation if it wasn’t about me?" Stop thinking about winning all the time. A sure sign something might not be the best value: Charlie Sheen talks about it a lot.'”

The New York Times: A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics


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--Phil Stott,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues