The rise of the Confident Freshman
Self-assurance far exceeds that of predecessors
CHICAGO – 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.
60 percent ‘above average’
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.
“If you look at the patterns in young people’s behavior, all the news is good, pretty much. Crime is down and rates of substance abuse are down, way down. Rates of all kinds of sexual risk-taking – from abortion to sexually transmitted diseases – are down.”
You also can’t look at factors such as self-confidence and feelings of superiority without considering other findings that balance out those traits, says Pryor from UCLA. Look, for instance, at community service, he says.
In 1990, when the question was first asked in the survey, about 17 percent of college freshmen said there was a very good chance that they’d participate in public service in college. In 2010, nearly a third of freshman said the same.
In addition, in 1989, two-thirds of college freshman said they had volunteered in high school, compared with nearly 87 percent surveyed last year.
Cynics like Twenge have argued that they only do so because many high schools require it – or because they know it looks good on a college or job application.
It also should be noted that there has been relatively no change in the percentage of students who said it was important for them to help others in difficult circumstances – 69.7 percent in 1966, compared with 69.1 percent in 2010.
But Deborah Tippett, a professor at Meredith College in North Carolina, says she has definitely noticed that this generation of students is more likely to act on that wish to help – and she thinks it’s that confidence that has led many of her students to do big things.
One of them, she notes, is spending her third summer in Africa this year running a program that’s building an orphanage for children with AIDS.
That said, she also agrees that the confidence – or overconfidence – has a down side.
“They really do believe they can do it all,” says Tippett, who heads the human environmental sciences department at Meredith. “It makes them wonderful, but it also makes for some hard lessons.
“I see it now when I tell students that they aren’t doing work that’s above average or even average. It’s really hard for them to take.”
Some students agree
A lot of students say they’ve seen that dynamic, too.
Janelle Mills, who’ll be a junior this fall at Stetson University in Florida, says she and her peers get tired of their elders “ragging” on them about being entitled or lazy – or just labeling them in general. But she also thinks there’s something to this study about overconfidence.
“Kids are being encouraged to be the best that they can be. I think that this can create a superiority complex for those who begin to think that their best is better than everyone else’s,” she says. “Modesty and humility are no longer common and are becoming harder to find.”
Twenge has argued that the self-esteem movement – “where every kid is special” – has contributed to this. Others wonder if overconfidence is a byproduct of the super-pushy “tiger parent” syndrome, where even average parents set up music classes and sports and outside tutoring so their children can get ahead.
Tippett, at Meredith College, says we’d do our children a favor if we also better prepared them for failure, and the realization that they’re not perfect, especially when they hit the real world.
“I think that’s the real challenge with this generation: How do you help them so that they will be productive people in the workplace?” she asks.
Arnett, at Clark University, says he worries about that, too – and how this generation handles disappointment, entry-level assignments, low pay and criticism at work. “But what I see is that they don’t run screaming from the workplace and lay in the corner in the fetal position,” he says. “They adjust.”
To him, it’s all part of an emerging adult’s journey.
Twenge doesn’t disagree at all with Arnett on that point. “He’s right. As they get older, their self-beliefs will adjust with reality,” she says.
But she believes it’s still worth looking at the generational differences – and to keep overconfidence in check.
Brittany Vickers, who’ll be a junior at Ohio Wesleyan University in the fall, says older generations can help with that.
“The best teachers and coaches I’ve ever had never said I was good enough. They always told me what I could improve on,” she says. “You hate them at first, because you actually have to work hard to be successful. But, when the praise comes, it really means something.
“Sadly, they’ve been few and far between.”