It’s a bit odd to think of Gen X as narcissistic. After all, generation-defining terms like “slackers” and “grunge” don’t exactly spell rampant egoism.
But new research that followed a group of students from their freshman year in 1992 over a 23-year period shows that as young adults, we were pretty narcissistic: vain, selfish and entitled. Maybe that’s just a young adult thing.
But once we made it to 40, we tended to become more empathetic, conscientious, agreeable, and emotionally stable. That's likely thanks to life events that require a fair amount of selflessness, like being in a long-term, intimate relationship, having kids, and being invested in a career.
The benefits of outgrowing self-centeredness …
The authors of the study were interested in tracking the evolution of three primary facets of narcissism over time: vanity, entitlement and leadership. They hypothesized a decrease in vanity and entitlement, but an uptick in leadership since correlated attributes like self-confidence and assertiveness have been shown to support leadership ability.
Indeed, those who were more vain as young adults were more likely to get divorced, had fewer children, and more unstable relationships. And those who felt more entitled in college reported less life satisfaction and well-being as grown-ups.
On the flip side, to the surprise of the study’s authors, success at work didn’t necessarily mean an increase in leadership — it actually decreased. While those who saw themselves as superior leaders in college did tend to wind up in supervisory jobs as adults, it doesn’t necessarily mean they brought true leadership to the table.
In today’s workplace, that entails the authenticity, empathy, and relational intelligence — the opposite of narcissism. The good news is that only 3% show a midlife increase in narcissism, which means for most of us, outgrowing it is a bonafide benefit of reaching middle age.
… And becoming centered in self
As we’ve discussed here on Further, the ego is often what stands in the way of true success. For the vast majority of us, life events have chipped away our need to look to others in order to feel whole. More new research shows a subtle yet profound difference between having self-esteem and being a narcissist:
Self-esteem is about being satisfied with yourself as a person and accepting yourself for who you are, regardless of how you compare to others. Narcissism is very much about feeling superior to other people.
It’s a delicate balance, one supported by becoming a person of a certain age. Maturity as the antithesis of our narcissistic youth is a potent way to frame the power and potential of midlife.