Call them "Generation Me" all you want. If there's one silver lining from the Great Recession, it could be that it made young people more compassionate for others.
Looking back at surveys of high school-aged students over the last four decades, psychologists at UCLA and San Diego State University found that students were less concerned for others during periods of economic prosperity.
On the other hand, those who graduated during the recession (2008-2010) were more concerned for others, more interested in social issues and more interested in saving energy and helping the environment.
The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, tw-thirds of recession-era 12th graders were willing to turn down the heat at home to save energy, compared with a little more than half in the pre-recession period (2004-06).
The differences persisted when it came to social and environmental issues, too. About 33% of recession-era students said they thought often about social problems, compared with 26% of pre-recession students. And 36% of said they would be willing to use a bicycle or mass transit to get to work –– an 8% increase from just before the recession.
"These findings are consistent with my theory that fewer economic resources lead to more concern for others and the community," said Patricia Greenfield, distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the study. " It is a change very much needed by our society."
Even so, we may have spoken a little too soon when we dissed the whole "Generation Me" theory. Greenfield and her colleagues found that one thing the recession couldn't shake was teenagers' "inflated sense of self."
Teens still tend to think they are smarter than their peers, and if anything, they've became more self-confident after the most recent recession.
"In the past, recessions led to less positive self-views. The recent recession is the only one that produced an increase," said co-author Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before."
The reason? Twenge and other researchers point to the usual culprits –– technology, social media and whatever evil genius invited the self-facing camera.
The study was based on an analysis of data from Monitoring the Future, a survey of a representative sample of U.S. high school seniors conducted between 1976 and 2010.
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