According to the ACA, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is being diagnosed at a much higher frequency than it has been historically (2013); at least within the United States and the Western World abroad.  Surely we are becoming more aware of mental illness, which may be some of the reason for the increase. Furthermore, NPD is showing up most commonly among college students and young adults. There are ongoing debates as to why this is, and likely it is a multitude of factors. So let’s look at some possibilities that may realistically have an impact:

1.      There are developmental shifts that are occurring due to: increased longevity, shifts in consciousness, present day stressors, and changes in world beliefs about aging, careers, marriage, and more.   

2.      The younger generations are exposed to different parenting, schooling, technologies, and a rapidly changing world, which in turn fosters and promotes traits that are seen in NPD.

3.      Competitiveness and perfectionism are reinforced as necessary in our current society, putting new or a different set of pressures on our younger generations.  

The “big picture” projects that there have always been changes, some good and some bad, that occur in human evolution.  We have all heard from someone, “when I was young we didn’t have this….or do this”…..etc.  Therefore, the development of more narcissism may be true, and may even be necessary, in today’s world.  It may also be that this new shift falls to the extreme and then at some point will come into more of a balance, as history often repeats.  Many people have a hard time with change, and may see this as a negative occurrence, especially when not being able to see the future outcome, but as with most things that happen in our lives there is usually an unseen purpose.  

Let’s look at some of the traits that are seen as being magnified in today’s youth that are also seen in NPD, such as: a sense of entitlement, competitiveness, identity seeking, and a strong focus on self. It is true that these are narcissistic traits, but they are not necessarily pathological.  All humans have some narcissistic traits that are beneficially used for self-preservation, protection, and ultimately survival (Ronningstam, 2013).  Developmentally, as we begin to live longer there may also be shifts and changes in a human’s developmental stages.  For instance, using Erickson’s psychosocial developmental model, the “Adolescence stage” from 12-18 showcases these very traits as being a normal process where the teen works at developing a sense of self and of identify that is needed in order to move to later stages of development.  Historically, the next stage of “Young Adulthood” from 19-40 was more focused on finding loving relationships in terms of finding spouses or long-term intimate relationships in order to start a family, which is not as true today.  Today’s young adults, at least during the earlier part of this stage from 19-30, are more likely to go to college, to enter higher levels of graduate school, and to be highly focused on building a career.  Furthermore, anxiety and depression have also dramatically increased for this developmental stage, at least partly due to schooling, the work place, and/or economic pressures among other things (ACA, 2013).  This is important because when a person, any person, is feeling high levels of anxiety they are physiologically more likely to be self-focused and self-absorbed.  In turn, the experience of anxiety from the pressures discussed may increase the need for entitlement, competitiveness, and identity seeking in order to succeed today.  Thus, likely being a period of time that many young adults’ struggle to find his/her identify and place in the world of work.  This shift may call for the “adolescent stage” to continue past 18 years of age, or to break the stage of “Young Adulthood” into two stages.  The argument here is that narcissism may be developmentally appropriate for some young adults.  However, with that said, there are also pure cases of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) within most age groups, including young adulthood, that are enduring, pervasive, and that can cause moderate to severe dysfunction.  

To learn more about NPD, check out Dr. Elsa Ronningstom Ph.D Harvard Professor