There is a lot of talk about divides between generations – but how accurate is that? Do personality traits really change that much depending on when a person was born? A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that there are both differences in personality across the lifespan and differences in personality between generations.
People have a tendency to differentiate strongly between generations. Baby boomers are seen as out-of-touch, millennials are thought of as lazy and entitled, and Gen Z is seen as frivolous and social media-obsessed. Despite the common discourse, the research into differences between generational cohorts’ personality traits has been very limited. This study sought to understand these differences utilizing the Big Five personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience.
Study author Naemi D. Brandt and colleagues utilized 4,732 participants who were recruited from a long-running longitudinal study conducted in Seattle that collected data on participants every 7 years. A measure was utilized that assessed personality traits. Due to its outdated nature, this study refined it and took items that related to the Big Five personality traits for the purpose of this study.
A scale measuring the Big Five was introduced in 2005, so correlation was able to be established between the two personality measures. Additionally, variables measured individual changes, age-related differences in levels and change, and cohort-related differences in levels and change.
Results showed evidence for generational differences. Samples born later showed lower levels of agreeableness and neuroticism, as well as higher levels of extraversion. Women in later-born cohorts showed higher levels of conscientiousness, but men did not. This is likely related to social changes and changes in gender roles for women over time. At the end of the lifespan, differences between generations became smaller. Differences on maturity-related constructs were more evident in younger participants.
This research took strides into looking at personality differences between generations. Despite this, it also has its limitations. Firstly, the personality measure used for populations sampled prior to 2005 is outdated. Additionally, adolescents and elderly people are not included in this expansive sample.
“Do generations really differ in how they generally act, feel, and think, and do they develop differentially across the life span? The answer is mixed. People born at different times indeed differ, on average, in how conscientious, agreeable, neurotic, extraverted, and open they are,” the researchers concluded.
“We found little evidence that the rates by which personality changes differ across historical times. Our results yielded initial evidence for cohort-related differences in levels of Big Five personality characteristics that point to delayed social-investment and maturity effects in later-born adults compared with those born earlier.”
The study, “Acting Like a Baby Boomer? Birth-Cohort Differences in Adults’ Personality Trajectories During the Last Half a Century“, was authored by Naemi D. Brandt, Johanna Drewelies, Sherry L. Willis, K. Warner Schaie, Nilam Ram, Denis Gerstorf, and Jenny Wagner.