New research identifies generational personality differences

We talk a lot about divisions between generations, but is it true? Do personality traits really change that much depending on when a person was born? A new study published in Psychological Sciences suggests that there are both personality differences across the lifespan and personality differences between generations.

People tend to strongly differentiate between generations. Baby boomers are seen as disconnected, millennials are seen as lazy and empowered, and Gen Z is seen as frivolous and obsessed with social media. Despite the common discourse, research on the differences between personality traits across generational cohorts has been very limited. This study aimed to understand these differences using the Big Five personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience.

Study author Naemi D. Brandt and colleagues used 4,732 participants recruited from a long-running longitudinal study in Seattle that collected participant data every 7 years. A measure was used to assess personality traits. Due to its outdated nature, this study refined it and took elements related to Big Five personality traits for the purposes of this study.

A scale measuring the Big Five was introduced in 2005, so that a correlation could be established between the two personality measures. In addition, the variables measured individual changes, age-related differences in level and change, and cohort-related differences in level and change.

The results showed evidence of generational differences. Samples born later showed lower levels of agreeableness and neuroticism, as well as higher levels of extroversion. Women in later-born cohorts showed higher levels of conscientiousness, but men did not. This is likely related to social changes and shifts in gender roles for women over time. At the end of life, the differences between the generations have reduced. Differences on maturity-related concepts were more evident among younger participants.

This research has made progress in examining personality differences between generations. Despite this, it also has its limitations. First, the personality measure used for populations sampled before 2005 is outdated. Also, teenagers and the elderly are not included in this extended sample.

“Do generations really differ in how they generally act, feel and think, and develop differently throughout life? The response is mixed. People born at different times do indeed differ, on average, in their degree of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion and openness,” the researchers concluded.

“We found little evidence that rates of personality change differ across historical eras. Our results provided initial evidence for cohort-related differences in levels of Big Five personality characteristics that indicate delayed effects of social investment and maturity in adults born later compared to those born earlier.

The study “Acting like a baby-boomer? Birth Cohort Differences in Adult Personality Trajectories Over the Last Half-Century,” was authored by Naemi D. Brandt, Johanna Drewelies, Sherry L. Willis, K. Warner Schaie, Nilam Ram, Denis Gerstorf, and Jenny Wagner.

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