Why Millennials Are So Obsessed with Personality Types

According to some definitions, the youngest Millennial will turn 21 this year. The earliest born among them is fast-pushing 40 - not old, but getting on a bit. Old enough, certainly, to resent the label 'Millennial' and all the pejorative stereotypes that come with it. Millennials are variously described as entitled, self-interested, tough to manage, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy and 'precious snowflakes' who can't handle criticism and want everything handed to them on a silver platter. 

Considering the size and diversity of the Millennial generation, these stereotypes feel lazy and irresponsible. Millennials are the generation born roughly between 1980 and 1996, and those years have seen a lot of changes. The earliest cohort of Millennials were alive before Apple released the Macintosh computer, when Germany was still divided into East and West and the idea of an African-American President was little more than a pipe dream.

Later-born Millennials, by contrast, have never known anything but smartphones, selfies and matcha lattes, and are undoubtedly at a very different life stage. That's the problem with generation labels - the box is just too big.

By this analysis, Millennials should be deeply suspicious of personality typing. Like generation cohorts, personality typing seeks to impose labels on people who've already found the talk about them to be more fiction than fact. At the same time, there are signs that the 16-type personality system is experiencing something of a resurgence among members of the Millennial age group. It's as polarizing as Marmite.

What is it about Isabel Briggs Myers' system that arouses such opposing passions? Let's take a closer look.

"But I'm an individual"

The 16-type personality system is based on dichotomies: Introversion versus Extraversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling and Judging versus Perceiving. The four letter code that explains our hard-wired personalities is shorthand for our preferences on each of the four scales. It doesn't matter where you sit on each scale. You could be so Introverted that you've withdrawn to the mountains and haven't spoken to anyone since 1974, or you could be well, me, a slight Introvert who sits practically in the center of the E/I scale. Either way, you're still classified as 'I.'  It's an either-or program.

For Millennials, this is a problem. Like the 'Millennial' label itself, for some test-takers, the 16-type box is simply too big. Just because you have the same four-letter code as 10-14% of the rest of the population, doesn't mean you're the same as them. Just because you share 96 percent of your DNA with a Bonobo doesn't mean you like swinging through the Central African rainforest.

The complaint is a valid one. All personality theory has an inherent weakness, and it is that most people's personality traits fall along a bell curve. If we give an assessment for Thinking and Feeling, for example, most people will have scores around the middle, with fewer outliers scoring towards each extreme. It's arbitrary, and not especially scientific, to split this bell curve down the middle and say that now one half of people are Thinkers and one half are Feelers. That's the nature of the beast.

Should we reject personality typology due to these 'spectrum' issues? Perhaps, but usually the problems come when people rely on those four letters far more than they should.

It's never helpful to use type assessments for personnel selection, for example, since you're missing the nuances that make each candidate unique. (There are also issues with candidates gaming the system, but that's an article for another day.) When recruiters prioritize these assessments over their own hiring expertise, it's the equivalent of relying on the 'Millennial' label to describe an entire age group. The tool simply has no validity for this purpose.

"I don't want to choose"

Another obvious flaw of the 16-type personality theory is that it relies exclusively on the test-takers own choices. To get their four-letter code, test-takers must answer a series of questions that ask them to choose between two competing options, for example, "I like to use trusted methods" versus "I like to try to innovate" or "I value my social status" versus "I value my privacy."

It's this reliance on choice that underpins the collective resistance that many Millennials feel towards personality typing. For a generation that's been encouraged to think broadly and explore every option, putting a marker in the sand can be downright terrifying. "I want to be this AND that" is more often the approach.

The Millennial generation is distinct from its predecessors in demonstrating FOMO, fear of missing out, a phenomenon that makes people unhealthily obsessed with making the right choices. FOMO and FOBO, the fear of better options ("Am I making the optimal decision?") makes it incredibly hard to walk through one door because it means all the other doors close, and there's no ability to turn back. In personality terms, there is great worry that you're going to choose the 'wrong' option, receive the 'wrong' personality code and somehow - shackled now to your four letters - be prevented from fulfilling your potential. It's about missing what might have been - the life that got away.

In reality, this is giving predictive power to the Briggs and Myers system that it simply does not possess. We all can access and gain competence in all the facets of personality, whether that's Sensing or Intuition, Judging or Perception. Type theory isn't about blocking off choices, it just tells us where we start.

"It helps us understand each other"

The consequence of wanting to be everything and defy labels is an attitude that values tolerance over close-mindedness. And if there's one thing personality typing is good at - the one thing it is designed for - it's helping us to understand both ourselves and each other.

In this way, personality theory has the ability to satisfy the primary aim of the Millennial generation: self-discovery. Some say this generation is an identity-hungry bunch, and there's something irresistible about personality theory because it not only gives legitimacy and context to what makes us unique as individuals, it also lets us find our tribe. Being unique is pretty lonely, but knowing your type lets you find the people you're likely to have something in common with.

It also helps you to understand the people you don't.

To a generation raised on 140-character Tweets, what's especially appealing is that it gives a shortcut version of understanding without requiring everyone to study complex psychology to any serious degree. It's a simple tool that can help anyone empathize with anyone quickly and simply. It can empower people and provide a language for things they might not otherwise have understood about themselves.

Unlike the 'Millennial' label, personality typology does not discriminate against anyone based on age or anything else they can't control such as class, gender or religious upbringing. That's part of its appeal - this label is based solely on how we prefer to think and behave instead of by constructs that might otherwise lead to discrimination.

That is why Millennials love it. That's why they're embracing it, despite the labels.

Millennials embracing something that's old enough to be their grandparent. Now there's a thought......

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writing blogger and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps writing-challenged clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. Jayne is an INTJ and lives in Yorkshire, UK with her ENTJ husband and two baffling children. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

Comments

Gladys Kartin (not verified) says...

I discovered my MBTI type 20+ years ago and it was a most validating experience. For the first time, I had concrete evidence that explained why secretarial/administrative work was not a good fit for me. It seemed, that without, hard skills, like math, this was the job entry level available  While I could perform more than adequately, it was not particularly satisfying work.  My MBTI type is INFP, and the Step II report rounded out the facets that make me uniquely me.  I found my satisfying work with career coaching working with individuals using the MBTI along with other assessments delivering practical information for insightful decision making.   

Johanna Karin (not verified) says...

That's lovely to hear, Gladys! I'm really happy for you that you found satisfying work, and also for those whose lives you've positively influenced. I'm ENFP and since discovering MBTI that's where my life is heading, too. Helping people live their best lives. For me, there's no greater purpose. 
Good luck with everything Gladys!

Sharon McIlhargey (not verified) says...

Hello,

Yes, I've met many "precious snowflakes" at my 13 year old's school where, on graduation, trophies for the most inane categories were handed out like candy. Nauseating. And time-consuming.

Never was I more proud to be categorized as a Baby Boomer than now.

Our generation learned how to ride it out as there was no alternative. No feel-good trophies here! 

 

Phillip Giustino (not verified) says...

On a simplier term, quantum pssychology is about a wave and a point,  just like mass in quantum physhics. Its a label and a finger print about a particlar person, you can get a general sense about a person's psychology if they make the criteria of a pathology or well being, but each person has a different timeline and nuturing & nature about them too, so to me its about finding yourself in the labeling which helps in the tools needed to ascend out of the shadow version of the 16 personalkity types with less confusion and better understanding of the labels makes it like an airplane for you to get to your destination, the heroes journey, ascending to a higher being, a higher maturity.
(INFJ male)

Megan Malone says...

Great article, Jayne! As a millennial, I think you nailed it with the last section. Growing up with internet and technology has allowed us to interact with people around the world, so stereotypes based on race, class, gender, etc. don't work. We want to understand who people are beyond simple demographics. MBTI and other personality tools have helped me understand myself and others better than anything else I've found in my life so far. 

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