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Why Modern-Day Whistleblowers Are Millennials

Twenty-somethings: Educated, narcissistic, altruistic. How Generation Y fits the psychological profile of classic whistleblowers.
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It's not easy to write about Millennials without sounding like a complete demagogue. 

Depending on whom you ask, we're either narcisstic or altruistic. We want to save the world, or we want to freeload in our parents' basements.  We care about issues like online privacy, but we don't care enough to actually do anything about it. 

The truth is more likely somewhere in between, a complex combination of all of the above: a complicated, over-educated, narcissistic-yet-altruistic bunch.

Suprisingly, that mixture of narcissism and altruism makes us pretty good candidates when it comes to whistleblowing. It also helps explain another phenomenon: Why the two most famous whistleblowers of the last few years happen to be a product of Generation Y. 

Three years ago, in the wake of the Bradley Manning leak--in which a 23-year-old Army soldier sent confidential military documents to WikiLeaks--there was a renewed interest in the pyschological makeup of a whistleblower.

Dr. Bernard Luskin, a psychotherapist with nearly five decades of experience profiling complex minds, boiled down the traits of a typical whistleblower, which he published as an editorial in Work Style Magazine. He writes:

Whistleblowers:

  • are driven by altruism. 
  • can overcome insecurity through exhibitionism in order to release information. 
  • are generally moralistic, becoming committed and even obsessed about a personal belief. 
  • have a propensity to rely on moral theories that emphasize rights. 
  • are strong willed. 
  • are stubbornly committed and uncompromising. 
  • are willing to go against social conventions. rely on their own attitudes and beliefs. 

Luskin's writing was influenced by one of the most cited academic studies on whistleblowers, a 1985 academic report by researchers at the Ohio State University, who conluded that "that whistleblowing is appropriately viewed as 'prosocial' behavior, that is behavior that involves both egoistic and altruistic motives."

Frankly, if you substituted "whistleblower" with "Millennial" in Luskin's definition, most people would tend to agree. Researchers at Pew recently described Gen Y as "confident, self-expressive, liberal, and upbeat." 

We don't know too much about Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old responsible for leaking NSA documents to the press. But he appears to fit the profile. On one hand, Snowden is humble and reserved, telling The Guardian that this story is not about him:

I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me...I want it to be about what the US government is doing....I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building.

And yet, he has a flair for histrionics. According to The New York Times, here's how Snowden chose to leak documents to reporters last week:

The source had instructed his media contacts to come to Hong Kong, visit a particular out-of-the-way corner of a certain hotel, and ask--loudly--for directions to another part of the hotel. If all seemed well, the source would walk past holding a Rubik's Cube...They followed the directions. A man with a Rubik's Cube appeared. It was Edward J. Snowden, who looked even younger than his 29 years...

Not surprisingly, Snowden has been called a variety of names: a traitor, a patriot, a villain and a hero. He even has a fan club willing to pay his Hong Kong hotel fees. At this point, Snowden's fate is uncertain. But what is certain is that a 29-year-old--and not a 59-year-old--was the source of one of the biggest leaks in United States history. 




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