Age, Time Period, and Birth Cohort Differences in Self-Esteem: Reexamining a Cohort-Sequential Longitudinal Study

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Orth, Trzesniewski, and Robins (2010) concluded that the nationally representative Americans’ Changing Lives (ACL) cohort-sequential study demonstrated moderate to large age differences in self-esteem, and no birth cohort (generational) differences in the age trajectory. In a reanalysis of these data using 2 different statistical techniques, we find significant increases in self-esteem that could be attributed to birth cohort or time period. First, hierarchical linear modeling analyses with birth cohort as a continuous variable (vs. the multiple group formulation used by Orth et al.) find that birth cohort has a measurable influence on self-esteem through its interaction with age. Participants born in later years (e.g., 1960) were higher in self-esteem and were more likely to increase in self-esteem as they aged than participants born in earlier years (e.g., 1920). However, the estimated age trajectory up to age 60 is similar in Orth et al.’s results and in the results from our analyses including cohort. Second, comparing ACL respondents of the same age in 1986 versus 2002 (a time-lag design) yields significant birth cohort differences in self-esteem, with 2002 participants of the same age higher in self-esteem than those in 1986. Combined with some previous studies finding significant increases in self-esteem and positive self-views over time, these results suggest that cultural change in the form of cohort and time period cannot be ignored as influences in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.

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