Season of Giving? Holiday Shopping Hits New Heights of Selfishness with ‘Self-Gifting’

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Six in ten shoppers will hit the malls during the always-expanding holiday season and engage in what’s rapidly becoming a holiday tradition: self-gifting. We’ll reward ourselves with an average of around $140 in self-gifts this year (up 9% from 2011). And guess which age demographic is most likely to be especially generous (selfish?) when it comes to picking out just the perfect gifts for themselves?

According to the new National Retail Federation survey, self-gifting will reach an all-time high during the 2012 holidays. While the percentage of consumers expected to self-gift remaining flat compared to last year (59%), those who will be getting themselves a little something will actually be getting themselves a little more than a year ago. The average self-gifter is forecast to spend $139.92 on himself, up from $130.43 during the 2011 holidays, and $112.20 the year before that.

Younger consumers are especially game to embrace the idea that the season of giving is the perfect time for self-gifting. The 18- to 24-year-old age category, which the NRF notes are “often ones seen standing in the long lines for retailers’ midnight and early-bird Black Friday promotions,” features the highest percentage of self-gifters (71.5%). Their slightly older counterparts, in the 25- to 34-year-old demo, are expected to spend the most on themselves during holiday season splurges: $175.65, compared to $159.62 for those in their late teens and early 20s.

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Part of why younger shoppers are more likely to self-gift can be attributed to the likelihood that they don’t have children (or grandchildren) yet. With fewer people to shop for, it’s easier to push their own desires to the top of their lists.

But it seems as if the mindframe of younger consumers is different as well. Previous studies have indicated that millennials are far more likely than other age groups to make impulse purchases strictly to pamper themselves. Gen Y has also grown up accustomed to being rewarded at every turn—on the soccer field, after getting a decent grade—and because of the proliferation of deals and a frantic shopping atmosphere, the holiday season has become the perfect time of year to reward themselves.

“It looks like young adults have the ‘one for you two for me’ mentality about the holiday season this year, which is surprising given that this is also the age group that typically doesn’t have the income or ability to splurge,” said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for BIGinsight, which conducted the survey for the NRF. “What isn’t surprising is that retailers’ holiday promotions continue to strike a chord with this age group, especially with promotions surrounding popular electronics and apparel items.”

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However, the overwhelming popularity of self-gifting among millennials may not be so surprising when you consider the era in which they were raised, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing and the author of Gen BuY. This generation is “highly particular about what they want and buy,” says Yarrow. “Having grown up in an era of unprecedented economic growth and consumer spending, they developed pretty high expectations. What we learn when we’re children is hard to shake—plus it’s a lot easier to upgrade than it is to downgrade.”

Millennials are not more selfish than other generations, Yarrow notes. But because they grew up at a time when society placed a stronger emphasis on caring about oneself, self-gifting seems more natural to them, without the negative connotations felt by older generations.

The fact that a higher percentage of Gen Y members are underemployed or unemployed, and that they’re likely to be in debt and living with their parents, is deemed largely irrelevant. “Despite new economic realities, Gen Y has ambitious standards,” says Yarrow. “Active self-gifting behavior is a reflection of big cravings. It’s also a partial explanation of their love of the gift card for a holiday gift — they can get exactly what they want, plus they get the gift of shopping.”

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Speaking of which, guess what’s the most popular item on consumer wish lists, according to the National Retail Survey? According to the study:

Six in 10 (59.8%) of those polled say they’d like to receive gift cards this year, up from 57.7 percent last year and the most in the survey’s history.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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