Sunday, November 13, 2011

New fault lines emerge between generations

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 13 November 2011

TERRE HAUTE — Has another “generation gap” emerged between those under 30 and those older, similar to the one between the ’60s radicals (“don’t trust anyone over 30”) and the older generations? Is it reflected in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements? Data from the Pew Research Center suggests so to me. It is a fascinating read for those who are interested (

Pew has divided the American population up into five distinct generations: the Greatest, born prior to 1927; the Silent, born 1928-1945; the Boomers, born 1946-1964; Generation X, born 1965-1980; and the Millennials, born 1981-1993. And there are significant differences in their views and politics. For instance, the Greatest Generation has voted reliably Democratic since 1994; so too have the Millennials since 2004 and Gen Xers since 2000. They bookend solidly Republican later Boomers, early Gen Xers, and the more mixed Silent and early Boomers.

We begin to see the fault lines even more so when we compare the Millennials with the Silent generation. In response to “is the U.S. the greatest country in the world,” two-thirds of Silents say yes, but only a third of Millennials do. Millennials are not as patriotic as other generations, with only 70 percent indicating they are “very patriotic” compared to nearly 90 percent for the other generations.

Significant differences show up on hot-button social issues. Fifty-nine percent of Millennials approve of legalizing gay marriage compared to just 33 percent of the Silent generation. Fifty-five percent of Millennials approve of legalizing marijuana but only 31 percent of the Silents do.

The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements reflect this divide, with Millennials favoring bigger government, more government spending to create jobs, and they support expanding Obamacare. The other generations are more likely to support smaller government, deficit reduction, and repealing Obamacare.

As a sociologist, policy differences reflect more often where one sits. Older folks relying on Social Security are more likely to support leaving it alone, while younger folks out of work favor job creation. What about values? Nationalistic and patriotic differences aside, there is significant agreement on the “factor’s behind America’s success.” More than 90 percent across all generations indicate “freedoms” are very important to America’s success, followed by more than 80 percent across all generations indicating “work ethic.” Nevertheless, there are “gaps” on religion with less than half of Millennials citing religion as very important as a factor in America’s success while more than two thirds of the other generations rate it very important. And perhaps most important is 79 percent of Millennials compared to just 45 percent of Silents view the invention of the Internet as making life better.

Television is often pointed to as the single factor most responsible for the gap between the ’60s radicals and the older generations. The Boomers were the first generation to have grown up on television. There is no question that television has profoundly affected American culture, politics, how issues are framed, and the power of images over words. But the Internet may be even more significant. Television watching is a passive activity, with “authorities” controlling the content. It is not interactive, it is largely take it or leave it.

The Internet is different. While it too can be just as passive as television, it has created more opportunity for individuals to interact. The old days of television where a single local person would awkwardly read a dissent to an editorial is now an avalanche of interaction. And just like television, if you don’t like it, you can find something else, but far more than one or two other channels. For many above 30, the Internet is still something of a foreign area, something to be wary of. For those under 30, it is the terrain they are familiar with and find comfort in.

As a Boomer, I don’t fit the Boomer profile very well, especially the later Boomers that I am part. I’m more Millennial. I do worry though that given the growing economic disparity between the young and the old, with Millennials possibly the first generation in American history to not exceed their parents socio-economic standing (absolute mobility), that the normal antagonisms between young and old may escalate given the growing economic inequality between them. That is not inevitable, but given our rancorous politics of dividing Americans among ourselves, the apparent gaps could be used to create a perfect storm of old against the young, rich against the poor, and white against non-white.
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