August 12, 2009

Forty Years After Woodstock, A Gentler Generation Gap

II. Generations Apart — and Together

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this summer found that 79% of the public says there is a generation gap, defined in the question as “a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today.” That’s nearly 20 percentage points higher than in 1979 when the same question was asked in a national survey by CBS and The New York Times, and it’s marginally greater than the 74% of adults who reported a generation gap in a 1969 Gallup survey.

The recent Pew Research finding raised some intriguing questions. How could the generation gap today be as large as or even larger than it was in the tumultuous 1960s when the mantra of the young was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30″? Might the term “generation gap” mean something different now than it did then — if the phrase retains any meaning at all?

To answer these questions, the Pew Research Center conducted a new survey to probe more deeply into today’s generation gap. Specifically, the survey asked whether or not young people and older people differ on eight core values or traits: their work ethic, moral values, religious beliefs, racial and social tolerance, musical preferences, use of new technology, political beliefs and the respect they show others.3 In addition, the new survey attempted to find out whether these differences translated into conflicts between the generations — either in society at large, or at home between parents and children.

The answers to these questions are unambiguous. By lopsided majorities, the public agrees that a generation gap exists on each of the eight values tested. Moreover, when asked which generation had the “better” values, young and old alike generally give the nod to the older generation, and once again do so by wide margins.

But the survey is equally clear that these differences have not translated into serious conflicts. Only about a quarter of the public (26%) says there is strong conflict in society today between the young and old. By contrast, far higher shares see strong social conflict today between blacks and whites (39%), rich and poor (47%), and immigrants and the native born (55%).

Meantime, inside the home, something approximating peace seems to have broken out between parents and teenagers. According to the survey, parents today are having fewer serious arguments with their children and are spending more time with them than their own parents did with them a generation ago.

The following three sections explore each of these findings in depth.

Generational Differences

Americans see differences between young and older adults in each of eight values and characteristics tested, and for the most part they say these generation gaps are large.

The biggest perceived differences emerged in two predictable areas: use of new technology and preferences in music. Nearly nine-in-ten respondents say the generations differ in the way they use the Internet, computers and other kinds of new technology (87%). Moreover, nearly three-quarters of those interviewed (73%) say young and older people are “very different” in the way they handle these new tools of the information age — the single largest difference recorded in the poll.

Nearly nine-in-ten also agree that the generations differ in the kinds of music they like (86%), a view shared by virtually identical proportions of adults regardless of age (89% among those 29 or younger and 86% among those 65 or older). Here again, the public believes the gaps are the size of canyons. More than two-thirds (69%) say the younger and older generations are “very different” in terms of the music they like — a finding that no doubt resonates in every household where a parent has ever admonished a teenager to “turn down that awful racket!”

The Values Gap

The cultural conflicts of the 1960s were largely fought over values and along generational lines. Forty years later, the public still believes the generations embrace many fundamentally different values and beliefs.

About eight-in-ten say young people and older adults hold different moral values (80%), have a different work ethic (80%) and differ in the respect they show other people (78%). Moreover, majorities say the generations are “very different” on each of these three core values.

Somewhat smaller majorities see generational differences in other areas. About seven-in-ten say that young and older people are different in terms of their political beliefs (74%), their tolerance for races and groups different from themselves (70%) and in the generations’ religious beliefs (68%).

The Demographics of Generational Difference

Perceptions of a generation gap on values vary surprisingly little along social or demographic lines, but some differences do emerge. Three-quarters of respondents younger than 30 say the generations differ in terms of their racial and social tolerance, a view shared by only about half of those 65 and older. Also, young people are more likely than older adults to say the generations have different political and religious beliefs (although majorities of both groups share this view).

One demographic group does stand out. According to the survey, blacks are far more likely to see big differences between young and older adults in terms of moral values, political views and respect for others. For example, nearly two-thirds of all African Americans (65%) say the moral values of the generations are “very different,” compared with 53% of whites and 48% of Hispanics.

Similarly, about seven-in-ten blacks (69%) say the generations are “very different” in terms of the respect they show others, compared with about half of all whites (51%) and Hispanics (52%). Also, middle-aged adults — regardless of race — are somewhat more likely that younger or older people to see big differences between the generations in terms of the respect they show others.

Taken together, the findings suggest that Americans believe the generation gap has multiple dimensions. In fact, a 54% majority of the public says the generations differ on at least seven of the eight values tested, and three-in-ten say older and younger adults are different in all eight. In contrast, fewer than one-in-five (17%) perceive a generation gap in four or fewer areas.

Which Generation Has Better Values?

The generations agree that big differences exist between the values of the older and younger generations. But whose values are better? The survey asked that question of those who said the generations differed on any of four core values: work ethic, moral values, respect for others and tolerance of different races and other groups.

The public’s judgment is unmistakable on three of the four values tested. Regardless of age, about two-thirds or more of the public believes that older Americans are superior in terms of their moral values, respect for others and work ethic. The younger generation is viewed as being more socially tolerant, though the verdict is less one-sided.

Overall, nearly three-quarters (74%) believe that older adults have the superior work ethic.4 Moreover, this belief bridges the generational divide: Young people agree with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations that older adults have a better work ethic (68% for those under 30 vs. 73% for those 50 and older). It’s the 30-somethings and those in early middle age who appear to offer the harshest assessment of young people: About eight-in-ten of those ages 30 to 49 judge the older generation to have better attitudes toward work and a job.

Similarly, seven-in-ten adults say older people have better moral values than the younger generation, a judgment shared by 66% of all young adults and 69% of adults ages 50 and older.

About seven-in-ten adults also believe the older generation is more respectful of others (71%), an assessment that is made by 67% of respondents younger than 30 and 69% of those 50 and older. Again, early middle-aged adults and those slightly younger appear to offer the harshest assessment of young people: About three-quarters of those 30 to 49 say the older generation is more respectful.

The story is different on one value tested — social tolerance. By a ratio of more than two-to-one, young people are viewed as being more tolerant of races and groups different from their own than the older generation (47% vs. 19%). Again, the generations are in general agreement: a 55% majority of young adults say their generation is more tolerant, while somewhat more than a third (37%) of all adults 50 and older share that view.

Generational Differences but Not Conflicts

Americans agree: There is a generation gap in the way young and old think and behave. But gone (at least for the most part) is the rancor between the older generation and the younger generation that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, barely a quarter of adults, regardless of age, report there are major conflicts between young people and older adults. If anything, tensions between the generations may be in decline. And when measured against other divides in American society, generational conflict pales as source of social divisiveness.

The Pew Research Center survey finds that 26% of all respondents say there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between young and older Americans, down from 42% in 1992 when the question was first asked in a national survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. At the same time, fully two-thirds (68%) of the public say these generational conflicts are either weak or nonexistent; only slightly more than half of all adults expressed a similar view 17 years ago.

These views are shared by all age groups. Substantial majorities of those younger than 30 (69%) as well as adults 65 or older (62%) agree that conflicts between the younger and older generations are minor, at most.

In fact, when compared with other major social divisions, the generation gap ranks at the bottom of the list. A substantially larger proportion of the public says there are serious conflicts between immigrants and native-born Americans (55% vs. 37%). And comparatively larger proportions also perceive more conflict between the rich and the poor (47%) as well as between blacks and whites (39%).

Results of another question tell a more mixed story. When people are asked if there is more generational conflict now than in the 1960s and 1970s, opinions are divided. A 38% plurality says there is less disagreement now between the generations than there was three or four decades ago. But an additional 31% report there is more conflict, while 25% say there is about the same amount.

While this finding might suggest that generational tensions are at least as high now as they were at the height of the ’60s culture and political wars, the results should be interpreted with caution.

Fully 40% of all survey participants were born after 1969 and thus had no direct exposure to the generational battles of that turbulent era over women’s liberation, civil rights, the counterculture and the Vietnam War. More reliable firsthand reports may come from adults ages 50 to 64 who — as teenagers or young adults — were on the front lines of many of these generational conflicts. Among these baby boomers, significantly more report there is less conflict between young and old now than there was back then (43% less vs. 29% more).

One factor boosting the proportions that see no decline in tensions between the older and younger generations is the disproportionately large share of minorities who believe generational conflict has increased. Fully half of all blacks and about four-in-ten Hispanics say tensions between the generations have increased from the 1960s, a view shared by only about a quarter of all whites.

All (Relatively) Quiet on the Home Front

Today’s parents say they are having fewer serious arguments with their children in their late teens and early 20s than they recall having with their mothers and fathers when they were that age. Moreover, parents of younger children also report they are spending more time with their kids than their mothers and fathers spent with them.

According to the survey, only one-in-ten parents with children ages 16 to 24 report they “often” had (or have) major disagreements with their children. In contrast, nearly twice as many adults (19%) say that when they themselves were teenagers or in their early 20s, they often had serious arguments with their parents.

Of course, it’s possible that parents are downplaying the seriousness of disagreements with their children or are offering a somewhat more dramatic version of their own childhood conflicts with their mothers and fathers. But an analysis of the survey findings among the different age groups of respondents shows that, broadly speaking, parents’ and children’s accounts of intrafamily quarreling were consistent.

Among parents with children ages 16 to 24, slightly fewer than half (45%) say they have major disagreements “often” or “sometimes.” When respondents ages 16 to 24 were asked a complementary question about disagreements with their parents, a virtually identical proportion (42%) report they often or sometimes have serious arguments with their parents.

Fewer Big Arguments, More Time with the Kids

In addition to arguing less, parents report they are spending more time with their younger children than their parents spent with them — and the proportion who express this view appears to have increased in recent years.

Nearly half (48%) of all parents with children 16 or younger say they are spending more time with their children than their parents spent with them, up from 42% in a survey conducted for Newsweek magazine in 1993.

One other sign that today’s moms and dads are spending more time with younger children: Among parents in the Pew Research Center survey whose children are older than 16, barely four-in-ten (41%) say they spent more time with their children when they were growing up than their parents spent with them.

Whether accurate reflections of family life or self-serving versions of history, these findings together with other survey results suggest that tensions between the generations appear to have eased considerably in recent decades — both in the home and in society at large.

  1. These characteristics were chosen on the basis of responses to an open-ended question about generational differences in the earlier Pew Research survey.
  2. To determine what percentage of the public believes that older and younger adults have the better values, the percentage of the total sample who see differences between older and younger people on each value tested was multiplied by the percentage of the public that say older people or younger were better on that value. In this case, 80% of those interviewed say young and older people differ with respect to their work ethic, and of this group, 91% say that older people have the better work ethic. Multiplying those two percentages produces the estimate that about 74% of all people 16 and older believe older people have the superior work ethic.