Learning from Pew Research: The generation gap in 2012

| Tags: World

The cultural landscape of the United States is complex as this research from Pew indicates. The traditional way of thinking about cultural divides was to align them along the right wing – left wing dichotomy articulated as moral differences. This does not seem to be as clear as maybe it once was. Today you have an interesting split between issues that appear to be hinged on personal morality, such as abortion, and issues that seem to be more about social norms, marriage equality.

Olympic Millennial Michael Phelps reflects the majority of his generation in his attitude to drug use  which, among this generation is clearly now a social not moral issue. And herein lies the underlying picture: a shift in how the public relate to morality. Millennials are, in the main, anti death penalty, pretty much split along the general public’s line on abortion and keenly in favor of marriage equality. Young voters tend to like an America that plays well with foreign friends, dislikes military power and embraces diplomacy. This makes them a singular generation, technically these are Obama’s guys. The poor economy means that they are anxious so the big question is what will define their voting behavior in the fall: ethics or economy.

Around the world Studioriley research finds similar characteristics among the young. We believe that a helpful way of looking at cultural values is through the lens of generational differences driven by adoption of technologies that bring with them implicit cultural norms. The television generation lives in a world of simplistic binary narratives that favor yes – no, black – white, good – evil, left – right story lines. Young generations live in a cultural context that is pluralistic, complex and collaborative. Their media is social whereas their parents media is individual. In a social media culture engaging with “the other” becomes the norm and new ways of thinking emerge.

Western culture has been framed by broadcast media for over half a century. It is, at its heart, a culture of the individual. What we believe is that the new culture is a majority world culture grounded not in in values that promote the idea of the individual as unique but in the idea that the individual is social. In that light the Pew research makes sense. There is a generational divide in America that pits individual against social. Nowhere is this more clear than in the gulf (pardon the pun) between the old and the young on issues related to energy and climate change. The old like the energy they grew up with and want more of it for their cars and RVs. The young see the oil economy as destructive and want social change in favor of government supported shifts to less energy consumption and clean energy production.

Demographic trends do not bode well for a harmonious democracy in the United States. The old are living longer and make up a powerful political force, the young, traditionally the focus of American culture, now have to balance their needs and values against an older generation. In the world at large, the majority world, the young voice tends to be dominant. There could very well be a greater harmony between young people from different regions of the world than within regional cultures between young an old. There is, however, a final twist in this discussion. Traditional cultures of the majority world tend to favor the social over the individual. But that is for another conversation.