Nov. 2, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 4

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    Survey: Generation gap closing

    by William Harms
    News Office

    Although most differences in attitudes between younger and older people have narrowed over the past 30 years, the younger generation is becoming more distrustful of society than were their counterparts in previous decades, new research by the National Opinion Research Center shows. The report also found that 18- to 24-year-olds are turning away from the Republican Party and their voting rate is decreasing.

    The NORC study found a great deal of convergence between generations over the last 30 years. When the generation gap became a national issue in the late 1960s, society was going through massive social changes that contributed to large differences between attitudes of the young and the old.

    “In 1973, 12 of the 101 items we surveyed had gaps of 40 percentage points or more. In 1985 and 1997, there were only three items with gaps this large,” said Tom Smith, Director of NORC’s General Social Survey and author of the report, “Changes in the Generation Gap, 1972-1998.”

    “Distrust of people in general, or misanthropy, is the only category that showed a widening of the generation gap across all three periods of our study, which begins by looking at the early 1970s when the expression ‘generation gap’ first gained wide usage,” Smith said.

    The group gap in trust may be due to demographic changes, including an increase in divorce, Smith suggested.

    The three items with the biggest gaps between the oldest and the youngest groups surveyed in 1985 were newspaper reading (44.8 percent difference); approval of legalizing sexually explicit material (49.6 percent); and approval of socializing in bars (53.7 percent).

    In 1997, the three categories with the biggest differences between generations were approval of legalizing sexually explicit materials (43.0 percent); newspaper reading (51.2 percent); and having voted in 1996 (53.4 percent).

    “Changes in the Generation Gap, 1972-1998,” is the most comprehensive recent comparison of differences in attitudes between generations as well as differences among people of the same age group at different periods. The report is based on the General Social Survey, a major study widely used by social scientists and conducted regularly with support from the National Science Foundation.

    Smith found that only 20.2 percent of today’s young people think most people are trustworthy, while 36.4 percent of the young held that view in 1973. Among today’s young people, 31.8 percent feel that most people are fair, while 43.1 percent supported that perspective in 1973.

    The distrustful generation also is a disconnected generation. Compared with previous generations of young people, as well as contemporary older people, today’s young people are less involved in their communities. “They are less likely to read a newspaper, attend church, belong to a religion or a union, vote for president, or identify with a political party than previous generations; and they are the lowest in those measures of all age groups,” Smith said. “Moreover, on all these measures, the generation gap increased from 1985 to 1997.”

    Among the current younger generation, only 20.5 percent read a daily newspaper, compared with 47 percent in 1973; 14 percent attend church weekly, compared with 21.2 percent in 1973; 77.4 percent report religious affiliation, compared with 86.9 percent in 1973; 5.5 percent report union membership, compared with 20 percent in 1973; 27.1 percent reported having voted for president, compared with 46.9 percent in 1973; and 48.2 percent report identifying with a political party, compared with 57.3 percent in 1973.

    The report contrasts how young people and people from other age groups felt about the 101 issues at three points––1973, 1985 and 1997. The results were averaged with responses from General Social Surveys taken in preceding and following years so that a reliable assessment could be made. The biggest gaps, defined as the percentage-point spread of differences, are between the young adults and people 65 years old and older.

    Overall, the gap in attitudes between generations for the youngest and the oldest segment of the population fell from 19.4 percent in 1973, to 16.7 percent in 1985 and to 15.2 percent in 1997.

    Other findings of the report in various categories include the following:

    Politics: The generation gap changed little from 1973 to 1985 on a cluster of questions related to politics (19.3 and 17.6 percent, respectively) and then rose to 24 percent in 1997, as political attitudes zigzagged. In 1973, the younger generation was most likely of all age groups to be independent and liberal and likely to have voted Democratic in the 1972 presidential election.

    In 1985, the younger generation had become more Republican and was least likely among age groups to have voted Democratic in the 1984 election. In 1997, the younger generation was again the most independent, liberal and likely to have voted Democratic in the 1996 election. They also are the least likely group to vote, widening the generation gap, as the older generation increased its likelihood to vote.

    Abortion: The generation gap fell from 11.7 percent in 1973 to 6.2 percent in 1985 and then to 4.9 percent in 1997. The convergence came as the issue of abortion matured and became less important to younger people. Older people show little change in their attitudes or a small rise in support for abortions.

    Civil liberties: The generation gap dropped from 43.1 percent in 1973 to 30 percent in 1985 to 23.9 percent in 1997. Young people became increasingly supportive of rights for homosexuals and older people became more tolerant.

    Crime: The generation gap declined from 12.1 percent in 1973 to 6.5 percent in 1985 and to 5.7 percent in 1997. The declines came as the younger generation became more inclined to support a view also held by older people that courts should become more punitive.

    Gender Roles: The generation gap moved from 28.2 percent in 1973 to 25.2 percent in 1985 and to 14.2 percent in 1997. Older people are joining younger people in their support of more egalitarian roles for men and women.

    Intergroup Relations: The large generation gap in the area that measures racial attitudes, remains at 23.5 percent in 1973, 23.8 percent in 1985 and 21.6 percent in 1997. Although younger people continue to be more supportive of opportunities for blacks and older people are becoming more tolerant, the two groups are moving at a parallel rate and have not converged in their thinking.