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The new generation gap (Scripps Howard News Service) October 8, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

Berkeley, Calif., and its university campus have made their share of news over the years. Beginning with the “free speech” movement in the 1960s right up to the current ballot measure to ban politically incorrect coffee, Berkeley has defined the leading edge of liberal culture and radical politics.

But now surprising news comes from this unexpected source. A recent nationwide survey released from the Berkeley campus reports that, on a broad array of topics, the values of today’s younger people are more conservative than those of their elders. As one of the Berkeley researchers admitted, “It surprised us.”

Having been on college campuses for most of the last 35 years, I was not surprised. As that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, said, “You can do a lot of observing just by watching.” I have watched a generation of students arrive on campus, frustrated by the values of their parents, looking for something more solid to build on. Finally the folks at Berkeley have noticed also.

The nationwide survey, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and carried out by Berkeley’s Survey Research Center, was based on interviews with Americans ages 15 to 92. While 69 percent of young people ages 15-26 supported prayer in public schools, only 59 percent of older adults favored it. Barely 34 percent of older adults favored restrictions on abortion, while 44 percent of youths 15-22 backed such limitations.

Young people held more conservative views about religion. For example, 40 percent of adults favored federal aid to religious charities, but 59 percent of college-age young people supported the concept, and 67 percent of teenagers were in favor. Young people had a more favorable view of Christian fundamentalists than their seniors, 33 percent compared with 26 percent.

There were some mixed results in the survey. Young people felt that sexual content and violence on television were less serious problems than did their elders. And the younger generation was more concerned about discrimination and the environment.

It is fair to say, however, that these results describe the development of a new generation gap, one that is the reverse of the much-discussed gap of the 60’s. In that earlier day, the liberal kids were impatient with the conservative traditions of their elders. Today, however, the generation gap has flipped over, and the more conservative kids are challenging the liberal values of their baby boomer parents and grandparents. As one of the researchers concluded, “If the youth of today maintain these positions…then the American public as a whole could become more conservative on these issues.”

How can we account for such a shift? For one thing, cultural and political values do swing like a pendulum from one generation to another. Just as the 1960s witnessed a major turn from the conservative values of the post-war era, it appears that the culture is swinging back now. This is confirmed by other recent studies showing the growth of conservative churches, for example, and significant increases in teen virginity.

Another factor is that the generation young people are rebelling against was one of the most liberal in our history. Many young people today believe their baby boomer and Gen-X predecessors were not on track and they openly wish to take a different course. When I asked freshman college students a few years ago why they had a reputation as relativists who did not stand for anything, they were quick to say that it was because of their parents, and that one of the reasons they had come to college was to learn stronger values. In particular, young people believe the oder generation has done considerable damage to the family and, as the Berkeley survey confirmed, family values are of great importance to them.

Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss have made a cottage industry out of studying generations. In their most recent book, “Millennials Rising,” they describe how today’s teens are recasting the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged. They confirm that today’s young people are less vulgar and sexually charged than the culture older people are producing for them. In time, Howe and Strauss believe these “millennials” could emerge as the next great generation.

The 19th-century Frenchman, Alexis DeToqueville, pointed out that, “Among democratic nations each generation is a new people.” Perhaps middle-aged and older Americans who are often dismayed about the generation behind can take some encouragement from this latest report from Berkeley – unless, of course, the older folks are some of those liberal baby boomers!

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