Researcher debates changing attitudes of Americans: historical, generational, or aging?

December 16, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC--The beliefs and behavior of Americans have changed dramatically in the last several decades. It is often surmised that attitudes and ideas of a younger generation are displacing those of their parents and grandparents, but Duane F. Alwin, Pennsylvania State University, discusses whether significant historical events, or processes linked to aging might have a greater impact.

In "Generations X, Y and Z: Are They Changing America?," Alwin explores the complex reality behind the theory that generations influence the attitude and beliefs of America. His study of generations has shown that social change results as much from shifts in individual lives due to aging or historical events as from the progression of generations appears in the fall/winter issue of the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine.

"Next to characteristics like social class, race, and religion, generation is probably the most common explanatory tool used by the press and also by social scientists to account for differences among people," says Alwin.

Generation, according to Alwin, refers to all people born within the same time frame. The interpretation of generation differences depends on one's willingness to make hefty assumptions about other processes, such as how aging affects attitudes, which assist in developing reasonable interpretations.

Alwin acknowledges the possibility that some eras and social movements (i.e. Civil Rights era, women's movement) provide distinctive experiences for youth during particular times. Sharing the same formative experiences contributes to a generation's unique worldview, which remains a powerful force in their lives.

Another possibility is that people change in response to specific historical events or periods, such as September 11. A third possibility is that change is only in one segment of the population, such as the Roman Catholic faith to sexual abuse by priests.

"It is often relatively easy to construct a picture of generational differences by comparing data from different age groups in social surveys and polls," says Alwin, "but determining what produced the data is considerably more complex."

People's sense of trust is shaped by the degree of social connectedness in the formative years of people's generation, according to Robert Putnam, Harvard University, author of Bowling Alone. Yet, Alwin argues that there are problems with this conclusion because while the data appear to show a generational difference, age might be as plausible an explanation of the differences (i.e. trust in people may go up as people mature).

People's trust in government, on the other hand, is another matter - it depends not on what generation you are born into, or age, but almost entirely on what the government does and the surrounding historical events - such as Watergate, the Whitewater scandal, or the government's response to global terrorism.

"Society reflects, at any given time, the sum of its generations," says Alwin. "Where one set of cohorts is especially large--like the Baby Boomers--its lifestyle dominates the society as it passes through the life course."

Generations such as the Baby Boomers may influence the taste in music and clothes of the time, but in cases where there are no major differences among generations then generational succession cannot explain social change. However, where generations persistently differ, their succession will produce social change.

Alwin concludes that the effects of generations on society may depend very much on when one takes the snapshot of generational differences, and how they differ might depend on which groups in society are examined. The reality is often more complex than simple "generational" arguments would suggest.
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The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

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