A Changing Nation: A Generational View of Shifting Attitudes in America

While political polarization has been on the rise in the U.S., in many ways the 2016 presidential election was a collective moment of realization of just how far apart Americans are. 

Young vs. old, left vs. right, urban vs. rural – since the election, understandings of “other segments” are frequently discussed. However, many of these conceptions are constructed through stereotypes and anecdotes instead of data.

In September 2016, we asked over 4,000 13+ individuals their attitudes regarding core national and political issues. This data allows us to explore how Americans think about nationalism and key political dimensions.

We’ll preview some of our findings around nationalism, military spending, and whether America is going in the right direction.

A Rejection of Patriotic Rhetoric

patriotism-attitudes-by-five-year-segmentYoung Americans are less likely to agree with nationalistic-oriented attitudes. Teens (gen-Z) in particular, along with younger millennials, are much less patriotic and more doubtful of American exceptionalism.

Just 45% of gen-Z are patriotic, and 35% agree that America is the greatest country in the world. This is a remarkable contrast to older Americans. Compared to gen-Z, Boomers are 34% more likely to be patriotic, and 43% more likely to say America is the greatest country in the world.

For the generations between the two, agreement with nationalistic attitudes rises in-step.

Additionally, there are strong intra-generational differences. While just 45% of the youngest millennials are patriotic, this rises to 65% for the oldest millennials.

While a piece of the low pro-America attitudes among youth is likely age-related, much more is attributable to shared events and racial/ethnic makeup.

Impact of Shared Events

Looking at 9/11 as a shared event is important to understanding the chart above. Individuals experience different ups and downs that shape their sense of Nation. The key shared event for young generations is 9/11. Gen-zers were predominantly born post-9/11.

Additionally, they came of age in a time of the uneasiness of the War on Terror and dwindling confidence in government. This climate of uncertainty extends to millennials, whose entry into the working world coincided with the Great Recession, which disproportionately affected them. These events, which happened at key impressionable times, likely uniquely affected younger generations.

Role of Endowments (Culture)

i-am-patriotic-by-generation-and-raceGen-Z and millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generations to date, and many gen-Zers are part of early-stage immigrant families. This is central to understanding changing nationalism attitudes.

Young, multicultural America is much less likely to agree with nationalism attitudes than older consumers – especially among black and Asian youth.

A staggeringly low percentage of black and Asian gen-Zers say they are patriotic. They’re half as likely as white gen-Zers to be patriotic.

Millennials follow a similar pattern, though overall patriotism increases slightly.

Being part of a minority population, or having concrete ties to and experience with a foreign country, could affect patriotism.

Support for Military Might

The issue of military spending elicits agreement among most people. This is surprising given how often nationalism and the military are linked. When asked whether “we spend too much money on our military,” a minority of individuals across different demographics agree.

we-spend-too-much-money-on-our-militaryGen-Z, gen-X, and boomer(+) all indicate very low agreement at 23%, 24%, and 19% respectively.

Millennials are the most likely to agree that we spend too much. This generation is most likely to be in the “college years” lifestages, where we usually see an increase in “leftist” attitudes. Yet despite this, only 34% of millennials in aggregate agree.

Race/ethnicity does little to spur differences of opinion, with the exception of Asians. They’re the most likely segment to want to limit spending, with a still low 36% agreement. Asians are the racial and ethnic segment that is, by far, the most likely to be college educated.

Interestingly, individuals that self-identify as living in urban areas are only marginally more likely to agree. Urbanicity is often a strong predictor of difference in political views (such as feelings towards immigration), but on this issue the effect is more muted.

Headed in the Wrong Direction

i-think-this-country-is-going-in-the-wrong-direction-by-five-year-segmentsWhen asked in the immediate run-up to the Presidential election, the majority of respondents weren’t optimistic about the direction of the country.

There aren’t noticeable differences across generations. Younger people are inheriting a world and seeing changes that they have less control over, while older folks are more likely to disagree with some of the progressive social shifts in the last few decades.

The picture is much more stark when we examine the data by race/ethnicity and urbanicity – underscoring the importance of these elements when looking at attitudinal gaps.

White and rural Americans of all generations are more pessimistic about the direction of the country.

i-think-this-country-is-going-in-the-wrong-direction-by-generation-and-race-and-urbanicityMulticultural consumers are more at ease with the direction of the country. Older multicultural segments experienced a different time in America and faced more adversity and discrimination, and therefore also witnessed more social progress.

Multiculturalism is also tied up in urbanicity. Increased diversity in urban areas drives divergent attitudes. A lower proportion of urban Americans feel negatively about the direction of the country. This is in contrast to rural dwellers who don’t feel positively about the country’s direction, with upwards of 61% agreement.

There are real fault lines that underlie opinions on the way the country is heading. White and rural consumers feel differently than most other segments – indicative of broader divisions as consumers react to the shifting direction and makeup of America.

Learn More

If America is more divided, the importance of understanding these young Americans cannot be overstated, not only to understand reactions to recent political events, but as predictive of the values of a new and rising generation of voters.

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