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A Profile of America’s Youth

by James Davison Hunter


We are all interested in making some sense of our historical moment. What is distinctive about our time; our brief span in history? In recent times there has been frequent and rather casual reference to “World War II Generation,” the “Baby Boomers” and “Xers” to get at this. As the terms gain currency in public discussion they have become sweeping generalizations that have tended to obscure the complexity of social life and the complexity that exists in different age cohorts. One of the fundamental realities of the late 20th century is fragmentation — the fragmentation of social relationships, of moral meaning, and of life experience. Why should we imagine that fragmentation does not also characterize particular age cohorts. The question I begin with concerns the adequacy of the concept of “generation” as a device for understanding what is unique or at least distinctive about our particular moment in our particular society.

The Concept of Generation

The concept of “generation” is a phenomenon that points to much more than a cohort of individuals united by their common biological age. Ever since the 1920s when Karl Mannheim introduced the idea, the social sciences have conceptualized generation as a social unit bound together by virtue of four features: 1) a similar location in the social structure and a similar relation to the historical process; 2) a cultural system of common attitudes, values, and beliefs that predispose its members to certain experiences and certain historically relevant modes of action and life; 3) social interaction and thus a degree of social solidarity among its members; and 4) a measure of self-consciousness as a social unit. In short, the concept of generation is more rigorous than one might suppose, and it must be if it is to be useful as an explanation of social change. Practically speaking, not every age cohort in a society as large as the United States is a “generation.”

How well does “Generation X” or the generation that follows (whatever we call it) fit the description of a “generation” in this more rigorous sense? In my view, not terribly well. The problem is one of generalizations that are empirically accurate. Can generalizations be made that clearly distinguish this “generation” from others? In addressing this question, I draw from a survey I conducted last year entitled The State of Disunion— The 1996 Survey of American Political Culture. The Gallup organization did the field work involving face to face interviews lasting an hour and a half with over 2,000 people nationwide.

Are America’s Young Demographically Distinctive?

Is there something about the basic structural features of their world that makes the generation coming of age today distinct from other generations? The answer is yes, and no. In most ways the basic institutional framework of their lives has been and is much the same as it was for their parents and grandparents. School, social organizations and activities, and home life define the basic parameters of young people’s daily lives just as they have for those who preceded them.

There are a few things one can say by way of broad generalization. In general, the generation coming of age today is growing up in a more urban environment than their grandparents, though not much more than their own parents. The adults in their households are also significantly better educated.

Much more interesting and important are differences that exist within their family life. Young people today are growing up in families where parents are distinctive less present. Two thirds of today’s 18-24 year olds had mothers who worked outside of the home compared to 43 percent of their parents generation and 17 percent of their grandparent’s generation. Of those whose mother worked outside of the home, more than half did so before the child was six, compared to one-third of their grandparents. Also, there is divorce. Half of all marriages nowadays end in divorce, but for one out of every three of America’s young people, the divorce of their parents took place before they were 18. Among their grandparents cohort, less than eight percent had parents who divorce before they were 18. Here again, parents are less present individually or collectively. We know these differences are enormously consequential for psychological development and moral formation. I will add, however, that the young people assess their childhood no differently than their elders. They are no less likely to agree that their childhood was mostly or very happy.

Are They Socially Distinctive?

Are America’s youngest adult generation distinct in their social views? Again, the answer is yes, and no. Those coming of age at the end of the 20th century are certainly less religious than their parents or grandparents, at least in traditional ways. They go to church less, pray less, and religious beliefs are generally less important than they are for their parents and grandparents. They are also more libertarian in their views of sexuality — every dimension of sexuality.

In their views of most other social issues, however, America’s young adults do not really stick out very much. Their views of family life fall along a rather conventional range of opinion, as do their attitudes toward such matters as the environment, race relations, the virtues and vices of market capitalism, and so on. There is little that stands out here as distinctive.

Are America’s Young Politically Distinctive?

Today’s young adults are not particularly distinctive from any political vantage point either. It is true that “Gen X,” as a group, tends to be slightly more politically independent in their affiliation than those who are older. They are also more marginally liberal in their political inclinations, but here the difference is barely significant. This age cohort also tends to be less politically involved than their elders, yet this may just be due to their newness to political activity. Their enthusiasm appears to be growing.

At the same time, they are just as likely as their elders to see voting as an obligation, to keep up with the news, or at least see it as a good thing to do. They are slightly more pessimistic about the future of America and they are a little less likely to have respect for the political system as a whole. At the same time, they are no more or less cynical about politicians in Washington or the political process. America’s young are also no less confident than the rest of the American population about the ability of the federal government — or any of its agencies — to accomplish any of its objectives. Incidentally, confidence is pretty low all the way around in America these days.

The Myth of Generation X

After all that has been said and done about Generation X — the post-baby boom population between 18 and 34 years of age — is there enough to qualify it as a distinct generation? Perhaps so. In my opinion, though, the term is ultimately misleading. It suggests that generation (like race or gender) is fate; that those in this age category share the same beliefs and attitudes and that those outside of this age bracket do not. This, of course, is analytically problematic. The reason is that the post-baby boom population is incredibly diversified within itself. We don’t need a social scientist to tell us this; we know this from our own experience. We know young people among us who are politically conservative, politically radical, politically moderate and politically indifferent. We know those who are socially conscious and those who could not give a rip for matters not Affecting themselves. We know those who are responsible and caring and those who are irresponsible and self-centered. The tastes of young people also vary widely — in their personal style (from the urban grunge to athletic to preppy to nerdy) as well as their aesthetic tastes. There are young people who go for classical music to those go for Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine, and they go for everything in between. By the same token, we also know of middle aged and older people who are startlingly progressive in their views. We know grandparents capable of embarrassing their kids with their willingness to experiment both socially and personally.

On the face of it, to make broad political and cultural generalizations on the basis of when someone is born seems absurd. American society is intensely fragmented. The complexity is overwhelming. Is it any surprise that the post-baby boom generation is also fragmented? The concept of Gen X, or of the “Baby Boomer generation,” defies the reality we all know in experience and in the empirical evidence. Generational analysis is provocative but it just doesn’t hold up under careful scrutiny. Perhaps it is time to abandon the concept of Generation X or of “Baby Boomers” — at least for the timebeing.

Reconceptualizing the American Public

I would like to suggest an alternative way of classifying the population and ultimately getting at some of the questions concerning American youth. The framework I suggest is neither generational, nor political, nor economic, but rather cultural. By this I do not mean what is right or wrong in people’s minds on different issues. I mean that there are differences in the ways “morality” is conceived by individuals, for themselves personally and for the larger society. This is important because diversity in America is not just defined ethnically or economically, but also culturally. Since cynicism, hope, trust, and the like, are rooted in normative perceptions, it is essential to grasp how the public is divided in their normative commitments.

In The State of Disunion study, my colleagues and I have discovered that there are sub-groups of the population that differ significantly in their core commitments. These differences involve three key cultural priorities: the relative commitment to self versus others, to universal Truth versus particular (and relative) truths, and to traditional versus non-traditional moral codes as guidelines for one’s life. At one extreme is a sub-group of the population that blends traditional morality with a strong commitment to absolute truth and putting others first. At the other extreme is their cultural antithesis — a morally progressive, relativistic and self-oriented group. In the final analysis, our study identified six strikingly distinct patterns of cultural commitment among the American population.

Traditionalists (11 percent)

Traditionalists constitute 11 percent of the American population. They are the most conservative group in America in every way — the most conservative in regard to traditional morality, self-sacrifice, and foundationalism. They are also overwhelmingly white and mature in years. Indeed, they are the oldest group on average (32 percent are 65 or older, fewer than half are under 50, and only 16 percent are between 18 and 34 years of age). Traditionalists are religiously conservative as well (62 percent are Evangelical Protestant and nine percent are orthodox Catholic). Their political interest is higher than any other group, but their activism is disproportionately Republican and is concentrated in the rural areas of the Southeast, Southwest, and West Central states.

Neo-traditionalists (16 percent)

Neo-traditionalists comprise 16 percent of the population. On all dimensions, they are the second most conservative group overall and the most conservative urban group. They are also religiously conservative (45 percent are Evangelical Protestant and 18 percent are orthodox Catholic). They cite God’s will as the primary criterion for moral decision making and claim to have an active prayer life. Compared to the old-fashioned Traditionalists, individuals in this group are better educated, more likely to inhabit urban areas, and are better represented among racial and ethnic minorities (16 percent are African-American and 14 percent are Hispanic). Neo-traditionalists are also slightly younger than Traditionalists and better represented within the professions. Neo-traditionalists are among the most politically active and are also likely to be Republicans (disproportionately located in the Southern and Pacific states), though they are also well-represented among Democrats and Independents.

Conventionalists (13 percent)

Comprising 13 percent of the population, Conventionalists are a moderate to conservative cluster, though they seem to be so more out of habit and accepted practice than out of conviction. They are, in moral terms, on the fence. Like the Traditionalist group, the ethnic composition of this group is heavily white, and they are from rural and small town America. Conventionalists also are well-represented among the oldest group of citizens. Unlike the Traditionalists, however, this group identifies more with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, and is disproportionately located in the central U.S. and in the states of the Southeast and Southwest.

Pragmatists (14 percent)

Comprising 14 percent of the population, Pragmatists are traditional in their views of personal morality and they tend to reject relativism in their consideration of truth and aesthetic value. For example, they disapprove of, but they are nevertheless willing to tolerate, homosexuality, pornography, interracial marriage, and so on. Their faith may slant more toward moral propriety than toward devotion. Theologically, they are well-represented among progressive Protestants and progressive Catholics. Yet they are the most hedonistic of all the clusters. In some respects the Pragmatists in our study can be viewed as self-seeking conservatives. Personal satisfaction is their top priority and material well-being is central to that project.

Pragmatists are very urban, many are from the largest cities in America. Accordingly, Pragmatists are distinct for their racial diversity. Most, obviously, are white. Eighteen percent of this group, however, are African-American and 19 percent are Hispanic. Relatively scarce in the South, Pragmatists are disproportionately located in the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific states. Politically speaking, Pragmatists are aligned with the Democratic Party, although they are well-represented among Independents. Like the Conventionalists, they are generally less interested in politics than the average American.

Communitarians (19 percent)

Communitarians are fairly skeptical about traditional moral principles, and they are fairly relativistic in their views of truth. Even so, they are distinctive in their desire to subordinate immediate gain and personal satisfaction to future gain or the common good. They are young to middle-aged, heavily white in ethnic composition, and they are religiously liberal. As a population, they are most heavily concentrated in small cities which are disproportionately in the East (particularly New England) and the Rocky Mountain states. They take a slightly greater interest in politics than members of other sub-groups, but they do so more as Democrats and Independents than as Republicans.

Permissivists (27 percent)

Permissivists are the most lenient in their attitudes toward traditional morality, the most relativistic in their world view, and among the most hedonistic when it comes to negotiating between their personal interests and the common good. They are moral improvisers. Truth and morality are highly provisional within this group.

As a group, Permissivists are well-educated, and they are religiously either liberal or disinterested. Secularists, for example, are more represented in this group than in any other. Permissivists are disproportionately located in the states on the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific coasts. As one might expect, these individuals are heavily independent in their political identification. Not surprisingly, they are also among the least interested in politics.

A Cultural Vanguard

The cultural commitments that today push the envelope of innovation in the American social order are those of the Permissivists and, to an extent, the Pragmatists. Together, one might call these sub-groups a “cultural vanguard” that spans various age cohorts. They are young, middle aged, and old. Having said this, however, it is also noteworthy that this “vanguard” cultural group is overwhelmingly carried by the younger generation. Permissivism is the dominant moral orientation among 18 to 24 year olds, as well as 25 to 34 year olds. Add the Pragmatists, and two-thirds of all 18 to 24 year olds are adherents to “vanguard culture.” It is also worth pointing out that among those who operate within the vanguard culture, the commitment to this world view tends to be more intense among the youngest.

What are the characteristics of vanguard culture? There are four inter-related factors. The first is its secularity. About two-thirds of all oriented in the vanguard culture, and three-fourths of its younger adherents, go to church or synagogue less than once per month. More than half say they don’t pray but less than once a week. Only about a third say their religious beliefs are very important to them (a quarter for the younger adherents) compared to more than half of all of the other subgroups.

Secondly, moral authority in the vanguard culture is grounded in subjectivity as opposed to something outside of the self. The cultural vanguard is two to three times more likely to orient moral decisions around the expressive or utilitarian needs of the self.

Thirdly, the moral end or telos is significantly more likely to be the self. More than half of the vanguard culture adherents agree that “realizing ones personal potential is more important than helping others.” Accordingly, they are the least likely to sense great obligation toward their families, their co-workers, their local communities, the country, or for that matter, humanity.

Fourthly, the cultural vanguard is comprised of moral innovators. They are certainly the least likely to hold traditional views of divorce, premarital sex, homosexuality, pornography, or suicide. Most distinctive of all is their unwillingness to make moral or ethical distinctions at all on such matters. Such matters are either always right or not even moral issues. The cultural vanguard is, in many ways, beyond good and evil.

The distinctiveness of the cultural vanguard becomes even clearer when considering the key focal points in people’s moral universes. By the “focal points in a moral universe,” I mean those internal and external encumbrances that shape moral understanding and decision making. The internal reference points pertain to the self and its subjectivity — the emotions or the perceived self-interests of the individual and whether they figure importantly or unimportantly in moral decisions. The external reference points to encumbrances outside of the self — other family members, people in one’s community, humanity as a whole, the environment, Nature, and God — and the way they shape a person’s moral understandings and commitments. Needless to say, people differ greatly in terms of how they combine and enact these various elements of moral significance. Nevertheless, we found that the cultural vanguard is distinguished by a sense of possessive individualism, where the self exists as the key moral reference point. To what extent do Americans reject the moral guides of “God first, others second, me third,” “the meek will inherit the earth,” “it’s not whether you win the game but how you play the game that matters,” and “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”? On the other hand, to what extent do Americans embrace the moral lessons contained in the dicta of “looking out for number one,” “nice guys finish last,” “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing,” and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? As one would expect, Traditionalists and Neo-traditionalists are the least defined by the dictates of possessive individualism. By contrast, and by far, the Permissivists are the most oriented by possessive individualism. The Pragmatists have the identical profile as the Permissivists, but in a slightly weaker form. Vanguard culture features possessive individualism.

Cultural Politics

There is little to say about the relationship between vanguard culture and groups with other moral orientations as far as embracing of the ideals of democracy. There are some differences between the individuals in different sub-groups, but these are differences of degree rather than of kind. All have a fairly high attachment and commitment to the system, all include relatively patriotic citizens who practice the basics of democratic participation. Likewise, the people inhabiting these groups do not differ dramatically from each other in their expressions of disaffection with the government or cynicism over its leaders.

The political significance of the vanguard culture compared to the other sub-groups is most clearly seen in reference to the various issues of cultural conflict — a set of conflicts sometimes referred to as the “culture war.” Consider one such issue as an illustration. How do the attitudes of these groups play out on the various issues of homosexuality where moral pluralism is, on the face of it, rather intense? The standard social and demographic differences among people account for very little difference in opinions about this issue. Educational level is the one exception, but education is plainly a cultural institution with enormous consequences for a person’s world view. More significant are the differences between the various clusters of moral orientation.

Of the American population, just over one-third (37 percent) agree that homosexuality should be regarded as an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Only 11 percent of the Traditionalists, 23 percent of the Neo-traditionalists, and 28 percent of the Conventionalists agree with this view. Of the vanguard culture groups, Pragmatists are right at the national average, and 57 percent of the Permissivists take this position. Communitarians are allied with the vanguard groups on this question with 43 percent viewing homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.

The identical pattern plays out on the range of gay rights issues. Of the general population, about one-third (30 percent) agree that homosexuals should have the right to marry. Yet only six percent of the Traditionalists and 13 percent of the Neo-traditionalists agree compared to 50 percent of Permissivists. Communitarians and Pragmatists hover around the national average on this issue. Likewise, about one-fourth (26 percent) of the general population agree that homosexuals should have the right to adopt a child, but again the clusters range between the Traditionalists, six percent of whom agree, and Permissivists with 42 percent agreeing with this idea. The same pattern of response is reflected in the public’s attitudes toward the right of homosexuals to serve in the military. In each of the dimensions of this complex issue, enormous political differences exist, and this also is true on other issues of contemporary cultural politics.

A Question of Resources

Ours is a culture that has spent down the cultural capital that animated Western civilization. There is no returning to it. The question is what moral resources will coming generations draw upon as they face an uncertain future. One potential moral resource is consumerism.

In the last 25 years, there has been a growing dominance of processes of consumption over those of industrial production in the West, giving priority to advertising, the media and service sector industries. Goods are valued for what they mean as much as for their use. Advertising and product image become goods consumed for their own sake, rather than as representative of real products. Once established, a culture of consumption is quite undiscriminating and everything becomes a consumer item, including meaning, truth, and knowledge. Meaning, once rooted in a tradition of humanist ideals is now conferred through communities of product image, style and design. Knowledge, once oriented toward truth and freedom, it is now transformed into information and is targeted at a community of consumers. American culture is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the “cool” consumer worldview. Everything, now, is for sale — first and foremost is identity itself. The internet, TV and magazines now teem with persona ads that don’t so much endorse the capacities of the product as show you what sort of person you will be once you’ve acquired it. The central thrust of our consumer culture is simply the ethic, “buy in order to be.”

Young people didn’t ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung with them, where it exerts a powerful, and largely unacknowledged, influence in their lives. Consider this:

Interviewer: Will the United States be a better or worse place to live in the next ten years?

Student: America will definitely be a worse place to live.

Interviewer: Then you must be pessimistic about the future.

Student: No, actually I’m quite optimistic.

Interviewer: But why?

Student: Because I have a high grade point average and I think I’ll get a good job, make a lot of money and live in a nice house.

In sum, youth are optimistic about their own personal future but pessimistic about the future of the country. There is a sense among young people today, especially college students, that they are passengers on a sinking ship — a Titanic, if you will, that is called America or the world. There is a fatalism that fuels a spirit of hedonism. In a word, if they are doomed to ride on the Titanic, they might as well make the trip pleasant, lavish, and exciting, for there probably is nothing better. Over the past four decades, increasing percentages of college freshmen have expressed the view that “being well off financially is important to them.” By contrast, they are also less and less interested in developing a “philosophy of life.” In 1969, 82 percent of first-year students thought that this was very important or essential. A decade later, it was 53 percent. Today just 38 percent say that this is essential or very important to them. If one is trapped on the Titanic, what is the point of a philosophy of life? Individual action rooted in conviction would seem to be pathetically meaningless.

The culture of consumption, particularly when it spills over into the realm of identity and knowledge, both reflects and reinforces the skepticism so highly cultivated in the contemporary academy and in popular culture. It is not just the academic reaches of “post-structuralism” or “deconstructionism.” Skepticism and incredulity toward authority also are part of the consciousness of students raised on Seinfeld, Letterman, Calvin Klein ads, Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Cobain.


I began by distancing myself from the concept of Generation X. I want to end by embracing it, at least tentatively. There is, in fact a deeper culture that distinguishes our time. Every age, until our own, has been a form of address to some ultimate authority, outside of the self. Nowadays, the self increasingly is its own moral authority. Intellectualized by elites and reflected in popular culture, the chief characteristics of this ethic are fragmentation, individuation, subjectivization and utility.

While this culture is mainly institutional in character, it is very much reflected in our consciousness, and while it is shared by many people of all ages, America’s youth are clearly the dominant carriers of this vanguard culture. At a very practical level, dazed bewilderment may be the hallmark of our time, and the worldview of the young. All of the older certainties are gone. Let me quote a Harvard senior in a recent commencement address:

“I believe that there is one idea, one sentiment, which we have all acquired at some point in our Harvard careers and that, ladies and gentlemen is, in a word, confusion. They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”

I should point out the obvious. This is not only a problem for the young. It is everyone’s problem, even if it is more acute among today’s youth.

A typical response on the part of our elites is found in a recent article in Harper’s magazine. There a colleague of mine, Mark Edmunson of the University of Virginia, laments the passivity of today’s students — this coming generation’s lack of conviction — but he also offers a solution. As an antidote to the confusion of our time, Edmunson speaks of “genius” and of “self-overcoming.” “What happens,” he asks, “if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are?” Good question, but I want to push him a little bit by posing the question, “Overcoming to what?” Genius? By what standards? On what grounds does one oppose consumerism? In what moral vocabulary do we frame such an opposition. Edmundson offers no answer to any of these questions. The absence of an answer suggests a subjectivism that is of precisely the same fabric as the consumerism he decries.

I mention Edmunson because I believe our culture is at a point where it is unable to transcend itself and reinvent itself. Our elites are distinctly impotent in generating what they celebrate. Indeed, we have spent down the cultural capital of our civilization and cannot figure out how to replenish it. I would like to end on a positive note by suggesting that within today’s youth we have wonderful potential for renewal and revitalization of our private and civic life. It is true that history is not determined, not set in stone, but the truth is we have not left young people in America with many resources or options. Our capacity to even imagine a coherent and meaningful future has diminished. Our moral horizons have shrunk.

In the Jewish Scriptures it says that without a vision the people will perish. One might paraphrase that by saying without a meaningful telos, institutions will eventually become exhausted and devitalized. Individually, too, without a transcending moral purpose, we become less than what we are capable of. If we are to renew and replenish our culture at the end of the 20th century — not just for the coming generation but for all of us — finding that moral purpose outside of ourselves may be our first order of business.