Forty years ago, young people warned each other, "Don't trust anyone over 30!" They were the generation of Woodstock, the music festival that has come to symbolize the youth-driven social, cultural and political upheavals of the late 1960s. Today, the 'Woodstock generation' is itself well over 30, and it's facing a new generation gap with today's 20-somethings, over work ethics, religious beliefs and racial tolerance. But, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, these differences don't seem to matter that much anymore.
"Woodstock, more than anything, was a symbol of a time where there was a great deal of generational conflict.," says Paul Taylor is the survey's co-author. "The young were advancing a counter culture: sex, drugs and rock and roll, opposition to the war in Vietnam, women's liberation, civil rights and a lot of very overt conflict."
In 1969, that generation gap seemed unbridgeable. But each generation is shaped by its moment in history, Taylor says. So there will always be generational differences, and the gap will shrink and grow. After decades of intergenerational understanding, the Pew survey indicates that the gap has widened back to 1969's size.
Work ethics and moral values
"Close to eight in 10 Americans think there are very serious difference between young and old on a range of matters: moral values, use of new computers and new technology, respect for others, work ethic, political views, religious beliefs, et cetera," he says. "And very heavy percentage – seven in 10 or more of both young and old – said older people have the better moral values."
Stuart Schultz is founder of gradspot.com, an on line resource that helps students make the transition from college to the real world. He doesn't agree with the survey's conclusions about his generation.
"I think labeling us as not being as attuned to business ethics or having as strong of a work ethic [as the older generation] is really unfair," he says. "I think we just approach problems and approach things in a different way. We grew in a different environment. We are used to instant communication and multitasking. That's not to say there is any necessarily disrespect. It's just how we've learned to function. That being said, I know that myself and my peers, when we're given a project, we are very aggressive about getting it done, and getting it done properly."
Ethnic and racial tolerance
Having grown up in a more multi-cultural society, today's young adults also approach issues of race and ethnicity differently than their parents and grandparents. Paul Taylor notes that 55 percent of young people in the survey said their generation is more tolerant and more accepting of others, and more than a third of all adults 50 and older agreed.
"Demographically, young Americans today are much more racially and ethnically mixed," he says. "A higher percentage of them are black or Latino or Asian than is the case with the older generation. So they have grown up in a world where social diversity, expressed either in ethnic or racial terms, is just more a part of their everyday lives than it was the case for their parents and grandparents."
Technology and music
The greatest generational divide revealed by the Pew survey is a technological one. Young people can't imagine a world without cell phones and the Internet, while older people are more resistant to – or even a bit afraid of – all the new electronic gadgetry.
While their use of technology presents a stark contrast between the generations, their taste in music brings them together.
Paul Taylor says Rock and Roll is the favorite music genre for every age group – except seniors over 65 – and everyone likes The Beatles the best. The Fab Four are followed by other super groups and stars like the Eagles, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. Superstars of this decade like Kanye West and Carrie Underwood, Taylor says, didn't fare nearly as well.
The older groups have been around longer," he says. "They have had a longer time to build up a following over many generations. We know that they are already legends. The newer groups really haven't had as much time to build a long term and multi generation following." Taylor adds the music industry has also become more fragmented, making it more difficult for an artist today to achieve a broad following.
Today's generation gap
While there is a noticeable generation gap today, Taylor notes that the differences between generations don't seem to matter as much as they did 40 years ago.
"Using the Woodstock year – in the 1960s – as a kind of comparative point, you had a youth-driven counter-culture whose message to the mainstream culture and to their parents was, 'We don't think too much about the society you've created. We think we have found a better way,'" he says. "Today's young people are saying, 'Look, we may see the world differently, we may use computers differently, we may have different habits and values, and you know what, we're not sure ours are better and in fact, yours may be better.'"
That observation pleases Rob Schwartzwalder, of the Family Research Council, which promotes what it considers traditional family values. He says the current generation gap is nothing like the one he remembers from the 60's.
"[Today,] we don't see people rioting in the streets. We don't see the celebration of the drug culture," he says. "We don't see certain behaviors that were then seen. We don't see the violent riots in the street against an unpopular war that we once did. Those are all things that we can be thankful for, that kind of overt and painful social disruption seems to be, at this point, behind us. I'm 51 and I have three kids and many nieces and nephews. My sense is that none of us are really that different."
Perhaps the most important difference reflected in the Pew Survey is that the generations today don't see their differences as a source of conflict, and tensions between the generations appear to have eased considerably in recent decades.