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The Intergenerational Gap on Challenges for the Century

December 22, 2021
8 min read
Photo credit: Ink Drop / Shutterstock.com

Napoleon Bonaparte once observed: “To understand the man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” 

Today, young people similarly form their initial worldview when they first become fully aware of events around them, especially what is happening outside their own society. While the lens through which they see international events may become more mature and nuanced as they age, how they interpret global developments is subconsciously refracted through the prism of a worldview that was hardwired in their formative years.

For this reason, it is essential that we understand how young people see the world they will be inheriting, because their actions will shape the future. Their understanding, and their ignorance, preferences, prejudices, and differences with the views of older generations will shape their societies’ response to shared international challenges, such as China and climate change, determining humanity’s fate in the 21st century.

It is essential that we understand how young people see the world they will be inheriting, because their actions will shape the future.

The immediate importance of generational differences is now playing out in Germany, where an unprecedented political transition in the wake of the September 26 parliamentary election has resulted in nearly one in three members of the new Bundestag being under the age of 40.

“We will no longer leave politics to the older generation,” 29-year-old Ria Schröder, a newly elected Bundestag member from the Free Democratic Party, told the New York Times. “The world has changed around us. We want to take our country into the future—because it’s our future.”

Views of the United States

Nowhere are these generational differences more evident, and potentially more consequential, than in the next generations’ views of the United States, the world’s leading power for more than half a century, but now a nation in relative decline.

In Germany, 64% of those 65 years of age and older—all Germans who formed views of the United States during the Cold War—hold a favorable view of the United States, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. But among those aged 18–29, young people who formed their worldviews after the fall of the Soviet Union, just 50% see Uncle Sam in a positive light. In Sweden, there is an even larger 27-percentage-point generation gap: 68% of older Swedes but only 41% of younger Swedes have a favorable view of the United States.

68%

of older Swedes but only 41% of younger Swedes have a favorable view of the United States.

This perception of the United States translates into generational differences in opinion about whether Washington is a dependable ally. Nearly eight in ten (79%) older Germans believe the United States is a reliable partner, but only roughly six in ten (63%) younger Germans agree. There are similar differences between the young and the old in Sweden and the Netherlands in their perception of the dependability of the United States.

Even wider generational disparities emerge when Europeans are asked if relations with the United States will get better over the next few years; young people in several European societies were decidedly less optimistic than their elders: with a 24-percentage-point generational difference in Spain, a 17-point divide in Sweden, and 12-point differences in Germany and the Netherlands.

Clearly, the next generation of Europeans are more skeptical than their elders about relations with Washington.

Public opinion surveys find a generation gap in views toward the US in the Asia/Pacific as well. But it is largely the reverse of what is found in Europe and, if anything, there are greater differences among countries.

Clearly, the next generation of Europeans are more skeptical than their elders about relations with Washington.

The Pew surveys find that young people are more favorably disposed to the United States in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, and generational differences are slight. In Japan, there is no statistically significant divide in views of the United States between the young and the old. In Australia, however, according to a Lowey Institute survey, while only 40% of Australians aged 18–29 trust the United States, 66% of Australians over age 30 do.

When asked if Washington takes into account their nations’ interests when making international decisions, roughly two-thirds (65%) of young Japanese say it does, while barely half (52%) of older Japanese agree, suggesting a greater faith in the alliance among younger Japanese.

In South Korea and Australia, the generational divide is just the opposite, with a plurality of older respondents believing Uncle Sam considers their interests, and young people saying he does not.  

What About China?

China is a growing preoccupation in the United States, Europe, and Asia, thanks to shared concerns about Beijing’s growing economic competitiveness, its assertive military posture, and its suppression of human rights. But generational differences are mixed.

Negative views of China are at historic highs in many nations, especially among older people whose initial impressions were formed during an earlier period when Beijing was largely sealed off from much of the world behind a bamboo curtain or whose first memory is the searing images of the 1989 massacre of human rights protestors by the Beijing government in Tiananmen Square.

In six of 17 societies surveyed by Pew, people aged 65 and older are more likely than 18- to 29-year-olds to be critical of China. In Japan, for example, nine in ten (92%) older people see China in a negative light, compared with eight in ten (79%) young people who voice negative views. But such youthful antagonism is not always the case. In South Korea, 84% of the younger generation hold an unfavorable opinion of China, compared with 67% of older Koreans.

These opinion differences shape generational views on state-to-state relations. In the United States, Canada, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, older people are more likely than the young to see China as a rival not a partner, according to a German Marshall Fund survey.

Age is also related to how people view economic ties with China, according to the Pew survey. Young adults are generally more likely than older people to prefer closer trade and investment relations with China. In Italy, for example, by 20 percentage points, the young are more likely than their elders to favor China as an economic partner. South Korea, where the economy is deeply intertwined with China, has just the opposite generational divide. Older people are 14 points more likely than the young to favor close economic ties to China.

When publics assess China’s behavior, there are also generational divides.

Despite the younger generation’s much publicized interest in human rights, older people are more likely than younger ones to criticize China’s treatment of its own people in seven of the 17 nations Pew surveyed in 2021. In only two countries—Singapore and Taiwan—were young people more critical of Beijing than their older compatriots.

But the young in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and New Zealand are more willing than their elders to be tougher on China regarding human rights issues, even if it harms economic relations with Beijing.

The Climate Challenge

Global warming is the ultimate generational challenge. The actions—or inactions—of the current generation will determine the fate of generations to come. So, it is little wonder that the younger generation is the most concerned about the future livability of the planet.

Nearly eight in ten (78%) Americans aged 18–29 compared with six in ten (60%) of those aged 65 and older are concerned about global warming, according to a Gallup survey, in part because older people are much less likely than the young to believe climate change is caused by human activity.

A Lowey Institute survey found that three-quarters of Australians aged 18–29 think global warming is a serious and pressing problem, while only half of those over age 60 agree.

Around the world, it is young adults who are more likely than their elders to be concerned that climate change will harm them during their lifetime, according to Pew. The difference is greatest in Sweden, where young climate activist Greta Thunberg has inspired her generation: young Swedes are 40 percentage points more likely than their older counterparts to say they are concerned about personal harm from global warming. Significant generational differences between young and old also exist in New Zealand (31 points), Australia (30 points), and Singapore (20 points). Smaller differences are found in the United States, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Young Swedes are 40 percentage points more likely than their older counterparts to say they are concerned about personal harm from global warming.

When it comes to taking action, however, the enthusiasm of the younger generation wanes a bit. In only eight of the 17 nations Pew surveyed were the young more likely than the old to be willing to change how they live and work to help reduce the effects of global warming, highlighting the political challenge governments will face in mobilizing support for lifestyle-changing climate change policies. Nevertheless, the median generational difference in those countries was a not insignificant 15 percentage points, something to build on.

Why Generational Differences Matter

In every society, the older generation holds the future in trust for the younger generation. Disparities in experience and interests make generational differences in perception and priorities almost inevitable. But it is the views of the young that are most likely to determine the future trajectory of societies and their relations with other nations. For this reason, the generation now in power—whose worldview was shaped in another era—needs to understand, and where possible accommodate, the views of those who will follow them, a generation shaped by more recent events and priorities. For the future is theirs.


This piece was written for and originally published by the Japanese news magazine Foresight.

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