February 24, 2004

A Global Generation Gap

Generational differences fuel much of current social and political tension in Western Europe and the United States over globalization, nationalism and immigration, according to an in-depth analysis of results from the Pew Global Attitudes surveys. Older Americans and Western Europeans are more likely than their grandchildren to have reservations about growing global interconnectedness, to worry that their way of life is threatened, to feel that their culture is superior to others and to support restrictions on immigration. This generation gap is less pronounced in Eastern Europe and is virtually nonexistent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Nevertheless, Americans and Western Europeans of all ages are less likely than people in other parts of the world to tout their own cultural superiority and are less wary of foreign influence. These findings are based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project‘s surveys conducted during 2002 and 2003 among more than 66,000 people in 49 nations plus the Palestinian Authority.

Throughout the world, there is a tension in opinion brought on by the push and pull of globalization. Strong majorities in all regions believe that increased global interconnectedness is a good thing. But globalization is more popular among the youth of the world. Everywhere but Latin America, young people are more likely than their elders to see advantages in increased global trade and communication, and they are more likely to embrace “globalization” per se1. This hesitation among some older citizens to embrace the movement toward globalization may be due in part to latent nationalism. Trend data from the World Values Survey2 , in successive surveys over the past 20 years, show that for the last two decades older people in the U.S. and throughout Western Europe have consistently expressed more national pride than a generation of older citizens.

Whose Culture is Best?

The Global Attitudes survey shows that people all over the world and of all ages are proud of their cultures. Yet it is only in the West (North America and Western Europe) where that pride is markedly stronger among the older generations, while younger people tend to be less wedded to their cultural identities.

In the U.S., 68% of those ages 65 and older agree with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior,” while only 49% of those ages 18-29 agree. The generation gap in Western Europe is similar. More than half of older Western Europeans (53%) are culturally chauvinistic, compared with only one-in-three (32%) of their younger counterparts. The difference between generations is particularly apparent in France, where only 21% of those under age 30 support the notion of cultural superiority while 56% of those aged 65 and older say French culture is superior.

Eastern Europeans overall are more likely than their Western counterparts to say that their culture is superior. However, generational differences are not as sharp or as consistent as those seen in the US and Western Europe. In Bulgaria, Russia and Ukraine, citizens of all ages agree about the superiority of their respective cultures. In the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovak Republic, there are differences in perspective across age groups.

In Africa and Latin America, strong majorities, cutting across almost all ages, believe their culture is superior. In Asia, feelings of cultural superiority are even more intense. There are no major generation gaps in the region, except in Japan, where 84% of older people think that their culture is superior, compared with only 56% of those under age 30 who hold that view.

Protecting “Our Way of Life”

Despite the general attraction of globalization and possibly, as a reflection of their sense of cultural superiority, solid majorities everywhere think that their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. In most parts of the world, that desire cuts across all age groups. However, in the U.S., Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe, older people are much more worried than the young about defending their country’s way of life.

In the U.S., seven-in-ten (71%) people ages 65 and older want to shield their way of life from foreign influence, while just over half (55%) of those ages 18 to 29 agree. This generation gap is even greater in France, Germany and Britain, where older people are twice as likely as young people to be worried about erosion of their way of life. Generational differences are less consistent in Eastern Europe. Concern is greatest among older people in Russia and Ukraine, while young Czechs are more worried than their elders about foreign influence.

Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and people living in the Middle East are generally even more worried than Americans and Europeans about a pernicious foreign influence on their way of life, but that concern is broadly shared across generations, with little significant difference between age groups.

Putting the Brakes on Immigration

Skepticism about foreign influence is evident in widespread, intense antipathy toward immigration. Majorities in nearly every country surveyed support tougher restrictions on people entering their countries. Immigrants are particularly unpopular across Europe, especially among the older generation, where half of those surveyed completely agree with the need for additional immigration controls. The anti-immigrant generation gap is widest in France, where more than half (53%) of those ages 65 and older completely agree that immigration should be restricted. Only a quarter (24%) of younger French men and women shared such strong views.

Anti-immigrant sentiment also runs high in the United States, especially among older Americans. Half (50%) of those ages 65 and older strongly support new controls on entry of people into the country. Only four-in-ten (40%) young people share that intensity of sentiment.

Support for greater immigration controls also is widespread in Africa, Asia and Latin America, without the generational differences seen in Europe and the United States. The principal exception is Japan, where older people are much more vehement than younger people that foreigners should face restrictions for entering their country. Fully 64% of Japanese ages 65 and older say there should be more control over foreign immigration. Only 12% of those ages 18-29 agree.

Most Agree English is Important

While most citizens of the world long to preserve their own national identities and to protect their cultures from foreign influence, majorities everywhere agree on the importance of children learning English or, in the case of the U.S. and Britain, on the necessity for children to learn a foreign language.

Generational differences on language training suggest that, while older Americans and Western Europeans are quite worried about foreign threats to their way of life, they still place great value on developing the language skills necessary to cope with the broader world. Fully 42% of US senior citizens completely agree that children need to learn a foreign language. Only 29% of those under the age of 30 feel that strongly about language training. In France, 68% of those ages 65 and older completely agree that kids need to learn English to succeed in the world today. Only 44% of those ages 18-29 feel that strongly. The age gap is equally wide in Britain and less pronounced in Germany and Italy.

In Eastern Europe, the generational difference on this issue runs in the opposite direction. Young people are much more strongly committed to the idea of learning English than the older generation. Overall, 53% of Eastern Europeans under the age of 30 completely agree that children need to learn English to succeed in the world today. Only 29% of those ages 65 and older feel the same way.

In Latin America, overwhelming majorities of all ages agree about the importance of learning English. Only in Mexico do young people place much greater value on language training than do their elders. In Asia, there is similarly widespread agreement among all age groups about the need to learn English. The lone exception is Japan, where 75% of those ages 65 and older completely agree that it is important for kids to learn English, while only 45% of those ages 18-29 completely agree.

  1. This also is true in the Asian countries surveyed by the Global Attitudes Project but not aggregated for the accompanying table or for this analysis.
  2. The World Values Survey, run out of University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, can be found online at www.worldvaluessurvey.org.