January 20, 2010

The Post-Communist Generation in the Former Eastern Bloc

This is part of a Pew Research Center series of reports exploring the behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial Generation.

A Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted in fall 2009 finds that members of the post-communist generation, who are now between the ages of 18 and 39, offer much more positive evaluations of the political and economic changes their countries have undergone over the past two decades than do those who were adults when the Iron Curtain fell. The younger generation is also more individualistic and more likely to endorse a free market economy than are those who are age 40 or older.

Throughout 2010, the Pew Research Center will release a series of reports that explore the values, attitudes and behavior of America’s Millennial Generation, which first came of age around the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and played an important role in the election of President Barack Obama. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project’s contribution to this project focuses on a somewhat different age group: the post-communist generation in the former Eastern bloc. The older members of this generation came of age as their countries began to transition away from communism toward democracy and capitalism, and its youngest members were just being born as communism was collapsing. Their political socialization has taken place under a context that is drastically different from that of their older peers, who came of age under totalitarian regimes.The former Eastern bloc publics were surveyed as part of a Pulse of Europe study┬áthat included 13 countries in Eastern and Western Europe as well as the United States.1

The generation gap on attitudes about democracy and capitalism in Eastern Europe reflects a divide between the past, present and future. Both young and old express concerns about the way things are going in their country, especially with regard to the economic situation. But while the older generation looks back longingly, often saying that people were better off financially under communism, the younger generation expresses more confidence that democracy can solve their countries’ problems. This is a hopeful sign for the future, as the post-communist generation becomes the next leaders and decision-makers in Eastern Europe.

Change to Democracy

The post-communist generation is generally more supportive than respondents age 40 and older of their countries’ move to a multiparty system. This generation gap is especially pronounced in Russia, where overall support for the political changes is lukewarm. More than six-in-ten (64%) Russians younger than age 40 approve of their country’s shift to a multiparty system; in contrast, just 45% of older Russians approve of the change to democracy.

A similar pattern is also evident in some countries where support for the change to a multiparty system is widespread. In Poland, where seven-in-ten approve of the change, there is a double-digit generation gap — 77% of those younger than age 40 support Poland’s change to democracy, compared with 66% of those age 40 or older. In the Czech Republic, 84% of those in the younger age group favor their country’s switch from a one-party system; 76% of those 40 or older agree. And in Slovakia, about three-quarters (77%) of those younger than age 40 say they approve of their country’s change to a multiparty system, while 68% of older respondents share that view.

In Ukraine, where opinions about the change to democracy are negative among the young and the old, the post-communist generation expresses less negative views. About a quarter (26%) of Ukrainians who experienced communism as adults say they approve of their country’s change to a multiparty system, while a solid majority (64%) disapproves. Views are somewhat more balanced among the younger generation — 37% approve and 43% disapprove of Ukraine’s switch to a multiparty system; 21% do not offer an opinion.

Change to Capitalism

In every Eastern European country surveyed, the post-communist generation is much more supportive of the move away from a state-controlled economy than are those who lived as adults under communism. As is the case with opinions about the change to democracy, the generational divide is greatest in Russia; about six-in-ten (62%) Russians younger than age 40 say they approve of their country’s change to capitalism, compared with just 40% of those in the older age group.

A double-digit gap also exists in Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland, and a smaller gap is evident in Lithuania and Hungary. In Ukraine, where the overall level of support for the change to a market economy is lower than in any other country surveyed (36% approve of the change), nearly half (47%) of those younger than age 40 say they approve of the economic changes their country has undergone; just 28% of those 40 or older share that view.

How Most Have Fared Economically

The generational differences on opinions of the changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe over the past two decades are reflected in views of how most people have fared under democracy and capitalism. In Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and Slovakia, those younger than age 40 are much more likely than the older group to say the economic situation for most people in their country is now better than it was under communism.

In Poland and the Czech Republic, majorities of those younger than age 40 offer a positive assessment of how people in their country have fared economically: 53% and 54%, respectively, say most are now better off. Among those age 40 or older, however, views are more mixed. In Poland, virtually the same number in this age group say most people are better off now (42%) as say most are worse off (43%). In the Czech Republic, slightly more say the economic situation for most people is worse (45%) than say it is better (39%).

In Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Hungary, the generational gap reflects mostly uncertainty among the younger group. While those who experienced communism as adults are significantly more likely than the post-communist generation to say that the economic situation for most people is now worse, a large share of those who are younger than 40 do not offer a response.

Have Ordinary People Benefited?

In six of the seven countries where the question was asked, fewer than half say average citizens have benefited a great deal or a fair amount from the fall of communism. And in five of the seven, this sentiment is shared by fewer than three-in-ten of those younger than 40 and those in the older age group. Yet, the post-communist generation offers somewhat more positive views than do their older peers.

In the Czech Republic, where a slim 53% majority says ordinary people have benefited a great deal or a fair amount, a more robust 64% majority of those younger than 40 say that is the case. In contrast, just 45% of older Czechs say average citizens have benefited from the changes that have taken place since communism collapsed.

Younger Poles are also considerably more likely than Poles who were adults when the Iron Curtain collapsed to say that ordinary people have benefited from the changes. About half (51%) of those younger than 40 say average citizens have benefited a great deal or a fair amount, but just over a third (35%) of those 40 or older agree. And while few Slovaks across age groups believe that ordinary people have benefited from the changes since the end of communism, the post-communist generation is twice as likely as the older generation to have that opinion (28% vs. 14%).

Among younger and older respondents in the seven countries where this question was asked, more say that politicians and business owners have reaped benefits from the changes since the collapse of communism than say the same about ordinary people; solid majorities across age groups say the political and business elites have benefited a great deal or a fair amount.

Satisfaction With the Current State of Democracy

When asked to assess the current state of democracy in their countries, the post-communist generation expresses more positive views than does the older generation. That is especially the case in the Czech Republic and Poland, where overall satisfaction with how democracy is working is higher than in most of the eight countries where this question was asked. About six-in-ten Poles (62%) and Czechs (60%) younger than 40 say they are satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. Among those who are 40 or older, just under half in Poland (47%) and even fewer in the Czech Republic (42%) share this view.

Younger respondents in Lithuania and Russia are also more likely than those in the older age group to say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country by double-digit margins. In both countries, however, majorities among the post-communist generation express dissatisfaction. In Lithuania, 43% of respondents who were not adults or were not yet born when communism collapsed are satisfied with the state of democracy and 54% are dissatisfied; among those who were 20 or older when the Iron Curtain came down, just 29% express satisfaction, while nearly two-thirds (64%) offer a negative assessment of democracy in their country. A similar pattern is evident in Russia.

Yet, while the post-communist generation tends to offer more positive evaluations of the state of democracy in their countries, a generational gap is not evident when respondents are presented with a list of six key democratic principles, such as freedom of speech and a fair judiciary, and asked how well each describes their country.

Individualism

The post-communist generation also differs from older generations on the issue of an individual’s relationship to the state. When asked which is more important, “that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state” or “that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need,” those younger than 40 in all of the former Eastern bloc countries surveyed are more likely than those 40 or older to consider being free from state interference a higher priority.

In Slovakia, where the public overall is much more likely to prioritize ensuring that no one is in need over individual rights, the post-communist generation is split — 48% say it is more important for the state to guarantee that nobody is in need and 46% say freedom to pursue one’s goals without state interference is a higher priority. Those who are 40 or older are more than twice as likely to say that the state should provide a social safety net as they are to say that freedom from state interference is more important (68% vs. 27%).

Double-digit generational divides on individualism are also evident in most of the other Eastern European countries surveyed and in the former East Germany. For example, in the Czech Republic, more than half (56%) of those who were younger than 20 or not yet born when communism collapsed say freedom from state interference is more important to them; 44% say guaranteeing no one is in need is a higher priority. Among Czechs who were adults in 1989, however, opinions are reversed — 56% say it is more important for the state to play an active role in guaranteeing that nobody is in need and 40% prioritize freedom from state interference.

Views of Free Markets

There is also a significant generation gap in nearly every former communist country surveyed when respondents are asked whether they agree or disagree that most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people may be rich while others are poor. In Russia, a solid majority (62%) of those who are younger than 40 agree that people are better off in a free market economy, while just 35% disagree. Among older Russians, however, 46% favor the free market approach and about the same number (49%) rejects the idea that free markets are better.

Even in some countries where both young and old have embraced the free market approach, more in the younger age group agree that people are better off in a free market economy. In the Czech Republic, for example, 68% of those younger than 40 favor the free market model, compared with 58% of those 40 or older. And in Slovakia, where a clear majority (61%) of the post-communist generation expresses support for free markets, a slim majority (52%) of those 40 or older share that view.

Support for Key Democratic Principles

When it comes to supporting democratic institutions and freedoms, however, the post-communist generation and those who are 40 or older tend to offer similar views. Looking across the six democratic values tested — freedom of speech, honest elections, a fair judiciary, a civilian-controlled military, freedom of the press and religious freedom — the generation gap in nearly all of the former communist countries polled is small. For example, a median of 54% of Czechs younger than 40 and 52% of those in the older age group rate these features of democracy as very important to them.

Only in Poland is there a significant gap in attitudes toward key democratic principles. A median of 56% of Poles who were younger than 20 or not yet born when communism collapsed consider these democratic values to be very important. By comparison, fewer than half (a median of 49%) among those who were adults when the Berlin Wall came down share that view. About the same median percentage of younger and older Poles agree that these features of democracy are at least somewhat important (93% and 90%, respectively).

Younger and older Poles are especially divided about the value of freedom of speech. More than half (56%) of Poles younger than 40 say it is very important to them to live in a country where they can openly say what they think and can criticize the government; 45% of those 40 or older agree. Younger Poles are also more like than those in the older age group to give high priority to honest multiparty elections (a gap of 8 percentage points), freedom of the press (7 points) and a civilian-controlled military (7 points).

There is also a generational split in Poland when respondents are asked whether a democratic form of government or a strong leader is better able to solve a country’s problems. More than six-in-ten (63%) Poles who were younger than 20 or not yet born when communism collapsed place more confidence in a democratic government, while 30% say a strong leader is better; among older Poles, a slim 51% majority choose a democratic government over a strong leader (39%). And while more Poles in both age groups would choose a strong economy over a good democracy, younger Poles value a good democracy more than do those who are 40 or older (41% vs. 33%).

The post-communist generation in Lithuania is also much more likely than older generations to say that a democratic government is better able than a strong leader to solve the country’s problems. About half (48%) of Lithuanians younger than 40 would choose democracy over a strong leader (43%); among older Lithuanians, 38% prefers a democratic government, while a majority (53%) say a strong leader would be more effective in solving the country’s problems.

The generational gap is somewhat less pronounced in other countries. For example, younger and older Czechs overwhelmingly prefer a democratic government over a strong leader when it comes to solving the country’s problems (84% and 79%, respectively), while strong majorities of Bulgarians younger than 40 (65%) and those 40 or older (71%) would choose a strong leader.

  1. The former Eastern bloc publics were surveyed as part of a study which included 13 countries in Eastern and Western Europe as well as the United States. For more findings from this survey, including ratings of personal well-being and views of the European Union, country leaders and ethnic and religious minorities, see "Two Decades After the Wall's Fall: End of Communism Cheered, But Now With More Reservations," released Nov. 2, 2009.