Generational Influences Often Determine Political and Religious Perspectives

Often missing from political and sociological analysis of the American people today are generational influences. There are stark differences between how people born at different times perceive the world. I encourage everyone to think about the generational influences on their own political and religious perspectives.

I clearly identify as a member of the Baby Boom generation. My parents were part of the Greatest Generation, my older siblings were part of the Silent Generation, and my sons are part of Generation Y (Millenials) and Generation Z. The experiences that shaped my politics and outlook — the civil rights revolution, political assassinations, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignations, repeated political disillusionment — are very different from the formative experiences of my parents, my older siblings, my children, or my Generation X nieces and nephews.

Compare and contrast the world views of these generations:

  • Greatest Generation (born between 1901 and 1924): They suffered from the Great Depression, which made them economic pessimists, extremely frugal and obsessive savers. They fought and won World War II and the Cold War, and experienced unprecedented economic prosperity, which made them optimists. Life turned out better than they dreamed. They generally had great faith in government to intervene in the economy for the better and to win foreign wars, and were overwhelmingly religious. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the political hero for many in this generation, because he gave people hope during the desperate times of the Depression and led the nation in winning World War II. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush were part of this generation. My parents, aunts and uncles were part of this generation. They have largely passed from the stage.
  • Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1945): Endured the Great Depression, too young to fight in World War II but remember it or its aftermath, fought the Korean War to a stalemate, well remembers and were shaped by the outlook of President Eisenhower and the conventional 1950s, cheered on the Vietnam War only to see it sink into quagmire. They grew up in an era of racial segregation. This dutiful generation was overwhelmingly religious — less than one out of 10 said they were not religious. President Carter was almost part of this generation, born in 1924, and too young to serve in World War II. I have older siblings who are part of this generation.
  • Baby Boomer (born between 1946 and 1964): Grew up in a time of affluence, economic expansion and easy credit. Not frugal like their parents, they tended to borrow liberally, and many over-extended financially. They were the first generation to have “a youth culture” created especially for them in mass media, and to identify a “generation gap” of different values and different influences from their parents. Raised on the permissive advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock, some were coddled and spoiled. They personally observed and remember racial segregation, and racist remarks of their elders, and had to decide what their personal response would be, whether to remain blind, deny it,  accept it, quietly try to develop different habits, or express outrage. Some in this generation felt entitled to protest the Vietnam War, and expressed moral outrage, while others felt they had a duty to serve their country in the military or to support the nation’s foreign policies and did not question or protest policies planned by “wiser” elders (there was a compulsory draft for those born up until 1953). This generation’s formative political memories include the civil rights movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam fiasco, Nixon’s “betrayal” in the Watergate scandal, undermining of authority, social upheaval and changes in values around war, military service, changes in women’s (and men’s) roles, and assertiveness of minorities. They experienced the sexual revolution and the loosening of attitudes toward drug use. This is a generation harshly divided between conservative and liberal responses to social change, to conventional morality and to religion. And yet three out of four members of this generation say they are religious; 40% are religious conservatives while 34% are religious progressives. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are part of this generation. I am part of this generation.
  • Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979): First generation in which a majority fears they will do less well economically than their parents, with possibly fewer retirement benefits and less economic prosperity. Some in this generation are children of divorce, as their parents split between 1970 and 1985. As young adults, they found they couldn’t make ends meet, tended to borrow liberally, over-extend themselves and suffered the consequences, with the highest number of bankruptcies and foreclosures since the Great Depression when the crash came in 2008-9. This generation came of age politically when Ronald Reagan was president, and are more likely to be politically conservative, go into business for themselves and believe in entrepreneurship. Yet they are also more likely to be part Peter Pan — refusing to grow up or delaying rites of passage — and part of a boomerang, returning to live with their parents in their twenties and thirties. They are less likely to be as religiously conservative as their parents, but also less likely to be religiously progressives if their parents in the Baby Boom generation embraced that philosophy. My nieces and nephews are part of this generation.
  • Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1980 and 1995): Influences are still forming. Many in this generation are children of divorce, as their Baby Boom parents split in the 1980s. Many in this generation fear they will do less well than their parents economically. Possibly shaped by 9/11/01 terrorist attack and Great Recession of 2008-2012. A hefty chunk of this generation, 39%, say they are not religious. Among those who are religious, far more are religious progressives, 39%, than religious conservatives, 16%. This generation voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, and seems to have great respect for racial diversity. My oldest son is part of this generation.
  • Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2016, also known as Generation Alpha, millennial, and IGen): Influences are still forming. One of their first public memories may be of 9/11, and/or the “war on terrorism.” They were children during the Great Recession. How have these events influenced them? They are the first generation of “digital natives” who cannot remember life without the Internet, portable laptops or tablets that can play movies as well as music and games, mobile phones or digital cameras. They and most of their friends have social media accounts, Facebook accounts, and have lax views of privacy that is shocking to their grandparents. Many in this generation have far less experience in nature or the outdoors than did their grandparents, and have a lower attention span. They worry more about the cost of college, student debt, whether they can afford the cost of college, and doubt, to the extent they are aware of this issue, that they will have any retirement income from Social Security. This generation started graduating from high school in 2013 and 2014, and will start graduating from college in 2017 and 2018, but with how much student debt and what job prospects? Sociologists observe that “members of Generation Z have been affected by growing up through the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession, with some commentators suggesting that these events have given the cohort a feeling of unsettlement and insecurity.” My youngest son and my oldest grandson are part of this generation.

These generational descriptions are meant to be suggestive guidelines to identify common experiences of people who grew up in a particular time and to get one thinking about one’s own cultural influences. They are not of course prescriptive of everyone born during that period nor are they set in stone. A person may have been born in the latter phase of one generation, but feel that their experiences were more in line with those of the next generation. Likewise, another person may have been born on the cusp of a new generation but feel their cultural experiences and influences belonged to the earlier generation.

How would you describe your generational influences?

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