Opinion: American values are shifting

Values are qualities that people assume to be important. They are end-states, in that they do not require justification. They are considered to be essential, in and of themselves. We’re inclined to think of them as unchanging because they really define our culture. But, in fact, values do change over time and in accord with the social milieu. For example, Americans value patriotism, but this value rose to a higher level of importance during World War II than in the relative peace of the 1980s and 1990s.


During an unpopular war, like Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was not a single understanding of what it meant to be patriotic. This failure of consensus led to disruptions in society. So, it’s essential that we keep track of what our national values are and how they might be changing. For studies on this topic, I consulted three sources that I trust: Pew Research Institute, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), and National Opinion Research Council of the University of Chicago (NORC).


A key to what to expect in the near future is summarized by Chad Day for The Wall Street Journal. He writes, “The values that Americans say define the national character are changing as younger generations rate patriotism, religion, and having children as less important to them than did young people two decades ago….”


In the closing couple of weeks before the midterm elections, politicians ought to take note of this cohort of potential voters. Moreover, their attitudes may have even greater significance to future candidates for public office as this cohort moves up in age, education, employment, home ownership, and other factors that are correlated with higher voter turnout.


Yesterday and today


Twenty-one years ago, young people were asked which values were important to them. The majority listed hard work, patriotism, commitment to religion, and the goal of having children.


Today, young adults rate patriotism lower than did the group that responded two decades ago. They said that they are also less likely to have children, and responses to “religious preference” were increasingly “none.” Hard work remains atop the list, although we are more likely to see more current young adults idle than was true in 2000. However, being idle — neither working nor attending an educational institution — is even more prevalent today than it was for young adults 20 years ago.


Patriotism


There are dramatic differences in the value of patriotism when we survey various age groups. Among people who are 55 or older, 80 percent said that patriotism was very important. Of course, that cohort would include people considerably older than 55, folks who remember Vietnam, and smaller numbers of people who remember Korea and World War II.


To millennials and Gen-Z — those who were born in the late 1980s and more recently — those wars are simply notations in history books. However, attitudes can change quickly, and the rocket attacks on Ukraine by Russia, missile tests being conducted by North Korea, and proclamations by Putin may bring about an otherwise unexpected change in this important value.


Religion


According to the 2020 Census of American Religion by the PRRI, 70 percent of Americans identify as being Christian. Fourteen years before the survey (2006), white evangelical Protestants outnumbered white mainline Protestants, but the gap narrowed over the years. By 2019, there was approximately the same percentage of people in both categories, although the percentage for all Protestants declined somewhat from 2006.


The percentage of Americans who indicated that they were Catholic declined steadily over the fourteen-year period. But the percentage of those who indicated no religious preference increased from 16 percent in 2006 to 23.3 percent in 2020. The proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans is occurring across all age groups. However, in 1986, only 10 percent of those ages 18-29 identified as religiously unaffiliated. By 2020, that number had increased to 36 percent.


This observation figured prominently in the Pew study. Alan Cooperman stated, “the future of Christianity in the U.S. is not set in stone. Whether the U.S. will continue to have a Christian majority in 2070 will depend on many factors, including one that was a key focus of the Center’s new study: religious “switching” — that is, voluntary changes in religious affiliation.”


Children


As the United States transitioned from an agricultural society to a post-industrial one, the birth rate has steadily declined. The birth rate is the number of live births per 1,000 population. In 1830, the birth rate was nearly 54. By 1900, it had declined to 33. In 1950 we were an industrial society, and the birth rate was 25. We were in the early post-industrial phase in 2000 with a birth rate of a bit over 14, and in 2020 our birth rate had declined to 12.


The National Center for Health Statistics reported that only 3.6 million babies were born in this country in 2020. That was a 4 percent decline from the previous year. Two key pieces of data come into play: births to teenaged mothers (women under age 20) and the average age of women at the time of first birth.


In the two decades between 1990 and 2020, birth rates for mothers aged 15 to 17 declined from 40 to 5. For those 18 and 19 years old, the rate fell from 95 to 30. Furthermore, the older women are at the time of their first birth, the fewer the number of children that will be born to them. In 1980, the mean (average) age of women at the time of first birth was 22; in 2020, it was 27.

Millennials and Gen Z are much less likely to see having children as part of their futures than has ever been true before, according to an NORC survey.


These trends reflect our values and may effect major changes in American culture.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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