Michael R. Finch, Ph.D.
I was speaking with my Principles of Journalism class last week about the election, and I asked them this simple question: “Which is worse, to be lazy, or to be rude?”
Almost the entire class said that it was worse to be rude.
Then I asked them, “what do you think your grandparents would say if I asked them, ‘is it worse to be lazy or rude?’”
Almost the entire class said that their grandparents would think it was worse to be lazy.
After seeing the near unanimity of the response, I thought, “I’ve got something here.” Does this simple question shed light on a shift in the cultural identity of a generation? Even more-so, does one’s answer to this question influence (not determine, just influence) how they will vote?
My hypothesis when I asked the “lazy vs. rude” question to my class was that Millennials have different values than previous generations. They are not better or worse, but they emphasize different universal values and focus less on others than previous generations.
Now, why does this matter? Well, theoretically speaking, it is huge. We are in the middle of a tectonic cultural shift. But a more timely and practical reason this is significant is, well, we have a great sociological experiment going on called the U.S. election. The answer to the “lazy vs. rude” question might just have far-reaching implications in this historical moment. It might just give us insight into why people are being so forgiving toward our current candidates.
What a whacky year! We have two candidates with extreme flaws who have won their respective party nominations.
One is exceptionally rude. He overstates. He is purposefully politically incorrect. He is vulgar. Potentially racist. A womanizer. Etc. The other is exceptionally corrupt. She “forgets” everything. She’s given favors for donations. She was negligent with her emails. Might have journalists on the payroll. Etc.
So one is “corrupt” (not willing to do things right – i.e. lazy) and the other is a “bigot” (really really exceptionally rude), right? (And I’ve probably offended everyone by calling out both candidates – my apologies! Really, it is all perception – who knows who the candidates really are beyond our mediated interactions.)
So how did this happen? How did so many people overlook such egregious flaws?
Well, to answer this question, let’s look at some interesting research. According to Pew, the “Silent” generation, “Boomers” and “Gen X” all listed “work ethic” as something that made their generation unique. The first generation ever to deviate from this perceived generational characteristic was the “Millennial” generation. They did not have “work ethic” on their list of unique characteristics at all.
Then, Millennials were the first generation to choose “Liberal/tolerant,” as something that made them unique – a characteristic that was not listed by any other generation. So all generations previous to the Millennial generation valued hard work, and Millennials value “tolerance.”
For the sake of time, we’ll just stick with one source and these two characteristics, but we could find numerous correlating sources and characteristics that would support this idea of diverging value systems (Technology as a characteristic is exceptionally tempting to focus on…but we shall refrain!). I also would broaden this slightly to say that the millennial generation values passion and connectedness, and find hard work and responsibility to be secondary, while the previous generations value hard work and responsibility, and find connectedness and passion to be secondary.
While this generation (Millennials really, Gen Z can’t vote yet) has many hard workers, hard work is not seen as a value in and of itself. Hard work is seen as something that is done as an outworking of passion and connectedness. If you are passionate about something, then it is worth working for – and then if you can either connect with others as a part of the passion, or use technologically mediated methods to gain affirmation and connectedness through likes and interaction, all the better. So hard work, in and of itself, is only something that is valued when a primary value makes it worthwhile.
Previous generations, primarily determined by the men who were the dominant forces of their respective generations statistically speaking (this is trends remember), were often poor at connecting. They were more independent than this generation and saw work as an end and a means to an end. Getting a good job was an end in and of itself. If you enjoyed your job and had friends at work, great, but such things were seen as secondary to the work itself. Work and responsibility were valued above passion and connectedness.
Now, back to the original thought. What does this have to do with the election? Well, what candidate embodies hard work? Trump. He might be a jerk, but he’s got work ethic. He is responsible. He is a self-made man. So, according to the high value of “work ethic”, this candidate is by far the most desirable.
Tolerance isn’t even on the list as a characteristic of any generation prior to Millennials – their priorities make this very secondary. Trump has work ethic. He might be rude, but he’s not lazy. So with the value scheme of older generations (the older the more influenced by the “work ethic” value) they will “forgive” the rudeness and celebrate the hard work and focus on achievement.
What candidate embodies tolerance? Well, Sanders did. Millennials were ecstatic about Sanders. They tolerate Clinton because she is more tolerant than Trump. They tolerate her because she is “liberal,” another characteristic Millennials selected as a marker for their generation. Most of all, Clinton is not perceived to be intolerant. She might be lazy, but she’s not rude. So with the value scheme of Millennials, they are willing to “forgive” Clinton her laziness and celebrate her tolerance and focus on inclusiveness.
So let’s review:
Those who value work ethic above tolerance reject Clinton, overlook Trumps faults, and respect him because he is perceived to be the hard working self made candidate with work ethic. The generational values of the Silent generation and Boomers predispose them to support this perspective.
Those who value tolerance above work ethic are incensed by Trump, loved Sanders, and tolerate Clinton in spite of her faults because she is perceived as the politically correct, connected/liberal candidate. The generational values of Millennials predispose them to support this perspective.
I think there is more to what is going on in this election – many many more factors are in play in this election – I am just touching on one trend. But this one trend illustrates that we are in the middle of a shift in generational core values at a level that has not been seen in the last 100 years. The fact that odd candidates are getting approved of is really secondary to the understanding that entire value priority systems are changing.
This is big folks.
So if you’re one of the incensed Millennials aghast at the possibility of Trump, perhaps this gives you a little insight into why many people think he is a viable candidate.
And if you’re one of the flabbergasted Silent generation or Boomers, shocked that Clinton could is on the ticket, perhaps this helps you understand why many think she would make a good president.
And if you’re voting for Johnson, or another third party candidate, well, you can just sit back and marvel at the power of technological determinism.
Unconscious value systems – ontological and epistemological perspectives – might be more powerful than we give them credit for.
Addendum: I must qualify this entire article to say when discussing generational trends, I am certainly making sweeping generalizations. Trends are always confounded by individuals – but trends are worth discussing in spite of this reality. The subject of the election brings numerous other factors into play – this discourse is by no means comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. This is just a discussion of one potential factor – that people are being guided by unconscious value systems in addition to other data to make their decision on who to vote for. Thank you for considering this hypothesis!