Older folks were right, for a while.
Young people did become increasingly materialistic, and less concerned about helping others.
Environmentalism failed to interest them.
Then came the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, and the attitudes of youth began to change.
Researchers Heejung Park, Jean M. Twenge and Patricia M. Greenfield of the University of California and San Diego published the findings of a study of American high school seniors in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Drawing on a theory of social change developed by Greenfield, recent economic hardships were linked to the rise in collective values. Students reported social problems as more important, and owning flashy things less important.
Yet students also reported rising “positive self-views” which was unexpected by the researchers.
Individualism, Collectivism, and Wealth
The data was taken from Monitoring the Future, an ongoing research project that has posed a questions to high school seniors every year since 1975. As in years past, students were asked to rate the importance of actions such as having a “[j]ob worthwhile to society, to “[e]at differently to help starving people,” and “[c]ontribute to an international relief fund.”
The researchers “examined the correlations among national economic indicators (median income adjusted for inflation and employment rate) and adolescents’ individualism and collectivism across the entire 35 years of the survey from 1976 to 2010.” The results? Post-recession students reported that helping others was more important, reversing the trend toward individualism.
While correlation does not prove causation, the findings are provocative. In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr Jean M. Twenge, co-author of the study and author of Generation Me explained that economic conditions best explained the change in student beliefs, and not intergenerational learning.
In response to whether parents taught their children’ more collectivist views, she replied “their parents were in high school in the early 1980s, the time when concern for others began to decline and materialism began to increase. So it seems unlikely this is intergenerational transmission (nor is intergenerational transmission established by research — I can’t think of any studies showing it. Instead, change is either linear or occurs in response to economic conditions).”
The authors conclude “wealth reduction promotes collectivistic values and diminishes individualistic and materialistic values.”
Teens: Making Money is Still Important
Contrary to what the researchers expected, while students expressed interest in helping others and saving the environment, they continued to rate the importance of having a ‘‘chance to earn a good deal of money” higher than ever.
Yet owning bling was considered less important after the recession.
The authors report students rated “expensive material items (such as new cars and vacation homes) as important between the 1970s and the prerecession period, but then rated them as significantly less important during the recession years.”
Post-recession, student rated “saving energy” and “using bikes or mass transit” as more important.
Yet, since the economy was worse, Dr. Twenge admitted to Decoded Science, “When money is tight people are more willing to turn down the heat in their house and drive less, both of which also save energy. So that, rather than true value change, could be driving the increased action to save energy.”
Positive Self-views Intact
Students who are more cognizant of others might be expected to brag a bit less about themselves. Not so, according to the research findings. Students opinions of their own intelligence and school ability had risen prior to the Great Recession and remained high afterwards.
Dr. Twenge told Decoded Science, “I thought it was interesting that the recession has apparently created more concern for others, but has left in place very positive self-views and some aspects of materialism. We’re living in a time when youth are thinking about social issues more, but are still very self-focused. It’s an intriguing combination.”
Somewhat materialistic youth with high self-esteem and bigger hearts are entering the adult world. Today’s students challenge us to both address social problems and build self-esteem.
Park, H., Twenge, J. and Greenfield, P. The Great Recession : Implications for Adolescent Values and Behavior.