Maybe it has always been this way, older Americans appreciating more, younger ones less, about the greatness of America. Older Americans have lived more history, seen combat or been part of a generation that did, know the roll and tumble of life, and value of freedom in restoring ballast. Exceptions abound, but recent polls are instructive.
For starters, older Americans love this country – deeply. One Pew poll records that more than twice as many older Americans believe America “is the greatest country in the world” than those ages 18 to 29. In another, more than 90 percent of older Americans count themselves “very patriotic,” a number tapering to 70 percent for “millennials” (i.e. born between 1981 and 1996).
Not surprisingly, data reinforces intuition. Many older Americans served in the military, a demographic data-point reflecting World War II, Korea and Vietnam – events that defined generations. To younger Americans, these events are history lessons.
Similarly, America will have a quarter fewer veterans over 50 in just 25 years. This means fewer local, state and national leaders from veteran ranks, which may affect policy. On one hand, those who have seen combat work hardest to avoid it; on the other, they know stepping up is what preserves freedom. America is no accident.
Generational gaps pop up elsewhere, sometimes sharp. For example, without distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration, 79 percent of millennials say immigrants “strengthen” rather than “burden” America, while older Americans are not so sure. Asked to consider all immigration together, they split with 47 percent steering to “strengthen.”
The implication is that older Americans, having grown up primarily with legal immigration, are doubtful of illegal immigration – indeed, highly critical of lawlessness and a merger of illegal and legal immigration as one group.
Another cross current: Millennials trust diplomacy to resolve the world’s stickiest problems, demurring on military action, while those who lived through successive periods of failed diplomacy are more cautious. While everyone prefers peace to war, 77 percent of millennials have faith diplomacy will deter war, while 43 of the oldest generation believe that is so.
Another standout observation is the ideological tilt of those born the year Ronald Reagan took office or in the 15 years after that. Most have no memory of Reagan’s powerful, historically informed, world-changing and conservative leadership. He, too, is just a name from the past.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they tip hard liberal. They are more inclined to favor centralized government, redistribution of wealth, and socially liberal viewpoints. They minimize the need for military strength to deter aggression, have less fear of socialism – having not lived through the Cold War. They enjoy but may not recognize the source of their individual liberties.
Of interest, millennials freely decouple morality and faith, defining morality less cohesively, fewer attesting to religious faith. One in three millennials consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Only one in ten older Americans do that – and older Americans describe themselves mostly as Christian, in Pew polls.
On numbers, 57 percent of millennials say they are “liberal,” only 12 percent “conservative.” Among older Americans, more describe themselves as conservative than liberal.
All this leads to two overarching conclusions, one obvious and the other less so.
First, many policy positions held by older and younger Americans reflect generational views – about America and the world. For example, twice the number of older Americans than millennials favor President Trump’s border wall. Many older Americans fought for the national security the wall would preserve or remember what it took to preserve citizenship.
Second, the more Americans change, the more we stay the same. Issues shift, some radically, but generations grow up. Consolingly, another Pew study reached a profoundly reassuring conclusion. Half a century “after the Woodstock music festival glorified and exacerbated the generational fractures in American life,” generations move on.
Specifically, “the modern generation gap is a much more subdued affair than the one that raged in the 1960s” and “relatively few Americans of any age see it as a source of conflict — either in society at large or in their own families.”
So, we Americans need to keep teaching and learning history – ours and the worlds. We are all fortunate. We are free to teach, live, learn, disagree and age with grace. This freedom came from somewhere. Appreciation for that fact only comes with age and leads back to love for America. Generations of Americans tend to learn – whether we like it or not – slowly. What they tend to learn, is how great it is to be Americans.