COVER

A CONFIDENT NATION

A new poll shows growing optimism

ALLAN R. GREGG December 29 1997
COVER

A CONFIDENT NATION

A new poll shows growing optimism

ALLAN R. GREGG December 29 1997

A CONFIDENT NATION

COVER

MACLEAN’S CBC NEWS POLL

A new poll shows growing optimism

ALLAN R. GREGG

Every fall for the past 14 years, I have sat down with the Maclean’s editors (and, more recently, our polling partners at the CBC’s The National) to develop a theme for our year-end survey of Canadians. This year, I convinced Maclean’s and The National that an investigation of generations—and particularly the values of the next generation of Canadian leaders, currently under the age of 30—would reveal startling differences in outlook. Instead, the 1997 survey revealed a young generation with many of the same beliefs and values of their parents—and, indeed, their grandparents. Most intriguing of all, the poll reveals a surprisingly common commitment, across all generations, to liberal social values. That finding flatly contradicts the portrait often painted of young people, and of Canada as a whole, in the 1990s.

It was also unexpected, given previous indications of distinctive behavior patterns among young people. Three years ago, we noted (with little comment) that 18to 29-year-olds were less likely to return a lost wallet, pointing to a weaker attachment to ethical standards. Last year, we found these youngest adults to be the most likely to expect a future without a government-sponsored pension plan or universal health-care system. Against this, almost one in five had already invested in a mutual fund, suggesting a take-charge generation that had both the tools and inclination to forge a life without the traditional Canadian social safety net. More anecdotally, I had run into a young consultant recently who reported earning vast sums by offering advice to major companies on how to hire recent graduates, who apparently were no longer knocking on the doors of corporate Canada for employment. This astonishing tale, against alarming news reports of 20-per-cent-plus unemployment rates among the under-30s, hinted at decidedly different aspirations surrounding work and ambition.

Clearly, some generational differences still do exist, which, if not exactly earth-shattering, are at least quite telling:

• Thirtyto 40-year-olds (who 10 years ago, in their 20s, were popularly characterized as the alienated, embittered Generation X) are now the most optimistic about their own prospects—and the most derisive about the ambition and commitment to hard work of those younger than themselves. Their active night lives are in their past as they focus on jobs, relationships and (to the extent you believe what they tell poll interviewers) a decidedly good sex life.

• The older baby boomers—now aged 40 to 50—appear to be slowing down and looking to substitute quality of life for a former preoccupation with quantity. The premium they place on jobs, money and material progress is now lower than that exhibited by all other generations. Either fatigued by or satiated with the quest for material possessions, this group is finding solace in their relationships—and even spirituality, ï • If the anxiety of the past decade is evident Yin any generation today, it is most likely to be found among those in or nearing retirement. It is they—not Canada’s youth—who are most consumed with the nation’s unemployment situation. As well, they are not only more negative when it comes to assessing the prospects and motives of younger generations, they are also the most concerned about their own physical, material and spiritual well-being, i• There are modest differences within the generation we set out to profile, the 18to 29-year-old baby busters (so-called because there are ; relatively few of them, squeezed between the boomers and the boomers’ children, the so-called echo boom, now aged 4 to 17). Perhaps with the timehonored conceit of youth, they are the age1,'" group most likely to think of itself as a distinct generation. And besides displaying less intense attachment than older generations to ¡ethical and moral standards, they report lower levels of commitment to charitable giving : and the value of volunteerism.

To no one’s surprise, the baby busters are more at ease with computers, almost three J limes more likely than any of their elders to use condoms, and have far and away the most active social lives of any of the generations anJllÿzed. They are less likely than older respondo think the boomers are blocking their opportuni-

ies for upward career mobility, and they still feel they have something to learn from the big generation. Similarly, they demonstrate the greatest preference of any generation for self-employment and for spending their workday in a smaller business—but in those regards (as in virtually all others) they simply exaggerate tendencies that are evident across all other generations.

Liberalism, age and money # Most likely to consider themselves liberal: respondents aged 18 to 24 (65%), or with household incomes over $80,000 (63%) • Least likely to consider themselves liberal: respondents aged 65 or more (49%), or with household incomes under $20,000 (50%)

In fact, what was surprising about Canada’s youth—the “news” about that generation—is that, far from fitting the conflicting stereotypes of despair and alienation on the one hand, or steely, buttoned-down calculators of self-interest on the other, they are, if anything, rock-ribbed social liberals. Not only are they the most comfortable of all generations with wearing the liberal label, their acceptance of a diversity in lifestyles, mores and social behavior is truly breathtaking.

Whether embracing gay teachers in the classrooms, New Age psychics or a woman’s freedom to work (and, indeed, be the boss) or to stay at home, that generation demonstrates a consistent pattern of tolerance towards differences. Within that context, even their rejection of the importance of a strong moral code can be interpreted not as a lack of ethical standards, but as a desire to allow others to pursue their lives and goals, unencumbered by restrictive notions of what is acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, at the risk of displaying the conceit of my own generation, if they have a credo it might be encapsulated in that old Sixties chestnut, “Do your own thing.”

But even in their remarkable liberalism, 18to 29-year-olds are not much different from the rest of the population. The variances Canadians display across generational lines amount to little more than pale hues painted across a larger, more compelling canvas. Because when young people define themselves as liberals and accept and embrace diversity in Canadian society, they are revealing themselves to be the true progeny of their elders. Their liberalism and tolerance may be more loudly voiced, but it is coming from the same consistent chorus that is being sung from all but the very oldest elements of Canada’s population.

In a perverse way, it seems that in asking a set of questions aimed at defining a distinctive generation, we instead discovered the shape and outline of a distinctive national culture. It was probably always there, but it has been harder to see in recent times as a deficit-fighting focus made people considerably more dubious about the government’s ability to solve all our social ills—and hence less likely to reveal a liberal bent.

Unlike Americans, who overwhelmingly regard themselves as conservatives, a majority of Canadians (56 per cent) have no hesitation in calling themselves liberals. Canada’s youth appears simply to be assuming the mantle of previous generations. In doing so, the young are reflecting and perhaps amplifying the dominant culture of our past.

Our research over the past decade has underscored this fact, but perhaps never in quite so startling a way as this poll. We have noted over the past two years that Canadians were prepared to accept (with resignation if not enthusiasm) a future of diminished opportunities. We have never, however, been able to detect a population that was willing to turn its back on a tradition of civility, tolerance and concern for the welfare of those less well-off than themselves. That has been—and appears likely to continue to be—the single greatest hallmark of our self-identification as Canadians.

The trauma of recession, the loss of deference and faith in traditional authority might have nudged us towards considering alternative means to realizing and preserving those ends. But we have never been willing to have the ends themselves replaced. And what this year’s poll clearly illustrates is that, for all the worrying that coldhearted policies and attitudes are threatening the traditions that make Canada the kindest and gentlest of all nations, the newest generation of adults will not allow that to happen without a fight. □