How Do Millennials and Boomers Differ on Patriotism, Hard Work, and Other Values?

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey asked 1,000 Americans which values were most important to them, and the results reveal some disparities across generations and political affiliation, while also discovering some similarities.

The values that the Americans were asked to respond to are shown in the chart below:

The poll was also taken 20 years ago, and a comparison between the results highlights some key changes over the years:

  • Nearly nine-in-10 Americans (89 percent) identify “hard work” as a very important value, even higher than the 83 percent who said the same in a 1998 NBC/WSJ poll.
  • Those who say that “patriotism” is very important slid from 70 percent two decades ago to 61 percent now. Among those who are either Millennials or Generation Z (ages 18-38), only 42 percent rate patriotism as a “very important” value, while 79 percent of those over 55 say the same.
  • The share citing religion decreased even more, from 62 percent in 1998 to 48 percent now. Just 30 percent of the younger group cite religion or belief in God as very important, while 67 percent of the older group does.
  • And just 32 percent of those under 38 years old call having children very important, while 54 percent of those over 55 agree.

As a boomer myself, it looks like I would have been aligned with my generation on a few questions, and more in alignment with the Millenials on some others. My views on having children, hard work, and financial security are similar to that of boomers (although there was not much discrepancy between the two groups on hard work and financial security). However, my views on tolerance, belief in God, self-fulfillment, and tolerance seem to be closer to those of Millennials (although there was not much discrepancy between the two groups with respect to tolerance).

The survey also revealed the following:

  • 63 percent of people who said they would vote in a Democratic primary said that becoming more diverse and tolerant of different lifestyles and cultures have been a step forward. By contrast, 16 percent of Republican primary voters said these changes had been a step forward for the country.
  • When surveyed six years ago, about half of Republicans and a slightly larger share of Democrats said relations among the races were on a good footing. Today, half of Republicans say race relations are good, while only 21% of Democrats say so.
  • When surveyed six years ago, about half of Republicans and a slightly larger share of Democrats said relations among the races were on a good footing. Today, half of Republicans say race relations are good, while only 21 percent of Democrats say so.
  • 60 percent of adults saying race relations are in a bad state, a smaller share than in mid-2016, when 74 percent said relations were poor.
  • 19 percent of African-Americans said race relations were fairly or very good, the lowest level in Journal/NBC News polling over more than two decades.
  • 56 percent of adults said race relations had gotten worse since Mr. Trump became president, while 10 percent said they had improved.
  • 69 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their overall financial situation today; however, a majority — 56 percent — also say they feel “anxious and uncertain because the economy still feels rocky and unpredictable.” That’s down slightly from 61 percent in 2015.
  • 27 percent of those surveyed say they’re confident that their children’s generation will be better off than them, down from 35 percent in August 2017.
  •  70 percent of Americans say they feel angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power.

The survey also notes that the 2020 presidential candidates will likely face difficulties in crafting a unifying message for a country divided over personal principles and views of an increasingly diverse society.

It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this point because as Lincoln Abraham said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It is the responsibility of all Americans to ensure that this does not happen. I don’t think that means you have to compromise your values, but more so that you need to show respect and understanding for those who hold values different from you.

And sometimes the divide may simply be in how we define the values listed above.

For example, what does patriotism mean? Does it mean a constant rah-rah for your country no matter what, or does it mean taking a critical look at what our country stands for and trying to ensure that our actions are in alignment with such beliefs? I’m a proud American, but that does not mean I agree with everything our country is doing. Does that make me unpatriotic? I don’t think so, but I am not sure how people would interpret the patriotism question if they have such opinions.

I wish the survey had asked questions such as:

  • do you value happiness?
  • do you value kindness?
  • do you value helping others?
  • do you value freedom?

I would hope that if such questions were asked, we would see tremendous agreement across age, gender, and political party. That seems like it would be a good starting point to unite us. If we realize we all want the same things in life, it should allow us to find some common ground as to how to achieve such goals.

*image from Yale Perspective

11 thoughts on “How Do Millennials and Boomers Differ on Patriotism, Hard Work, and Other Values?

  1. Interesting discussion! Lincoln’s quote about a divided house rings loud and clear. I sometimes wonder what some of our strongest leaders of the past would be saying about America today.


  2. * 70 percent of Americans say they feel angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power.”

    This is the answer that concerns me the most. Thinking our political system is broken and then facing the fact that the same people the broken system works for are the only people who can fix it, seems like a no win situation. When I was younger, I used to think the people who chose to become politicians had an inherent desire to serve the greater good. They sought to be the voice of the people with little concern about their own fame, fortune, or circumstances. Ah the naivety of youth. I certainly don’t think that way now!


    1. I think there is a small minority that get into politics for the right reason, but it must not be easy to stay true to your ideals once you get elected.


  3. My biggest criticism of this study is failure to account for how definitions change over the decades. Exhibit A is the definition of “hard work.” On the farm even little kids in my day shoveled manure and milked cows from before daylight until after the sun had set. The only relief was on school days. Decades ago when I was a kid school hours were from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm with a half hour for lunch (which we brought from home). Today New Hampshire legislators had to pass a law just to make sure teachers are in school at least 4.5 hours per day. Without recess and phys ed, teachers can go home shortly after noon — and they still think they’re overworked. Migrants desperate for work are now the only ones who will do such jobs as dig sweet potatoes in Alabama, pick crops in California, and do roofing work in Texas. The typical hotel housekeeper or taxi driver working 12-hr shifts in large cities can barely speak any English because so many of our millennials don’t apply for that kind of real work that our parents were glad to have available.

    My grandparents had great financial insecurity — no such thing as Social Security disability coverage or even medical insurance. When you became crippled and/or old without funds either your family took care of you or you went to a really minimal care “county home.” Many rode the rails as hoboes begging for handouts along the way. There were no community shelters or free food centers. There was more incentive to have a large family so that your children would take care of you in hard times. Instead of paying $50 for expensive dental work you did like my grandmother and had your teeth all pulled at the same time and opted for $5 dentures.

    I’m not sure that “belief in God” changed as dramatically as surveys think they reveal. My grandmothers were certainly a believers, but I’m not so certain about my grandfathers. My grandfathers dutifully attended church because church was the center of their community life — church was were you met your lifelong friends who helped you out in times of trouble. Now we expect the government and insurance payouts to help us out in troubled times and have less need for our church community centers. We may not have changed our belief in God as we changed the role of church in our lives.

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    1. Bob, I was hoping you would comment on this post, since I knew you would offer valuable insights. I agree that defining “hard work” is difficult, but if you asked the same questions from year to year to the same age group, wouldn’t that mitigate the definition issue, and thus the results would capture how attitudes about hard work are changing? And I fully agree with you that people’s attitudes about organized religion have probably changed much more dramatically than their belief in God. Thanks as always for your comments.


  4. Very interesting! I find it surprising that the importance level for “tolerance for others” ranked so highly. Sadly, the high level of tolerance shown on that chart does not seem to be representative of our country (our world) as a whole right now. Or perhaps many just do not practice as they preach or are in total denial that their actions do not match their so-called values.


  5. Marsi, I thought the same thing when I saw the results. Somewhere there is a discrepancy between how people act and what they say are their values.


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