Youth Express More Interest in Helping Others and the Environment


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The attitudes of youth have shifted towards increased selflessness. Image by chiesADlbeinasco.

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.” 

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