Old America vs New America

The greatest division

Last week, my wife and I were at a restaurant celebrating her birthday. All around us were couples, families and friends enjoying a Saturday evening out. Next to us was an older couple with their son and his girlfriend, apparently having a great time. But then the mood shifted. The dad brought up strident feelings about Brett Kavanaugh, voice raised, table jabbed, hands suppressing dissent. The son, maintaining a quiet composure, tried explaining another perspective to his dad; this seemed to energize the dad’s narrative even more, interrupting his son (and the rest of us) with increasing volition. The dinner broke down and the family left; leaving the family division simmering.


While we see political division play out in our news everyday, ongoing research enso conducts has given us a picture that the most significant division may not be red vs. blue, but young vs. old.

Older Americans’ values are so at odds with younger Americans that tension exists not just in the political arena, but across communities, workplaces and dinner tables everywhere. No wonder we’re eating together less, even though the resulting loss of understanding exacerbates our division.

Where do we see this generational division?

In values: older people are more likely to think America is heading in the right direction; they feel safer and more comfortable expressing their political and social opinions, they are less likely to believe that race and class are factors of success in America, and less likely to believe that brands and celebrities should take a stand on social issues.

In movements: older people are much less likely to support Women’s March, The #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter.

In brands: unsurprisingly, older Americans are much more likely to support AARP, but also the Chamber of Commerce, Proctor & Gamble, Pfizer, Major League Baseball, The Catholic Church and General Electric. Young Americans are much more likely to support socially progressive brands like Starbucks and Honest Company, and technology brands like Uber, Etsy and Hulu.

In leaders: older Americans are much more likely to support Donald Trump, Sean Hannity, Joel Osteen, George W. Bush, Tom Brady and Bruce Springsteen. Younger Americans are much more likely to support Eminem, Jennifer Lawrence, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Emma Watson (notice the gender skew here; the patriarchy in effect).

Donald Trump’s ranking in our World Value Index, Leaders List is particularly striking — ranking #12 of 100 for Boomers, but a lowly #91 for Millennials. This disparity does not arise from lack of knowledge or lack of engagement in politics, this extreme disparity arises from extremely different views on character and the world.

Why has this happened?

Generations have always existed in reaction to what’s come before; the Boomers at one time pushed against their more conservative, war-and-depression-scarred parents’ generation. Those moments of national trauma were the worst of times, but they also led to a sense of social cohesion for the Boomers’ parents. The sense of interconnectedness has not been very evident in Boomers. Some Boomers championed civil rights, but some (particularly white, male, in business) also became architects and beneficiaries of massive wealth transfers.

In the most recent census, the average net worth of a household under 35 years old was $7,670. The average for those over 65 years old was $198,000 — or nearly 26X younger households. In 1984, that ratio was 10X; in other words, there’s been a significant net flow of wealth to the Boomer generation. The US National Debt, currently at $21.5 trillion ($176,000 per tax payer) is an epic wealth transfer from future generations to the past. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the average age of US Representatives is 57 years, up from 49 years in 1981. As Stephen Marche wrote in Esquire,

“There is a young America and an old America, and they don’t form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably.”

Author Bruce Gibney calls it ‘generational plunder’.

Anand Giridharadas makes the case that the super wealthy (tech billionaires et al) cling to their narrative of challenging incumbent power, and that this denial of power—denial that they have ‘won’—is also a denial of responsibility. It’s convenient to deny responsibility if it conflicts with personal enrichment. It could be argued that the Boomer generation suffers from the same affliction en masse; once upon a time they were the rebels, but they never fully embraced the responsibility of becoming the incumbent power. It’s convenient to deny responsibility if it conflicts with personal enrichment.

So what does this mean?

If Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X ruled the country, determined our leaders and chose which companies won (which they very soon will), America and the world would (will) look very different.

For a start, Trump would not be president, not by a long shot. From our research, Gen Z and Millennials rank Trump only a little higher than Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin.

And leading companies will look very different. They will need to create meaningful work and stand for shared values, demanded by increasingly restless and demanding customers and employees.

Sports will need to evolve — away from a simple orientation around rings and trophies, towards athletes, teams and leagues that represent people’s broader values. That Kaepernick is the face of Nike’s new campaign has everything to do with his values, and less to do with his athletic status; in this case, values outweighed Brady’s five rings.

In short, politics, business, sports—and pretty much everything else—will change.

What was endemic won’t be

The good news here is that this really is a problem that solves itself. As my friend Lennon said after Kavanaugh, “I believe the stories of 11 men on a committee obscure the real story: that what was endemic won’t be.

You can download the World Value Index research at enso.co/worldvalue

Thank you Kerry.

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