December 21, 2009

Current Decade Rates as Worst in 50 Years

Internet, Cell Phones Are Changes for the Better

Overview

As the current decade draws to a close, relatively few Americans have positive things to say about it. By roughly two-to-one, more say they have a generally negative (50%) rather than a generally positive (27%) impression of the past 10 years. This stands in stark contrast to the public’s recollection of other decades in the past half-century. When asked to look back on the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, positive feelings outweigh negative in all cases.

To be sure, the passage of time may affect the way people view these historical periods. For example, had we asked the public’s impression of the 1970s in December of 1979, the negatives may well have outweighed the positives.

By a wide margin, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are seen as the most important event of the decade, with Barack Obama’s election as president a distant second – even among his political supporters. And the sour view of the decade is broad-based, with few in any political or demographic group offering positive evaluations.

Happy to put the 2000s behind them, most Americans are optimistic that the 2010s will be better. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say they think the next decade will be better than the last for the country as a whole, though roughly a third (32%) think things will be worse.

There are a number of recent changes and trends that are viewed favorably. In particular, the major technological and communications advances are viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light.

Clear majorities see cell phones, the internet and e-mail as changes for the better, and most also view specific changes such as handheld internet devices and online shopping as beneficial trends. There is greater division of opinion, however, over whether social networking sites or internet blogs have been changes for the better or changes for the worse.

Most see increasing racial and ethnic diversity as a change for the better, as well as increased surveillance and security measures and the broader range of news and entertainment options.

But the public is divided over whether wider acceptance of gays and lesbians, cable news talk and opinion shows, and the growing number of people with money in the stock market are good or bad trends. Reality TV shows are, by a wide margin, the least popular trend tested in the poll; 63% say these shows have been a change for the worse. Tattoos are also unpopular with many – 40% say more people getting tattoos is a change for the worse, though 45% say it makes no difference and 7% see it as a change for the better.

A ‘Downhill’ Decade

The breadth and depth of discontent with the current decade is reflected in the words people use to describe it. The single most common word or phrase used to characterize the past 10 years is downhill, and other bleak terms such as poor, decline, chaotic, disaster, scary, and depressing are common. Other, more neutral, words like change, fair and interesting also come up, and while the word good is near the top of the list, there are few other positive words mentioned with any frequency.

Boomers Look Back Fondly

There is no significant generational divide in impressions of the current decade: Roughly half in all age groups view the 2000s negatively, while less than a third rates the decade positively. This is in stark contrast to generational differences in views of previous decades. The 1990s are viewed far more positively by younger people – roughly two-thirds of Americans younger than 50 have a positive impression of the decade compared with fewer than half of people ages 50 and older. The 1960s, by contrast, receive generally positive ratings from people ages 50 and older, while those under 50 offer more mixed views.

The biggest generational division of opinion is in retrospective evaluations of the 1970s. Baby Boomers – most of whom are between the ages of 50 and 64 today and were between 20 and 34 in 1979 – view this decade in an overwhelmingly favorable light, with positive impressions outnumbering negative views by 48 points (59% positive vs. 11% negative). By contrast, people who were younger than 20 at the end of the 1970s – who are currently in their 30s and 40s – offer a less positive assessment; just 28% view the decade positively, 20% negatively, and 52% say neither or offer no opinion.

The decade out of the last half century with the best image right now is the 1980s. While comparable percentages offer positive evaluations of the 1980s (56%) and 1990s (57%), negative ratings for the 1980s are lower than for the 1990s (12% vs. 19%). And the balance of opinion about the 1980s is overwhelmingly positive across all age groups – with positive views outnumbering negative by more than three-to-one across the board.

Next Decade Looks Better

Most Americans (59%) think the next decade will be better than the current one for the country as a whole, and this perspective is widely shared across most political and demographic groups. But a significant minority – 32% – is of the view that things will be worse in the 2010s than in the 2000s. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats (42% vs. 20%) to offer a pessimistic assessment of the next decade. Roughly a third (34%) of independents offer a gloomy prediction.

Generationally, Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 are the most pessimistic about the 2010s – 42% think things will be worse over the next 10 years. This compares with 30% of people under 50 and just 26% of those age 65 and older. Along religious lines, white evangelical Protestants take a far more pessimistic view of the next decade than other major religious groups. Just over half (52%) of white evangelicals predict that the coming decade will be worse than the current one, far more than the number of white mainline Protestants (29%), white Catholics (24%) or unaffiliated (28%) Americans who take this view.

9/11 the Crystallizing Event

When offered a list of six major events of the decade, just over half (53%) say that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were the single most important event of the decade. Trailing far behind, 16% cite Obama’s election as president, 12% the 2008 financial crisis, 6% George W. Bush’s election as president, 5% the war in Iraq, and 3% cite Hurricane Katrina.

More than a quarter (28%) of Democrats say Obama’s election was the single most important event of the decade, far more than among independents (12%) or Republicans (8%). Because of this focus on Obama’s election, fewer Democrats (43%) cite the Sept. 11 attacks as the biggest event of the decade than Republicans (60%) or independents (56%).

And while 9/11 is seen as the most important event across all age groups, opinions about the importance of other events differ in significant ways. People under age 30 are more likely than their elders to name the war in Iraq as the most important event of the decade (11% vs. 3% of those ages 30 and over). And, along with the oldest cohort, younger Americans are less likely to name 9/11 as the most important event.

Technology and Communications Changes Viewed Positively

The internet – perhaps the seminal technological development of recent decades – conti
nues to be widely seen in a favorable light. About two-thirds (65%) say the internet has been a change for the better, while just 16% say it has been a change for the worse; 11% say it hasn’t made much difference while 8% are unsure. This largely mirrors the balance of opinion at the close of the 1990s – the decade that saw the widespread adoption of the web. In 1999, 69% called the internet a change for the better and 18% called it a change for the worse.

As with most technological developments, young people and the well educated are particularly likely to embrace the internet as a change for the better. About three-quarters (76%) of young people view the web as a positive change, compared with far fewer (42%) of those ages 65 and older. Older Americans, however, are no more likely to see the internet as a change for the worse than are younger people, rather more seniors simply say it has made no difference or are unsure as to its impact.

As was the case in 1999, far more of those with a college degree say the internet has been a change for the better (82%) than do those with no college experience (52%). And the internet – like most other technological developments – is not a politicized innovation: similar majorities of Republicans (69%), Democrats (68%), and independents (63%) say the internet has been a positive change.

Email, the form of communication born from the web, is viewed as favorably as the internet itself. By an overwhelming margin, more say email has been a change for the better (65%) than say it has been a change for the worse (7%); 19% say it hasn’t made a difference. Views of email are largely unchanged from a decade ago, though there has been a slight decline in the share describing email as a change for the better. This decline has taken place largely among young people: 69% of those younger than 30 say email has been a change for the better, compared with 82% a decade ago. Very few young people – just 1% – say email has been a change for the worse, but a quarter of those who came of age in the current decade – with ever-increasing options for real-time, wireless communication – say email has not made much of a difference. In 1999, just 6% of those under 30 expressed that view.

In addition to the internet and email, cell phones are broadly embraced by the public as a change for the better. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) call cell phones a change for the better compared with just 14% who call them a change for the worse. Overall, the public’s take on cell phones is slightly better than it was ten years ago. In 1999, 22% felt that cell phones were a change for the worse – this has fallen to 14% in the current survey.

Age Gap in Views of Handheld Devices

Handheld devices such as Blackberries and iPhones are seen as a good thing by most people (56%). However, a quarter (25%) says these devices have been a change for the worse. The age gap in attitudes toward these devices is particularly wide: 72% of those under 30 consider handheld wireless devices to be a positive change, compared with just 33% of those 65 and older.

The public is ambivalent when it comes to evaluating social networking sites such as Facebook. About a third (35%) call them a change for the better, 21% say they have been a change for the worse, while 31% say social networking sites have not made much of a difference and 12% are unsure. In fact, even among young people, fewer than half (45%) say social networking sites have been a change for the better.

And when it comes to internet blogs, the plurality opinion (36%) is that the emergence of blogs has not made much of a difference. Slightly fewer (29%) call them a change for the better, while 21% think they have been a change for the worse.

Greater Diversity Seen as Positive Change

A majority (61%) of the public says that the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States has been a change for the better; 25% say increasing diversity has not made much difference and only 9% say it has been a change for the worse. However, opinion that increased diversity has been a change for the better is more widely held among some demographic groups than others.

Older people are less likely to believe that increased diversity has been a change for the better; about half (49%) of people ages 65 and older say this has been a change for the better compared with about two-thirds (66%) of those younger than 50. More college graduates (72%) than those with a high school education or less (54%) think increased diversity is a change for the better.

Divisions over Acceptance of Gays

There is far less agreement about the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians. Overall, 38% say this has been a change for the better, 28% a change for the worse and 28% say it has made no difference. As with other public opinion questions about homosexuality, there is a substantial divide between how younger and older Americans view this issue.

By greater than two-to-one, those younger than 50 see increased acceptance of gays and lesbians as a change for the better (45%), not worse (19%) By contrast, people ages 65 and older see this as a change for the worse, not the better, by more than two-to-one (46% to 21%).

There is a substantial gender divide on this issue: more women than men think increased acceptance of gays and lesbians has been a change for the better (45% vs. 31%). And this gender gap spans generations. Younger women in particular see this as a change for the better; 53% of women under 50 say this has been a change for the better, compared with 36% of men in this age range.

There also are educational differences on the issue of increased acceptance of gays and lesbians: 51% of college graduates and 44% of those with some college education say this has been a change for the better compared with only 28% of those with a high school education or less. In addition, while 52% of Democrats and 40% of independents think increased acceptance of gays and lesbians is a change for the better, just 21% of Republicans agree. And just 20% of white non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants say greater acceptance of gays is a change for the better, a far lower percentage than in other religious groups.

Most See Benefits of Genetic Testing

A majority of Americans (53%) say that genetic testing has been a change for the better while 22% say it has not made much difference and 13% say it has been a change for the worse. A plurality across all age and educational groups says that genetic testing has been a change for the better, but fewer of those who are 65 and older or who have a high school education or less believe this.

White evangelical Protestants are more divided in their opinion than nearly all other demographic groups. About four-in-ten (39%) say genetic testing has been a change for the better, but 25% say it has made no difference and 23% say it has been a change for worse. A plurality of Republicans, Democrats and independents say that genetic testing has been a change for the better, but Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that it has been a change for the worse (18% vs. 8%).

Generations Divide over Tattoos

The public is divided about the impact of more people getting tattoos; 45% say it has not made much difference, 40% think it has been a change for the worse and only 7% say this has been a change for the better. As might be expected, older Americans are far more likely to negatively view this trend: 64% of those 65 and older and 51% of those 50 to 64 say more people getting tattoos has been a change for the worse. A majority of those under 50 (56%) say the tattoo trend has not made much of a difference.

The age differences are larger among women than men. About six-in-ten (61%) women ages 50 and older say more people getting tattoos have been a change for the worse compared with 27% of younger women. The gap is smaller among men: 51% of men 50 and older say more people getting tattoos has been a change for the worse compared with 30% of younger men.

A majority (56%) of white evangelical Protestants say that more people getting tattoos has been a change for the worse; white mainline Protestants and white Catholics are more divided in their opinion. By comparison, 57% of those who are religiously unaffiliated say that more people getting tattoos has not made much difference.

Cable Talk a Mixed Bag

The public also is divided about the effect of cable news talk and opinion shows; 34% say they have been a change for the better, 31% think they have made no difference and 30% say they have been a change for the worse. More young people think these shows have been a change for the worse than people 65 and older. Similarly, more college graduates (43%) say cable news talk and opinion shows have been a change for the worse than those with some college education (28%) or with a high school education or less (23%).

On balance, more Republicans say cable news talk and opinion shows have been a change for the better (40%) than worse (24%). Democrats and independents are more divided with about the same percentages of each group viewing these shows positively and negatively.

A plurality (44%) of those who get most national and international news from cable television news say that cable talk and opinion shows have been a change for the better, compared with 31% who get most of their news from network news. People whose main news source is cable news are also more likely than those who get most news from newspapers to say these shows have been a change for the better.

The public overwhelmingly thinks that reality television shows have been a change for the worse; 63% say this compared with 22% who say they have not made much difference and only 8% who say they have been a change for the better. A plurality in all age groups says these shows have been a change for the worse. Even though a majority in all education groups says reality television shows have been a change for the worse; college graduates or those with some college education are more likely than those with a high school education or less to say they have been a change for the worse.