Anyone who has ever taught has recognized that the students who pay attention in class perform better than those who didn’t. (Those of you who just read that sentence can now say “duh”…)
As obvious as that point may be–i.e., people who pay attention know more– a lot of people fail to apply it in other contexts. A reader of this blog recently sent me a letter or column (I’m not sure which) that had appeared in a Boston newspaper, decrying the fact that a recent poll had found roughly half of American respondents under 30 less sympathetic to Ukraine than older Americans. The author linked that result to distrust of media, which has led to distrust of other social institutions.
The polling in question was fielded by the Economist and YouGov, both highly reputable pollsters. According to the report on its findings published by the Economist,
Ninety-two per cent of American respondents over the age of 64 said they sympathised more with Ukraine than with Russia. Yet just 56% of those aged 18-29 answered the same—a difference of 36 percentage points. In Europe the pattern looks similar. There was a 17-point difference between the shares of older and younger people in Britain who said they sympathise more with Ukraine, and a gap of 14 points in France. Young Americans were the most likely to say they sympathised more with Russia (10%), compared with 6% in France and just 1% in Britain.
One explanation for the difference was the fact that younger people tend to be less engaged in and knowledgable about politics.
Across all three countries, younger people who said that they were interested in politics were more sympathetic to Ukraine than their less-engaged peers. In Britain the gap between those aged under 30 and over 64 narrowed when factoring in that difference: from 17 points to 12.
In other words, those who were paying attention were more likely to sympathize with Ukraine.
Another likely reason for the difference between age cohorts, according to the Economist, was life experience.
The gap between well-informed older Americans and well-informed younger Americans is still wide, at 28 percentage points. Russophobic sentiment among older adults may be more important. Those aged 65 and older came of age in the midst of the cold war. By comparison, those aged under 30 were born after 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Russia returns to battle, echoes of the cold war might ring louder for older generations.
Although the Economist didn’t cite it (the letter to the newspaper did), I would attribute much of the gap to America’s very diminished levels of social trust overall. Skepticism of media and political and governmental institutions is a prominent feature of today’s America, and is understandably more prevalent among young people than among those who grew up in times when that trust–and arguably, official trustworthiness– was far greater.
A study by Pippa Norris, a noted scholar, suggests another difference between young and old: contrary to the thesis of youth apathy, Norris finds that young people are much more likely than their parents and grandparents to engage in cause-oriented political action, including humanitarian and environmental activism, rather than more traditional political activities. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that young activists who care about the environment, for example, have encountered ample reasons to distrust both business and government.
We are clearly in a time of major social change and upheaval, and how all this will shake out is anyone’s guess, but before we old folks engage in the time-honored “dissing” of young people, I suggest we look at the numbers. Fifty-six percent of the youngest cohort sympathized with Ukraine, another 24% responded that they were “unsure.” Only ten percent sympathized with Russia. That is certainly a troubling number, but it’s fewer than the twenty-two percent of Americans (including 79% of Republicans) who have embraced “the Big Lie.”
Survey researchers will confirm that people who respond to polls will often say they are “unsure” when they really don’t have sufficient knowledge to form an opinion.(Admitting ignorance is embarrassing; suggesting uncertainty is less so.) When we look at the possible reasons for the age gap on sympathy for Ukraine, I’d be willing to wager that lack of engagement–leading to lack of knowledge–is by far the largest factor.
And when you think about it, it is also the most troubling. Not paying attention–in class or in life–is never a good sign.