Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Forty Years After Woodstock, A Gentler Generation Gap

I. Overview

Forty years after the Woodstock music festival glorified and exacerbated the generational fractures in American life, the public today says there are big differences between younger and older adults in their values, use of technology, work ethic, and respect and tolerance for others.

But this modern generation gap is a much more subdued affair than the one that raged in the 1960s, for relatively few Americans of any age see it as a source of conflict — either in society at large or in their own families.

Moreover, there’s now broad agreement across the generations about one realm of American culture that had been an intense battlefield in the 1960s: the music.

In the four decades since Woodstock, rock and roll has made the journey from the defiant soundtrack of the counterculture to the most popular music in the land, according to a nationwide telephone survey by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project conducted from July 20 through Aug. 2 among a nationally representative sample of 1,815 people ages 16 and older.

Two-thirds of respondents say they listen to rock often (35%) or sometimes (30%), placing it ahead of the six other musical genres tested in the survey: country, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, classical, jazz and salsa.

Back in 1966, a national survey1 found that rock and roll was by far the most unpopular music in the country. Nearly half of adults (44%) said they disliked it, and only 4% said it was their favorite kind of music.

Today, the lone holdouts from rock’s broad fan base are older adults. But for every age group below age 65, rock is at the top of the charts.

One goal of this latest Pew Research survey was to probe more deeply into a finding from a Pew Research survey conducted earlier this year that showed that 79% of Americans say there are major differences now in the point of view of younger and older adults. Forty years ago, in an era of far more overt conflict between the generations than there is now, a slightly smaller share (74%) of the public said yes to the same question.2

What could explain the similarities in the two numbers in the face of such differences in the two eras?

This latest survey appears to solve the mystery. Yes, there are big differences between young and old today in their values, attitudes and behaviors, but no, these differences haven’t created conflicts between the generations. To borrow a phrase, the generations appear to have found a way to disagree without being disagreeable.

Moreover, where perceived generational differences exist today about moral values, work ethic and respect for others, today’s young adults — by heavy margins — believe that these differences have arisen because their generation hasn’t lived up to standards set by older adults.

Some key findings from the survey:

  • Only about a quarter of the public (26%) says there are strong conflicts these days between young people and older people. By contrast, much higher shares of the public see strong conflicts today between immigrants and the native born (55%); between rich and poor (47%); and between blacks and whites (39%).
  • Despite this spirit of generational rapprochement, overwhelming shares of the public say the young and old are different in many aspects of their lives, including in the way they use new technology (87% say very or somewhat different); their taste in music (86%); their work ethic (80%); their moral values (80%); the respect they show others (78%); their political views (74%); their attitudes toward different races and groups (70%); and their religious beliefs (68%).
  • By lopsided margins, the public says that older adults are superior to younger adults when it comes to their moral values, work ethic and respect for others. Even younger adults share in these assessments. The only exception to this pattern has to do with attitudes toward people of difference races. Here, a plurality of the public says that younger adults have the upper hand.
  • Just as people don’t see much generational conflict today in society at large, they don’t see much generational conflict in their own families — at least not as much as there had been a generation ago. Only 10% of parents of older children say they often have major disagreements with a teenage or young adult child. By contrast, nearly twice as many adult respondents (19%) say that when they themselves were in their late teens and early 20s, they often had major disagreements with their parents.
  • Seven-in-ten respondents in our survey were able to correctly identify what Woodstock was, but among respondents ages 16 to 24, only about half could.
  • Descriptions of Woodstock offered by survey respondents serve as a reminder of the passions and polarization of the times. For some, it was “a hippie drug-fest”; “a total moral mess”; “wild kids having sex.” For others, it was “a love-in”; “a celebration of freedom and new ideas”; “a peace festival that was supposed to bring unity and togetherness.”

About the Surveys

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,815 people ages 16 and older living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. A total of 1,164 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 651 from those contacted on their cellular phone. The data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States.

  • Interviews conducted July 20-Aug. 2, 2009
  • 1,815 interviews
  • Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for results based on the total sample at the 95% confidence level.
  • The 16-24 age group was oversampled, and the margin of sampling error for this group is plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.
  • Note on terminology: Whites include only non-Hispanic whites. Blacks include only non-Hispanic blacks. Hispanics are of any race.

Survey interviews were conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish.

In a separate survey, 1,011 adults 18 and older were interviewed by telephone Aug. 5-9 to test the popularity of five of the 20 musical performers cited in this report. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by International Communications Research.

  1. Louis Harris and Associates survey of 1,179 registered voters ages 21 and older, August 1966.
  2. Gallup Poll, 1969.
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