Should we be alarmed about changing American values?

A recent survey paints a picture of America as a country undergoing significant and rapid change.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey on American values also compares the responses with those given in response to the same questions asked in a 1998 survey. The results were certainly dramatic enough to prompt some questions in our minds about the future of our country.

Polls and surveys are affected by all sorts of outside forces, including biases that are unexpected, hidden, or otherwise not “fixable” by statisticians. Modern pollsters, the best ones at least, try very hard to anticipate biases and avoid or counter them, using reworded question repetition and other techniques.

There are some biases in our world of technology, though that have built up a resistance to survey techniques and probably affect the reliability of even the best polls taken by the most careful professionals. The 2016 presidential election campaign polls that predicted a Hillary Clinton landslide, for example, were not conducted by inexperienced amateurs. And yet some sort of bias got through and infected the results.

We should keep this problem in mind as we review the results of this excellent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey and consider that the trends are probably more reliable than the absolute numbers themselves. But even taking this caution into account, the numbers, and especially the trends, are startling.

The survey results paint a picture of America as a country undergoing significant and rapid change. And the summation of those changes is a partial answer to one question that many of us have been asking ourselves: why we don’t seem to be able to get along with each other? It is, in part, because we are undergoing rapid changes to our fundamental beliefs, the anchor points of mutual understanding.

One survey result is not surprising. Just 50 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them, down 12 percentage points since 1998 when the same questions was asked.

This decline tracks with the physical evidence. More churches are being closed and, in many cases, being sold off or leased out for non-religious activities. What this means as far as our country’s future, and the role of religious values, though, isn’t as clear. Ironically, as God plays a shrinking part in Americans’ lives, references to the deity have increased in our spoken and written language. “Oh my God!” has become a portmanteau expression and is used so frequently that its unexplained abbreviation, OMG, often replaces it in print journalism, where space is expensive and conserved.

The survey results about having children are quite clear, and so are its implications for our future. The number of people who place a high value on having children is 43 percent, down 16 percentage points since 1998.

This trend will have a direct impact on both our personal lives and our prosperity. Its effects on total population will limit our potential economic growth, just as it has in Japan, Russia, and Western Europe.

The survey also attempts to measure changes in patriotism as an important value in people’s lives. Compared with religion or child-raising, though, patriotism is a more elusive concept to measure because the word itself is in large part self-defined.

That said, 61 percent of Americans consider patriotism to be an important part of their lives. That is a lot of people, but we should note that it is down 9 percent since 1998. The significance of the trend becomes clear when the survey results are broken out by age group. Among Americans 55 and older, close to 80 percent responded that patriotism was very important to them. In the 18-36 age group, though, only 42 percent felt the same way. And the future belongs to the young.

The survey does include some good news. Most of us still strongly believe in the value of hard work. Still, two thirds of Americans are not confident that the next generation will be better off, economically. The relationship between these two things is certainly worth further exploration.

This is essentially the same characteristic of the “yield curve” which has recently been in the news, and on financial markets’ worry list. Essentially, the yield curve had the same message as the survey: the economy is fine, but the future economy is worrisome.

The survey results prompt two questions we should think about. The first is this: if traditional values are shrinking, what values are taking their place? The second is: are these changing values a problem we can do something about … and should we?

The upcoming election in 2020 may provide some answers to these questions, but we shouldn’t count on it. In the end it is going to be “We, the people” who will address the values issue in our own lives, in our own way.

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