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September 1, 2010

The Accelerated Pace of Change

Over a career of almost 50 years, I have had one of the unique and distinct pleasures of being able to measure and analyze public opinion. They often say, “Ah, the good old days,” but to me it is the new days of today that are both fascinating and challenging because the baby boomer generation was the beneficiary of the sacrifices of the “greatest generation.” And this baby boomer generation is not necessarily handing the baton forward, but instead maybe backward.

The world of today finds Americans challenged in ways that make the future anything but secure—national security (terrorism) is as much or more of a threat than that seemingly posed by the former Soviet Union. In economic terms, the dominance of American capitalism is being challenged by the growth and expansion of China, India and Latin America. The manufacturing base is no longer in America, and we are being challenged by creativity and invention from the Asian countries. So it is also with the education world. America has been the mecca for attracting the best and brightest from around the globe to the university system. Once here, many of them stay and become part of the next generation of inventors and creators, like the Soviet-born Sergey Brin, one of Google's founders. Today, fewer are coming and more are returning to their native countries. American brainpower and the higher education system face the kind of challenge to attract and retain the kinds of talent we have had for a century.

Yet, beneath all this, are the adaptation and creative forces of this next generation. This is what I am measuring and what I love to do. To me, how we stay informed tells us so much about where our society stands today. If you look back two generations, the American public got their information either from the morning newspaper, the evening newspaper or one of the three network newscasts that were available. Today, news is 24/7 and it comes from everything from blogs to a spectrum of different kinds of news outlets, of which newspapers, network news and weekly magazines hold a diminishing share of audience awareness. The public today is much more informed—although not necessarily better informed—and is much more likely to look at the news in a segmented way. People will watch Fox News or msnbc depending on where they are on the political spectrum. They read certain blogs that reinforce their points of view or provide more information to substantiate their positions on the issues and personalities.

All of this has changed the political discourse that we have today. We have lowered the bar for fact versus opinion and for getting the full story. The price we have paid is that calm voices have been replaced by rants and a lack of civil discourse. I am fascinated to see how much more news people are now gathering in a day, but fear for the consequences of how we are evaluating and translating this information. The price we are paying in our democratic society is in trying to find consensus on the important issues of the day. The voice of the moderate middle is being drowned out by the shouts of extremes. This generation will be challenged to figure out how we get consensus to solve all the important issues facing them.

The second element of change that fascinates me is how different the younger generation is from their parents. While this is true for every generation, this is a generation where the rules are different and their approach toward work and relationships are very different. Staying in touch has a completely different meaning. If you look at people under 30, they come with a whole series of different types of relationships, different interests and different goals. Compared to other generations, they are more in touch (texting, Facebook et al), which makes them more aware. In the end, they may have better and more lasting relationships. Yet, they face a whole different set of challenges when it comes to earning a living and having a lifestyle that equals that of their parents.

THE NEW GLUE OF SOCIETY

This generation obviously is challenged on the economic front, but in pursing their goals, they are far less likely to be locked into working for a single employer for a lifetime. They are far more willing to move away from home and hearth to pursue opportunities, and less likely to rely on government programs for security.

The other element that is apparent is the social action these young people are involved with—they have gone far beyond the standard PTA and church activities into volunteering and involvement with almost everything from local issues to environmental challenges to world crises such as the earthquake in Haiti. This generation tells us in our work that self-reliance and volunteering will mark their world. If they are getting a world with a host of problems, they seem to be digging into solving them rather than just standing aside. All of this is both enlightening and a good sign for our country.

Part of the brand new world of today is how our society has changed from a bi-racial society to a multicultural society. The world of today is not only marked by the first African-American president, but by a Fortune 100 company being led by women, all races and ethnicities.

We have also changed so much in terms of our nation's ethnic and racial mix. This is one reason why immigration is on the forefront of the political landscape. You can go to so many communities in America and find them changed and touched by the issue of immigration. Again, we find the workplace, the neighborhood and our cultural life transformed by immigration—it is not easy and creates all kinds of political and social strains, but it is an important element of the new society.

With all of the challenges facing society, it is hardly surprising that holding the respect and trust of the American public has become so much more challenging. One of the major changes over the past decade or so is a loss of respect for institutions. Institutions that marked the foundations of our society have diminished in the public's eye. It doesn't make any difference whether you talk about governmental institutions—whether it is the presidency, or the Congress or the Supreme Court—or private industry, whether it is banking, energy or health care. Even the institutions that have been the glue of our communities, such as church or the media, have diminished standings and ratings. This means the bonds that hold the society together are much less solid, and the public is looking less to government and more to themselves and the private sector.

There certainly are periods of time in our history in which one could see this kind of dislocation going on. Yet I think the changes we're seeing today are deeper and more serious than what we've seen previously. There was a very bad period at the end of the '70s and the start of the '80s when the public was very much out of sorts with everything that was going on, and one can look back to similar periods in the 1930s and the 1950s. But at this stage, we are so segmented and so divided. We're divided by the generations, in other cases by religions, ethnicity and even gender. I see these kinds of divisions and the lack of a center core that's holding America together right now.

THROW THE RASCALS OUT

With this as the background, and thinking now about the 2010 elections, I think the single message I get from the voters is a sense that we want to change everything. When I ask the public in my NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll: “If there was a place on the ballot that you could vote every single member of Congress out, including your own representative, would you mark that spot?” Fortyseven percent of the American public says, “Yes, I would do so.” The overwhelming measurement that we need to look at is a sense of unhappiness with the Democrats in the Congress as well as the executive branch. It has to do as much with all the people who the public would like to see “out” as the new faces that they would like to see “in.” Given the choice of a person who had never run for office or someone with 10 years of experience in the Congress, the public in 2010 is much more likely to take the person with no experience over the person with a lot of experience.

To me, the EKG of American public opinion is: Do you see the country headed in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track? As a single question, that probably gives us a better psychological insight into the American public than anything else. As we go into the fall election, better than six in 10 Americans see things as seriously off on the wrong track. Given that, the likelihood of the voters voting against the incumbent party, in this case the Democrats, is so much greater. Having been in the business of measuring public opinion for nearly a half-century, the one thing you learn is not to over-read a single time period, but to recognize that there is always a pendulum swing. For now the mood may be down, but it will come back around. The more important elements are how society is changing through the behavior and patterns of younger people and the vast rate of immigration with the Hispanic population. A whole new society is being born and a fascinating chapter is ahead.

Peter D. Hart is a leading analyst of public opinion in the United States, and since 1971 has been chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Peter D. Hart Research Associates. His firm has been conducting the NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey since 1989. He has worked with more than 40 U.S. senators and 30 governors, and has focused globally on issues of public policy and culture.