There has been more analysis focused on generational differences in broader societal values than some of the other topics we have looked at, such as satisfaction with the NHS. This is understandable: there are often clear generational gaps on these types of values, resulting from the different societal norms each generation grew up with. 1
But these generational differences in values are still highly relevant for current policy debates. Here we look at two examples: whether it is a husband’s role to earn money and a wife’s job to look after the home and family, and attitudes towards same-sex relationships. Understanding generational attitudes to these provides important context for very current discussions on, for example, childcare support for working families, tax breaks for stay-at-home parents and gay marriage.
First, our attitudes towards different gender roles. The chart above shows very flat generational lines, indicating hardly any change of opinion within each generation over the 20 years covered.
But it also shows a very clear distinction between the attitudes of the pre-war generation and the rest of the population – with those born before 1945 half as likely as all other generations to disagree with the statement.
The flatness of the lines suggests that views of gender roles are pretty much set from early in life. This is backed up by a study which shows that support for working mothers is set early in teenage years and remains steady into young adulthood. 2
There is, however, a different generational pattern regarding attitudes towards homosexual relations.
First of all, as the chart above shows, there are clear period effects, where the opinions of different generations change in a similar way over time. This is particularly the case for baby boomers and Generation X, who show significant increases in agreement that sexual relations between people of the same sex are “not wrong at all”. In contrast, the pre-war generation change very little in their views over the 28 years covered.
Secondly, there is a more clear-cut generational hierarchy than we see on the gender roles question, with baby boomers more in the middle between the pre-war and more recent generations. This highlights an important point: while baby boomers are generally very permissive, many (perhaps more than we would expect) do retain some reservations about homosexual relations. Having said that, the stability of views among the pre-war generation means that baby boomers are now relatively closer to younger generations, and the pre-war generation again stand out as different from the rest of the population.
But to get a full view of generational values it is important to look at other responses to this question. The chart below, which is based on the same question but shows those who think sexual relations between people of the same sex are “always wrong”, shows a similar overall pattern – but highlights a number of important qualifying points.
Firstly, while the proportion of the pre-war generation who think that homosexual relationships are “not wrong at all” has remained fairly static, there has been a significant fall in the proportion who think they are “always wrong”, from around three-quarters to under half. There are a number of possible interpretations of this, but it does suggest at least some softening of views.
Secondly, on this measure, baby boomers are much closer to younger generations than those born before 1945. This pattern fits much better with what we would expect from baby boomers, but does not negate the point made above that there are still many boomers who are less permissive in their view of homosexual relationships.
This highlights an important point: while baby boomers are generally very permissive, many (perhaps more than we would expect) do retain some reservations about homosexual relations.
Thirdly, this chart highlights that there is still a significant minority of all generations who believe that sexual relations between people of the same sex are always wrong. Clearly, this is most notable for the pre-war generation (37%), but it is still also the case for around one in six people from each of the younger generations.
And finally, looking at the two charts together, the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is very clear. 3 Both the pre-war and baby boomer generations see steep increases in the proportion saying that sexual relations between adults of the same sex are always wrong, and it took almost a decade to return to 1983 levels. So, while both the general cultural context and generational replacement effects are moving us towards greater tolerance, it is clear that major events still significantly affect these more deeply held values.