Recent survey of American adults.

With eagerness I examined the new report from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) describing the results of a survey recently conducted to determine American adults’ views on their greatest values.

NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization, teamed up with the WSJ to survey 1,019 American adults about patriotism, having children, community involvement, religious faith,  hard work, and money.

They asked questions in different ways, both positively and negatively, to gain insight into our current thinking and compared it to results from the same survey done twice before, in 1998 and 2019. The results were obtained March 1 -13, 2023, and are noted by age groups and by political affiliation. The margin of error is +/- 4%. The full report is here.

Some startling results were found.

Graphs published in the Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal figure of greatest values (3/27/23)

Some of the results were startling to me. Notably, thirty-eight percent of respondents said patriotism was very important to them. Thirty nine percent said religion was very important. But these are down sharply from when the WSJ first asked the question in 1998. At that time, 70% deemed patriotism very important, and 62% said so of religion. See the figure attached.

There were large differences between how older Americans (65 years and older) and younger ones (18-34 years) felt about both patriotism and religion.

The share of Americans who say that having children, involvement in their community, and hard work are very important values has also fallen. The only priority the WSJ tested that has grown in importance in the past quarter-century is money. Money was cited as very important by 43% in the new survey, up from 31% in 1998.

Lots of things have changed since 1998. “Some events have shaken, and in some ways, fractured the nation – among them the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent economic downturn, the rise of former President Trump”, and the recent pandemic. For many reasons, our politics are more splintered now than ever before.

Patriotism, the great American value, is down.

Only 23% of adults under age 30 said in the new survey that patriotism was very important to them personally, compared with 59% of seniors ages 65 or older. Only 31% of younger respondents said that religion was very important to them, compared with 55% among older people.

I grew up in the era of anti-Vietnam war rallies, and, more recently, I disagreed with our invasion of Iraq, but I consider myself to be very patriotic. I still cry at the national anthem and feel proud that my father was a World War II vet. Both of my brothers served in the military.

Religion is out of favor as an American value among younger adults.

I grew up in the Methodist church, and raised my children in a Methodist church, yet none of them attend religious services today. My son told me recently that he thinks modern Christianity is hypocritical and I understand why he thinks this. Nevertheless, my religious faith is a major pillar of my spiritual growth. My church is an avenue leading to community service and involvement. In the survey most people said, “They know God really existed, but have doubts about it.”

Community involvement is down.

Perhaps our decline in community involvement is due to people focusing on their own racial or cultural backgrounds rather than seeing what Americans have in common? Nowadays, are we too focused on individualism and entitlement? I was taught to work towards the common good. Do we still teach that concept?

My mother was my role model for volunteer work, always striving to help others in need. My church promotes many community mission projects. My daughter and I recently volunteered several evenings with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, making sandwiches and distributing them to homeless people around Austin. Laura joined me and my friends to help on a Habitat for Humanity home building site recently. We had fun painting and she did not fall off the roof!

What about having children?

To me, the most striking finding is that only 23% of adults under age 34 years said that having children was very important. This is a decline in the importance of having children. Of course, the cost of childcare and raising kids is outrageous right now. I believe it is a tragedy that our country does not provide paid maternity leave or universal childcare coverage, like most other modern western countries do. Our country makes it harder for parents to care for their children.

Many women have delayed their childbearing years because of career pursuits, and then later find themselves confronted with infertility. I was thirty-four when I had my first child yet remember clearly always wanting to get married and have children, even throughout the endless, grueling years of medical school, residency, and fellowship training. The culture in which I grew up taught me that having children and raising a family were a crucial part of the American dream.

Of course, Americans still value money and hard work.

Hard work, money, and self-fulfillment continue to be highly valued by Americans. Not unexpected is that inflation, housing costs, and healthcare and drug costs are now our major concerns. Most people surveyed felt that their finances are about where they should be at this stage in their lives. They also felt that it would be easy to find another job with the same salary and benefits.

I am a typical baby boomer in that “I was my work.” For much of my adult life I derived great meaning and a sense of fulfillment from my medical practice. In retrospect, however, I value my time spent as a mother to be the most fulfilling aspect of my life.

How about tolerance for others?

Tolerance for others continues to be a highly held American value. Ninety percent said it is very or somewhat important. Surprisingly, most adults surveyed continue to have confidence in our public schools. That being said, a plurality of Americans currently thinks there is too much discussion and emphasis placed on transgender and LGBTQ rights. Most believe there is too much emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity by schools, universities, and businesses. How do we talk about tolerance in a way that is not off putting?

I hope that my review of these data provides for you a snapshot of where we are as Americans. I also hope that you will have conversations with your spouse or partner, your parents, your friends, your children, and grandchildren, about these American values.

We still live in the greatest democracy on earth, and I am glad to be an American!

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