Changing drivers of change – social attitudes

Changing drivers of change – social attitudes

We’ve seen how demographics, various macro-economic forces, climate breakdown and technology will cause change.  The last of SAMI’s six drivers of change is changing social attitudes, a critical underpinning force.  This discussion primarily addresses attitudes in advanced economies, but important changes are happening in developing countries too.

Attitudes of different generations likely vary in large part because of different experiences in their formative years. It used to be assumed that people’s attitudes changed as they got older, becoming less radical and more pragmatic. But it is beginning to appear that the views of different cohorts are now remaining distinct as they age.

Typically, discussion of different generations uses something like the following definitions (many of the comments in this blogpost are taken from Pew Research Centre research).  The descriptions of “Attitudes” are of course generalisations – no generation has uniform attitudes. Indeed, greater individualism and less conformity and deference has been a trend over the years.

Label Birth Adult Formative events Attitudes
Silent Generation 1928 – 1945 1952 WW2; post-war austerity; NHS, Welfare State; Festival of Britain Fortitude
Baby Boomers 1946 – 1964 1969 “Swinging sixties”; hippies,  Les evenements; Vietnam and anti-Vietnam;  Equal pay, legalising homosexuality, Open University; winter of discontent Optimism and progressivism; some becoming anti-migration and feeling left behind.
Gen X 1965 – 1980 1992 Thatcher – Falklands, miners’ strike; Cold War, fall of Berlin Wall; Mandela Materialism, consumerism
Millennials 1981 – 1996 2008 War on terror; Blair: minimum wage, Iraq war; Financial crash, recession Grim, retrenchment; ethical, life not defined by work
Gen Z 1997  – 2012 2020 + Brexit, Trump; Covid-19; climate emergency; digital world WTF??  Boomers stole our future; gender fluid

Money and work

Successive generations have become better educated (on average) – a factor tied to employment and financial well-being – but there is a sharp divide between the economic fortunes of those who have a college education and those who don’t. Millennials  have brought more racial and ethnic diversity to society. And Millennial women, like Generation X women, are more likely to participate in the nation’s workforce than prior generations.

Britain’s millennials  earned £8,000 less during their 20s than their predecessors and are at risk of being the first cadre of workers in modern times to see their lifetime earnings fall.

Home ownership is considerably lower amongst young people than it used to be. The phenomenon of “boomerang children”, returning to live with their parents is increasing: six-in-10 single 20 to 34-year-olds (3.5 million) without children now live with their parents; the proportion has risen from 55% to 63% over the last 10 years .

In 2018, a BBC documentary explored the views of millennials. They see themselves as hardworking, entrepreneurial and about to change the world for the better.

Gen X saw the rise of portfolio careers; millennials are increasingly entrepreneurial. A combination of different generations in the workforce has significant implications for incentive and reward schemes of larger organisations. Compared with earlier generations, millennials value greater flexibility, appreciation, team collaboration, progression and career opportunities, and, above all, a healthy work/life balance.  Gen Z, however, is likely to value security and stability more highly.


Depression is on the rise among millennials, many of whom suffer from loneliness, money stress, and burnout in the workplace. Since 2013, millennials have seen a 47% increase in major-depression diagnoses. The overall rate increased from 3% to 4.4% among 18- to 34-year-olds. This can be ascribed to the work and finance issues described above, but some commentators also identify social media as a factor because of the greater pressures it brings to compare one’s life with others. Close to half (48%) of Gen Z and 44% of millennial respondents in a Deloitte survey said they’re stressed all or most of the time.

On the positive side, the younger generations are being more open about their issues and destigmatizing therapy, with high profile individuals admitting mental health challenges.

Millennials and Gen X drink less alcohol than their predecessors – causing a rise in sales of “nolo” drinks of 30% since 2016. The pandemic is apparently reinforcing this trend.  This group also smokes less than before. Although younger age groups smoke more than older ones,  the prevalence of smoking since 2011 has fallen most in those groups; down by 8 percentage points among 18-24 year olds (from 26% to 18%).


Millennials are less likely to be married than previous generations at the same age. Three-in-ten Millennials live with a spouse and child compared with 40% of Gen Xers at a comparable age. Again, this may be related to housing and finance.


Gen Z is becoming ever more gender fluid. According to Pew Research data released earlier this year, 35 percent of people in Gen Z know someone who uses “they/them” pronouns.

Research from VICE found 41% of Gen Z respondents from western countries identify themselves in the middle of the masculine to feminine scale, while half identify themselves as something other than heterosexual.

There is even the concept of “sologamy”. More and more people around the world are choosing to “marry” themselves in symbolic ceremonies. 

Digital technology

Millennials onward are digital natives who have little or no memory of the world as it existed before smartphones. Gen Z may even not be able to function without the internet or smartphones.

For this demographic, social media outweighs email for communicating: on an average day, Millennials share roughly six pieces of content through social media, and only five through email.

With that comes an increasing attraction to visual content (video, photos, infographics) over text.  Specifically, 66% of Millennials post photos or comments about products, retailers, brands, etc. on social media sites (compared to 58% of Gen X and 40% of Boomers), and 69% of Millennials pin products and product information on Pinterest (compared to 56% of Gen X and 34% of Boomers).

Gen Z is reputed to have shorter attention spans – 8 seconds. They are multi-device users – 66% of Gen Z often uses more than one device at the same time.

Inter-generational Politics

The boomers were lucky to receive the fruits earned for them by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations ,eg:

  • bigger access to education, funded by the State;
  • health care, free at the point of delivery or covered by European social insurance schemes (and the conquest of most infectious diseases);
  • rising living standards and career expectations;
  • home ownership as a luxury in itself and a vehicle of capital growth;
  • occupational pensions linked to career earnings.

The consequences have been harmful to the next generation(s), eg:

  • cuts to education and social services + student fees and loans – dumping the costs on the young;
  • obesity and comorbidity among older people;
  • collapse in career expectations and career paths for the young;
  • unaffordable housing (driven in part by NIMBY boomers and buy-to-let rentiers) leading to the rise of “Generation Rent”, people living on canal boats etc;
  • poor pension prospects (even when younger people can find the money to pay for them after their student debt repayments, exorbitant rents etc);
  • a legacy of debt equivalent to World War 1 or the Napoleonic Wars, which will fall on the next generations.


Millennials are twice as likely as the overall investor population to invest in companies targeting social or environmental goals. They’re also twice as likely to check product packaging to ensure sustainability and similarly as likely to purchase from a brand because of the company’s social and/or environmental impact. They want their work to refclect their values: a resounding 87% of those born between 1990 and 2015 also believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms that go further than its financial results”.

Climate change

Climate change tops the list of vital challenges of our time, say young people. Amnesty International’s survey of over 10,000 18-25-year olds across 22 countries reveals that 41% of respondents cited global warming as the most important issue facing the world.  36% identified pollution as a key issue.


The pandemic has affected age groups differently. Death rates are significantly higher the older one is.  But younger people have suffered more economically, being more likely to work in most severely affected sectors such as hospitality (60% compared with 28% of boomers), less likely to be able to work from home. Surprisingly, Boomers are just as likely to have been furloughed or made redundant, with Gen X being the least affected.

There are signs that the oldest Gen Zers have been particularly hard hit in the early weeks and months of the coronavirus crisis. In a March 2020 Pew Research Center survey, half of the oldest Gen Zers (ages 18 to 23) reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak.

Millennials and Gen Z’ers both said they will make a special effort to more actively patronize and support businesses — especially smaller, local sellers — after the pandemic. But they won’t hesitate to penalize companies whose stated and practiced values conflict with their own. The pandemic has brought about an even stronger sense of social responsibility: nearly three-quarters said the pandemic has made them more sympathetic toward others’ needs and that they intend to take actions to have a positive impact on their communities.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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