Drivers of Change – Social Attitudes

Drivers of Change – Social Attitudes

The sixth and last of SAMI’s Drivers of Change is “Social attitudes”, in particular how they are changing with different generations.Arguably this is one of the most fundamental drivers, as it underpins political and economic positions, climate change action, and willingness to adopt new technologies. We are focussing mainly on the UK and US, but will also touch on attitudes elsewhere.

Different generations’ attitudes likely vary largely 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, commentary on changing generational attitudes references cohorts such as Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Millennials (born 1981-1996) or Gen Z (1997-2012). Of course none of these groups is homogeneous and attitudes will vary. But for the purpose of identifying general trends this approach seems to be helpful.

The British Social Attitudes report published earlier this year showed continued progressive attitudes:

  • No substantial reaction so far against the expansion of government spending
  • Signs of greater concern about inequality post COVID
  • 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.
  • Attitudes towards welfare had already become more supportive beforehand.
  • For the most part, the public has become more liberal in its attitudes towards ‘culture wars’ issues, though voluble groups remain.
  • Remain and Leave supporters have different views on these issues.
  • 35 percent of people in Gen Z know someone who uses “they/them” pronouns.

By September 2022, more people were in favour of changing the voting system rather than keeping it as it is for the first time.

Money and work

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 .

An aging population means there is a combination of different generations in the workforce with 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. Much of this can be ascribed to work and finance challenges, 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 are 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 apparently reinforced 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%). However, young people do seem to be vaping – which is increasingly popular among those who are not former or current smokers.


Millennials are twice as likely as the overall investor population to invest in companies targeting social or environmental goals. They are 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 reflect their values: 87% of those born between 1990 and 2015 believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms that go further than its financial results”.

More than a third (35%) of UK employees are willing to quit their jobs if their employer takes inadequate action to reduce its carbon footprint. This is particularly so among Gen Z employees, with 53% of 18- to 24-year olds willing to consider leaving an employer based on net zero credentials.

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.

Millennials and Gen Z’ers both say they will make a special effort to more actively patronize and support businesses—especially smaller, local sellers—after the pandemic.

35% of the UK population stated that they trusted the national government, lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average (41%). The interview period is not stated – the figures were published on 13 July 2022 – so it can be assumed this figure has reduced following the shambolic summer and autumn.

Citizens trust legacy media more than the internet and social networks and put particularly high trust in public service media. They trust legacy media more than they trust their governments and political parties. Trust in social networks has constantly declined, reaching its lowest since it was first measured in 2014.


Running in parallel with the emerging poly-nodal world, Western leadership is increasingly being challenged. Reaction to “White Saviours” in Africa is now very strong, as is the reaction to a continued western attitude of treating Africa as just one country.

In Tanzania, people aged 15 to 24 take a very entrepreneurial attitude: 50% want to be a business magnate and a further 18% an entrepreneur.

The current uprising in Iran, beginning as a reaction to the “Morality Police”, seems to be being predominantly driven by young women and girls, and opposed largely by older, religious men.

Chinese youth is rebelling against over-demanding working environment, with the “lying flat” (tang ping) movement of doing no more than necessary extending into “let it rot”(bailan) – disengaging completely. The attitude is widespread enough to indicate a real sense of pessimism and disillusionment among China’s young generation. Will this at some point morph into active revolt?

Social attitude change is driven by the young. Worldwide, the young seem to be more open, more socially liberal, and demanding change, in the face of political movements dominated by the old. The young see these movements as protecting the assets and power the old have gained, rather than acting for the whole population. Young people are primarily motivated by single issues (abortion in the US, environmentalism, conscription in Russia), but that single issue focus unpredictably morphs into a desire to see a wholesale change in government policy (Iran).

The young are a potent political force, with many justifiable grievances and much potential power. That they have not yet chosen to use that power in a concerted manner does not mean that they will not at some stage in the future.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal 

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

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