Trust across generations: different but the same

Generations are not as important as most think and that the vast majority of issues and attitudes do not map neatly onto the generation definitions.

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  • Carl Phillips Corportate Reputation
  • Miles Grinyer Corporate Reputation
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It was the accepted wisdom, until not that long ago, that the differences between the generations were vast. The implications of this were unclear - some thought that as the younger generations, liberal, socially conscious, and environmentally obsessed, rose to maturity and maintained their current viewpoints on key issues that major social, political, and economic change would occur. Others believed the youth would eventually mature into more conservative middle-aged folk with more practical concerns, preventing any large-scale change in attitudes towards capitalism or democracy from occurring. These viewpoints had the ring of truth for people looking for differences between the old and young to justify their existing views on the world and went unchallenged for a surprisingly long time.

But with increasing scrutiny, these assumptions about generational differences have begun to look shaky. Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy at King’s and formerly Head of Public Affairs here at Ipsos, argued in his book “Generations” that generations are not as important as most think and that the vast majority of issues and attitudes do not map neatly onto the generation definitions (which themselves are somewhat arbitrary, especially on a global scale). He argues that most of the polarising issues facing the world today split the generations as well, and that the overarching societal shift towards more liberal attitudes on things like gay marriage, female employment, etc are the result of opinions shifting across all generational groups over the last 30-40 years and are not the byproduct of a sudden influx of liberal youngsters into the voting booths.

Trust drivers by generation

The idea that the generations have far more in common than has been widely assumed is supported by this year’s Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor data. Looking at how the different generations prioritise different criteria (derived from previous iterations of this research) for judging whether sectors and brands are trustworthy, we see a huge amount of common ground between the generations and little real division.

Trust drivers by generation - Ipsos

There is some variance in the strength of feeling that different generations have for different criteria; Baby Boomers, for instance, are far more likely to prioritise reliability and openness/transparency than younger generations, while Gen Z and Millennials rate more of the lesser priority issues more highly such as value sharing, intent and the importance of leadership.

But despite these differences and variations in the strength of feeling, all four generational groups regard the same four trust drivers; reliability, openness/transparency, responsibility, and value for the price, as the most important and in the same rank order.

In fifth place and below the top four trust drivers for all generations is environmental responsibility which is regarded as similarly important by everyone. This supports the idea that environmental concerns have grown over time across all generational groups, rather than being the domain of the younger generations alone. Similarly, the idea that industry sectors should behave responsibly, rather than following the economist Milton Friedman’s adage that “the social responsibility of business is to make profit”, is a viewpoint shared by all generations (it is the third most important driver of overall trustworthiness) and is held more strongly by Baby Boomers than Gen Z. So much for the idea that the youth hold a monopoly on seeing strong ESG approaches as a priority.

The implication from the data is clear - if everyone is using the same judgment criteria despite their age, then membership of a generation is no indication of behaviour or sentiment.

Trust in sectors by generation

When we turn our attention to looking at how the different generations judge the trustworthiness of different industry sectors and institutions again, we see that the usual narrative of younger generations being less trusting isn’t the case at all. It is the older generations who are less trusting of most sectors than Millennials or Gen Z.

Trust in sectors by generation - Ipsos

Baby Boomers and Gen X are less likely to trust financial services, energy, oil & gas, banking, social media companies, and consumer-packaged goods than those younger than them, with there being significant differences between the elder and younger generations in each case.

One could be forgiven for expecting that younger generations would be less trusting of oil & gas, given the climate crisis facing their futures and the assumptions we often make about how they feel about the environment and sustainability. The same could be said of banking, with many growing up through the financial crash of 2008. Yet it is the older age groups, again, who are the parts of society with the lowest level of trust in these sectors.

Looking across some of the other sectors measured - pharmaceuticals, retail, and the government - we see little variance in the levels of trust between the generations. What is interesting however is the contrast that can be seen between sets of closely-related sectors, for example tech and social media. There is little difference between the young and old towards technology companies, but there is a generational difference when it comes to social media companies, with Baby Boomers trusting social media much less than Gen Z. The two sectors have intrinsic links, so it’s interesting to see that the youth trust both, while for the elder generations, they trust tech but that falls away for social media.

Trust in pharma by generation
Trust in pharma by generation

Across almost all of the sectors we measured, all four generations are moving in the same direction, with all improving (albeit slowly in most cases) except the tech sector. Change may be slow in most cases, and trustworthiness in absolute terms is still low, and while there are differences in the strength of sentiment, trust is still growing across all four groups. Even trust in government is up, despite recent political instability in some parts of the world.

The two best examples of these improvements are the pharmaceutical and social media sectors. The pharma sector has seen considerable growth in perceived trustworthiness since the start of the pandemic, and we can see that this cuts across all generational groups.

Trust in social media companies by generation - Ipsos
Trust in social media companies by generation

Looking at the social media sector, although they have a considerable trust deficit – with far more regarding them as untrustworthy than trustworthy – opinion in all four generational groups is improving. Fake news and hate speech were a considerable problem for social media companies back in 2020 with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and bitterly-fought elections taking place - but the sector has seen improving trust since. It remains to be seen whether this is down to people truly believing the sector is making progress, or simply that some of these issues are less front of mind now. What we can tell at least, is that from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, the social media sector is no longer seen quite as catastrophically untrustworthy as before.

Trust in technology companies by generation - Ipsos
Trust in technology companies by generation

It is worth focussing on the tech sector as it is an outlier for two reasons; firstly, it is the only sector to continually decline since 2019, and secondly, it is the only sector where the generational movement is not all in the same direction.

Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Z are trending downward this year and have been for several years. Millennials on the other hand buck the trend, with trust in the sector stable over the last twelve months (after previously declining). Millennials were the generation to grow up with tech and perhaps nostalgia, and being early adopters, is dampening the population-wide shift of opinion towards the tech sector.

So, what does this all mean? The key takeaway is that generational divides are not as large or as significant as many would have assumed. Furthermore, younger generations are in fact usually more trusting than their elders. Shifts in perceptions of trustworthiness appear to be what are known as “period effects”, with all the generations moving in the same direction, albeit at different speeds.

It is also clear that the different generations are using use the same core criteria to judge the relative trustworthiness of sectors and institutions, and this means that targeting the generational groups for advertising, marketing, or political campaigns assumes a reliable cohort effect based on age alone is likely to be an expensive waste of time. To take this further, and to be deliberately provocative, we could ask the question of whether generational cohorts exist at all. Of course, the reality is that generational analysis can, if done carefully and well, tell us new insights about people – but it is often applied in inappropriate situations.

Simply, we are all far more similar than we may think, and it is probably time to focus on what unites us than what divides us.

The author(s)
  • Carl Phillips Corportate Reputation
  • Miles Grinyer Corporate Reputation