Today's young people have grown up in an individualistic culture. But they are still less individualistic than their parents, says one researcher.
Today's young people have grown up in an individualistic culture. But they are still less individualistic than their parents, says one researcher.

Young people probably less individualistic than their parents, despite having grown up in a far more individualistic culture

Being caring and taking care of each other was one of the most important ideals for 19 and 20 year old Norwegian youth in a recent study. When asked who inspires them they answered grandma, and the Norwegian teacher.

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Jan Frode Haugseth asked Norwegian 19 and 20 year olds to “think of a person who truly inspires you – who is this person and what qualities does he or she have?”

Their answers surprised the researcher a bit. He had thought that several of them would name bloggers or media personalities.

But the young adults mentioned few role models or ideals associated with spending pressure, keeping up with the latest fashions, or body image.

Grandma has good values

The young people most often named people closest to them, from their high school Norwegian teacher to friends, parents and relatives, says Haugseth, who is associate professor of pedagogy at NTNU.

A 19-year-old woman is most inspired by her grandmother:

Grandma inspires me because she is a good person with good values, who cares about other people and who is committed to helping others.

Being seen

In the interviews, the youth mention caring, such as when someone has seen them, noticed them or cared about them.

A 19-year-old woman says:

I had a Norwegian teacher in high school. I felt that he cared about each student in some way. It seemed like he saw me, maybe he came and talked to me after class or asked if I wasn't feeling well – I just think he was a teacher who cared about his students . And that everyone was visible to him in a way. And he didn’t only come to teach us, but also to support us. And to be present.

Achievement important too

Being caring and taking care of each other was one of the most important ideals of the study respondents. This response was given by youth across various religions, beliefs, class backgrounds or gender.

Few young people talk about it being important to make a lot of money or to have a great body in the interviews, says Jan Frode Haugseth
Few young people talk about it being important to make a lot of money or to have a great body in the interviews, says Jan Frode Haugseth

This generation has grown up setting goals throughout their schooling and with social media as a barometer of popularity and success. They are referred to as “generation achievement,” and criticized for not having any collective cause, according to Haugseth.

But today's young people are probably less individualistic than their parents, despite having grown up in a far more individualistic culture, the researcher wrote in a recent Norwegian blog post.

On a par with the ideal of taking care of others is that of working hard, achieving something and having ambitions. The youth express that they value people who have a strong will, a good work ethic, an ability to follow through on things and who are hardworking.

Only few of the interviewees talk about making a lot of money or having a great body. The achievement qualities are more related to their ambitions, willpower or overcoming adversity, according to the researcher.

Youth are more respectable

Research has shown that youth since the 1990s have become more respectable than before.

They exercise more, drink less, are less rebellious and generally more well behaved than before. Research from the Norwegian cross-national data collection scheme Ungdata also shows that family, schools and training are more important to them in everyday life.

Haugseth believes there is a great deal of societal pressure and nagging from schools, vocational counsellors, parents and others for young people to be smart and rational.

“I would have thought that today's youth would be even more achievement-oriented than they appear to be in my survey. None of the people I interviewed or those who answered a questionnaire claimed that achievement was paramount,” he says.

“If they have to choose, they opt for belonging and social life. They consider achievement important, but they maintain a critical distance from it. No one wants to admit that it could be the most important thing in life,” he says.

Were youth more individualistic before?

Being yourself, finding your own path and not caring about what others think is far down the list of qualities young people admire in Haugseth's survey.

That wasn’t the case in the 1990s, when Norwegian researchers asked schoolchildren who they would like to look like and what characteristics they valued most.

Karl Halvor Teigen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oslo, led the study of Norwegian children’s and youths’ role models and ideals in the 1990s.

The researchers compared the results with similar studies that had been done before.

“It was interesting to see that there was a good connection. But something also emerged that was quite inconceivable for the first Norwegian survey we compared with that had been carried out a hundred years earlier,” says Teigen.

Whereas historical figures dominated in response to the question of role models a hundred years earlier, quite a few of the young people around the turn of this millennium responded that they would most like to just be themselves.

“We didn't even have any questions on this, but it came up completely on its own,” says the researcher.

Researchers also change over time

In a 1940s survey, a few participants answered that they wanted to be themselves, but the researchers at the time believed that these responses sabotaged the entire study, Teigen says.

“When we get to the 1960s, the response that you have no other ideal than yourself was considered very mature and grown up by the researchers. This reaction indicates a change in the researchers over time,” says Teigen.

He does not reject the idea that the ideals of youth have changed yet again.

“Quite informally, I asked a group of students the same question last fall. No one reacted negatively to it. Many of the girls then said that their mother was their ideal,” Teigen says.

Can't say that Norwegian youth are all like this

Teigen has read Haugseth's new study and finds it interesting, but he also points to some limitations.

First, the study is based on a broad but self-selected sample.

Adolescents are recruited through paid ads on Facebook and Instagram. The researcher received 363 answers to the ads. In addition, he conducted focus group interviews with 18 young people.

“Their responses give a positive picture of youth, but they’ve chosen to answer the questionnaire themselves. This can skew the results to make it look like young people are so reflective and positive to the survey that they take the time to do it. It doesn’t represent both the silent and the talkative members of this population,” Teigen says.

Karl Halvor Teigen studied Norwegian children and adolescents in the 1990s.
Karl Halvor Teigen studied Norwegian children and adolescents in the 1990s.

This potential bias means it is not that easy to establish that "Norwegian youth are like this" based on this study, according to Teigen.

The survey also asks who the young people are inspired by, not whom they admire or want to look like.

“This question lends itself to eliciting certain types of positive answers, but it hardly opens the door for answering ‘myself’", he says.

Teigen believes it is difficult to compare the new results with the 2000 survey or use them to shed light on a societal trend.

Freethinking responses

Haugseth also thinks it is problematic to compare the studies.

“The researchers in the study 20 years ago used younger adolescent participants – 13-14 year olds and 16-18 year olds. I studied young people who are 19-20 years old. This age difference may explain some of the variations,” he says.

Haugseth thinks younger adolescents may be more immature and haven’t gained enough distance from their own childhood or upbringing that they can see the value of what their parents and grandparents do, for example.

He believes a strength of the new study is that it does not put words in the mouths of the respondents, but lets them think freely. The young people are asked to describe their role models in their own words.

“If you’re going to rank questions by how much you agree with a statement, youth tend to be very easily guided by the survey. Some of the problem with the Ungdata questionnaires, for example, is that they put response options into the mouths of young people,” says Haugseth.

Larger study in progress

Haugseth warns, as does Teigen, against using the study to determine a general trend. He thinks the sample is too small to do this.

But a main tendency, that young people report being inspired most by the people closest to them, concurs with other research on youth, he believes.

“I also believe there’s evidence to infer that the attitudes about caring and achievement are widespread among Norwegian youth – across gender, social backgrounds and where in Norway they live.

The researcher is now conducting a larger study to include data from young people both in Sweden and in Norway. This will give him broader data for finding out if today's youth are actually more collectively oriented than their parent generation.

Translated by: Ingrid P. Nuse

Reference:

Jan Frode Haugseth: Ungdommens idealer [The ideals of youth], Norsk sosiologisk tidsskrift, 02/2020 (Volume 4).

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Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no