Have Difficult Economic Times Changed Our Values?


“The continued positive outlook—despite the hard times—is a measure of the resilience of American values. The Pew Research Center’s twenty-five-year tracking of American values finds little indication of deflation in the public’s basic confidence in the efficacy of hard work, the nature of personal success, and the nation’s capacity to solve its problems.”

Working with Cultural Detective over the years, I am always interested in the role values play in our lives. So I was eager to read a new working paper for the Council on Foreign Relations released by Pew Research Center pollsters Andrew Kohut and Michael Dimock, entitled Resilient American Values: Optimism in an Era of Growing Inequality and Economic Difficulty.

We in the USA are a nation of optimists. We believe that with hard work we will get ahead. “Unlike Europeans, they [US Americans] believe that they themselves, not larger forces in society, determine whether they will be successful in life.” And, in spite of the recent difficult economic times, US Americans continue to believe that it is through their own initiative they can and will succeed.

Although the economic situation in the US has changed radically in the last 25 years, research finds that this shift has not drastically changed our values. This research indicates that the core Cultural Detective: USA values of Self-reliance (It’s up to you) and Capitalism (Reach for the American Dream) are alive and well throughout all levels of US society.

However, what really caught my interest in the paper was the research that showed US Americans are upset not by rich people being “too rich,” nor by the widening economic gap between the rich and the poor, nor by the large drops in wealth and income among most in the last decade. To the contrary, US Americans are most concerned by the apparent unequal nature of the economic system, and a government ideologically paralyzed and unable to institute meaningful reform.

“During a time of prolonged economic hardship, Americans are clearly upset about a perceived lack of fairness. What the public wants is not a war on the rich, but rather more fairness in public policy, and policies that promote opportunity.”

Sounds to me like the results of this study also suggest that the CD: USA values of Equality (Level the playing field) and Law and Order (Play by the rules) remain an integral part of the society. We want the same opportunity to work hard and get ahead as everyone else—even those with far more money and power than we ourselves have. While there is great diversity in our ranks, perhaps this study has once again shown us what unites us as US Americans.

We invite you to take a look at this study—it is full of interesting information about US values and attitudes. We’d love to hear how you see your cultural values playing out in difficult economic times.

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