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Yesterday’s Deep End was all about using research evidence to achieve a better understanding of social issues. In an insightful article for Slate, William Saletan provides a compelling example.

The issue at stake is whether people are “becoming more liberal about marriage, parenthood, and working women?”:

  • “A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center suggests we are. The survey showed big gaps between younger and older Americans on several questions: whether working moms make it harder to sustain successful marriages and raise children, whether kids are better off if their mothers stay home, and whether the increasing number of unwed mothers is a big problem.”

On all of these questions, the opinions of younger people were significantly less conservative than those of older people – suggesting an inevitable ongoing decline in traditional values. 

But as Saletan points out there is an alternative interpretation of the research findings:

  • “Maybe the difference between under-30s and their elders isn’t the era in which they grew up. Maybe it’s a lack of life experience. As young people pass from their 20s to their 30s, they get married and have kids. They lose their naïvete about self-realization, having it all, the equality of family structures, and the interchangeability of moms and dads. According to this theory, the reason why older people are more likely to believe that unwed motherhood is a big problem, or that kids do better with stay-at-home moms, is that beyond the age of 30, you discover that these things are true.”

So, what’s the real explanation – a generational shift in values or differences in life experience?

Saletan went back to the original data – cross-referencing what people had said on the issues with answers to two further questions:

  • “One question was: ‘Are you currently married, living with a partner, divorced, separated, widowed, or have you never been married?’ The other question was: ‘Do you have any children under age 18?’ I wanted to see whether marital or parental experience influenced the respondents’ attitudes about wives and mothers.”

The results were inconclusive:

  • “Parental status made some difference, but not a lot, and not consistently. Marital status made a bigger difference, but the patterns weren’t clear.”

At this point a lesser man might have given up. But Saletan noticed that questions about parental and marital status confused the issue of life experience: 

  • “People who had no kids under 18 might be nonparents, or they might be empty-nesters. People who weren’t married might never have had a spouse, or they might have lost one… I asked the researchers at Pew to separate the respondents without minor children into two subcategories: those over 50, who were more likely to be empty-nesters, and those under 50, who were more likely to be childless.  I also requested three marital categories: married, never-married, and an ‘ex-married’ group consisting of respondents who were separated, divorced, or widowed.”

Applying these clearer categories to the data revealed big differences based on life experience:

  • “…people under 50 who didn’t have minor children—the true nonparents—diverged sharply from those who had kids…
  • “…the gap between marrieds and never-marrieds was bigger than the gap between the youngest age group (18–29) and the oldest (65+).”

It’s worth reading the whole article to fully understand all the ins-and-outs, but there are two immediate lessons to be learned. The first is that careful interpretation of polling data is all important (especially when pollsters who are less scrupulous than Pew have so much scope for misrepresenting their figures). The second is that if we want conservative values to be transmitted to the younger generation then we have to give them the economic opportunities they need to get married and have children. That means decent jobs, further education that doesn’t cripple them with debt and affordable housing fit for raising a family.

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