Martin Buchtík: Generation What Lacks the Shared Experience of Tackling Some Society-Wide Challenge.

Research on the opinions of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 shows that thanks to modern communications this generation has no problems moving out of the environment into which they were born and have lived in—says Martin Buchtík in an interview with Robert Schuster.

What is the background to the “Generation What” research project?

This multimedia project was successfully launched in France two years ago. Its aim was to gauge the views and attitudes of the younger generation, people between the ages of 18 to 34, which is a rather broad age span. Since it was based on an Internet questionnaire, it wasn’t strictly speaking representative. Anyone could take part and compare his or her own views with those of other participants. We decided to supplement the questionnaire with more representative data, as we found that people who took part in the survey were quite different from the rest of the population. They were much more liberal, pro-European, and open towards the wider world. The Czech Republic was the only former Eastern bloc country, apart from the former GDR, that officially participated in the project. Some 60,000 people responded to the survey, out of nearly a million across Europe. Our parallel representative research was based on a sample of 800 respondents.

What was your hypothesis at the outset?

Our initial expectation was that there were three main factors shaping the young generation in the Czech Republic and in Europe: first, the new technologies, second, knowledge of foreign languages and opportunities for travel, and third, education in a democratic society. We discovered that technologies play a much greater role in their lives than expected and that they were crucial in forming this generation. Technologies determine the way young people communicate with each other and discover information about each other. Knowledge of languages, opportunities for travel, and democratic education, on the other hand, were only characteristic of a particular section of this age group, those with higher education. This is also reflected in their image in the media where they are presented as successful businessmen or businesswomen, or people subscribing to an alternative lifestyle, as young celebrities. A typical example are the “digital nomads,” people who travel with a notebook and can connect to their workplace from anywhere in the world. However, the lifestyle of the majority of young Czechs is, in fact, very similar to that of their parents. Because they enjoy many more opportunities and don’t feel society’s pressure to “get a degree-start a family-raise children,” they have a range of choices that are not so easy to describe or capture, and are all unique in some way.

Where did most of the younger respondents to the survey live?

The respondents came from the length and breadth of the Czech Republic and in terms of local affiliation, age, or education level their composition was more or less in line with that of the population as a whole. The main difference was in the attitudes they expressed, which was partly linked to the way the questionnaire was distributed. The main channels were the public media, Czech state radio and TV, which are followed by a particular section of the population. The survey was also promoted by various organizations and associations, such as Junák (the Czech Scouts).

If you were to sum up the survey’s findings, what picture of “Generation What” would emerge? Is it really as bad as the older generations tend to claim?

When you talk to young people and examine their attitudes you find that they are guided by a kind of moral compass. So it would be wrong to say that they don’t have any values, but as a generation they don’t seem to acknowledge any single obvious one. This is linked to the fact
that the generation under discussion has never faced any society-wide challenge that might have shaped the attitudes of the generation as a whole. The generation of 40- and 50-year-olds experienced the Velvet Revolution and the subsequent transition; the generations before them experienced 1968 and the “normalization” era. These events forced people to take a position, it gave them a shared experience. The young generation, by contrast, has had no such seminal experience.

Where does their “moral compass” come from? Is it based on the way they are raised at home or on their school education, which is rarely seen in a very positive light?

Not many young people would be able to list, off the cuff, the principles they follow since their compass is often hidden in the recesses of their minds; they may not even be aware of its existence. They create it themselves by constantly being forced to make choices, to take decisions from a very early age. They take these decisions themselves rather than relying on their parents or school to do it on their behalf.
These decisions involve a vast number of things: what school to choose, which peer group or subculture to join, what kind of music to listen to. This is also linked to an early orientation in political affairs with the result that young people often give up on politics straight away. However, the final decision is up to each individual. If they want to change the world around them, thanks to social media and increased mobility, this can be achieved at less cost than in the past. Something like this would have been inconceivable in the nineteenth century: people were born into a specific geographical locality from which it was very difficult to move away.

To what extent is our young generation aware that this high degree of social mobility shouldn’t be taken for granted?

Young people are aware that their future will be better than the lives their parents have had. This is very different from Western Europe where the young people no longer see it that way and are much more skeptical. I have recently come across some data suggesting that whereas their parents’ generation had an 80% chance of earning more in real terms than their own parents, the chances of this for today’s younger generation have gone down to 50%. These rough figures indicate that it is not just a feeling but something real. Furthermore, the current younger generation all over Europe grew up in unusually calm times: not only have they known nothing but peace but they never questioned the system of liberal democracy either. The outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, the Arab Spring—these events have shown that the world has begun to change in fundamental ways, that there are growing threats and our generation hasn’t yet come to terms with this. The perception that young people in the Czech Republic will be better-off than their parents also derives from the fact that our parents grew up under communism, and as a result the generation of their parents wasn’t all that well-off in the 1990s, at the time of newly-found freedoms.

What surprised me about the responses to the questionnaire was that young people in Central Europe have a positive attitude to foreigners, refugees, and so forth, as opposed to the attitude of politicians in these countries, which has been rather reserved, to put it mildly. Could this lead to tensions?

This is precisely the critical juncture that shows up the difference between the questionnaire and a more representative research. The latter has shown that the younger generation of Czechs is not that different from the rest of the population with regard to migration and similar issues. Twenty percent of those who participated in our research were open to migration as compared to just over fifty percent of those who filled in the questionnaire, which is a substantial difference.

How well prepared are young people to participate in public life?

People in the Czech Republic continue to feel that being involved in issues that affect society as a whole will lead either to political involvement, which is regarded as something dirty, or that it requires a public show of their feelings, similar to the forced participation in May Day parades under communism, which is also viewed negatively. We are basically not used to seeing a tradition of protest as something positive unlike, for example, in France. The situation in Poland and Hungary is similar, although young people in these countries have recently started going out into the streets, for instance as part of the “black protest” in Poland against the total ban on abortions or against the Internet tax in Hungary.

How do young people feel about nationalism?

Interestingly, sociological research in this country shows that since the 1990s, economic issues have dominated political life to a much greater extent than elsewhere in Central Europe. In Poland, for example, there have been many debates about cultural issues, of how society is to be run, of the role of church in public life. In Hungary the national issue has always played a key role. In Slovakia all these
issues seem to intersect. Maybe that is why the younger generation of Czechs, who have inherited the economic discourse of their parents’ generation, has been taken aback by what is happening, as traditional economic topics seem to have been exhausted and the discussion increasingly focuses on cultural issues, with people being pigeonholed as “conservative” or “liberal.” This is something we aren’t used
to, a debate that has taken us by surprise and we find it hard to engage in it.

If the public is not prepared for this discussion, does it render it vulnerable to manipulation?

Most of these changes are not loaded positively or negatively; we can’t tell if they are definitely for the better or the worse. The main problem is the taking of mental shortcuts. The migration issue is a case in point, as one side welcomes the arrival of millions of refugees while the other side calls for all migrants to be shot dead. No compromise is possible between these two extremes, they usually clash on social media in cyberspace.

How do young people view liberal democracy? Are they clamoring for a strong leader?

I would say they are not clamoring for anything at all. Young people typically renounce politics, don’t participate in elections as much as the older generations; they are basically not interested in politics. They have nothing against the liberal democratic system, but from their perspective it’s a battle previous generations have fought and won and they see no need to give much thought to how this came about and what needs to be done to maintain it, because they believe it’s working, somehow. To some degree, this attitude is also reflected in the way they see 1989, which the generation of twenty-to-thirty-year-olds regards almost as a historical event. They were taught about it at school and they don’t have as emotional a response to the footage of the protests in November 1989 on television as their parents.

Are these attitudes similar to those in Western Europe?

I think that this lack of interest is shared by young people across Europe. They feel that they have no way of influencing the world in all its complexity. In this country young people are more used to being critical, to defining themselves in opposition to something rather than holding firm views and being prepared to defend them. This doesn’t necessarily apply only to politics. For example, when deciding what to study at university many young people opt for a negative choice: they eliminate a priori the subjects that, for various reasons, are out of the question for them.

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about the need for schools to inculcate values in their students, for example as part of civic or political education. Is this a possible solution to the problem?

The Czech education system, including higher education, is wary of openly advocating specific views. People have become disillusioned with the grand narrative. The Czechs lack a powerful national narrative, something the Americans, Russians, or Hungarians still have. The Czech education system would benefit from civic education in the sense of educating people to be good citizens, but it wouldn’t be a universal panacea for all the problems. The Netherlands is often cited as an example of a country where this kind of education was introduced decades ago. However, the campaign leading up to last year’s referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine has been openly described as having been manipulated by Russian trolls. And this happened in spite of the fact that the tradition of civic education should have made Dutch society immune to that sort of thing.

Lately there has been much talk of false information and fake news spreading on social media. Is today’s younger generation, which spends much of its time online, more vulnerable to being manipulated by fake news?

I see this as a major threat. It is the blurring of the lines between what is truth and what isn’t, between what is verified and what is unsubstantiated, that makes people give up on staying informed. Many find it difficult to wrap their heads around what is right and what is wrong and prefer to deal only with things they understand. That makes them increasingly reliant on their own social group, and this is further exacerbated by the fact that the Internet and social media provide you with the kind of content that most closely resembles your own views. We will soon see something similar in news reporting, with the result that tailor-made content based on your past clicks and preferences will completely destroy the notion of what is real.

Most populists combine their critique of the current political and social elites with calls for more direct democracy. Isn’t more direct democracy quite dangerous at a time when it is increasingly difficult to grasp the essence of an issue?

I think we have to insist on the principle of representative democracy precisely because of the danger of manipulation. The idea that we can keep having referendums where people decide on things such as taxation is illusory. Suffice it to look at the voter turnouts in past referendums: you will see that they rarely exceed the minimum required turnout, except in small towns and villages where local issues are being decided. The most common examples of direct democracy in action in our country are the meetings of housing cooperatives, which are often not quorate because people are not prepared to attend them for a variety of reasons, even though what is at stake are key issues, such as their future housing. I would not therefore expect young people in the Czech Republic to show much support for other forms of participation. In recent years a large section of the political spectrum—not just in the Czech Republic—has tried to distance itself from classic politics, calling themselves “non-politicians” or “anti-elitists,” something that has provided them with a very effective narrative and enabled them to bypass established principles and mechanisms. It all starts with a new party identifying some ad hoc issue that will appeal to a specific section of the electorate. It used to be the other way round—people would follow political parties that were clearly defined and tangible. A good example is Andrej Babiš, chairman of the ANO movement, who suddenly started to support pension adjustments just before regional elections, which traditionally have a lower turnout of mostly older citizens.

How does cross-generational solidarity work? Is a gap opening up between “Generation What” and older people?

Cross-generational solidarity works on two levels. On the one hand there is solidarity with people we know in person—relatives, friends, neighbors, people who live in my street—which tends to be very strong. Then there is abstract solidarity, which is quite weak in the Czech Republic, even compared with the rest of the world. However, it is not easy to pinpoint the reasons for this. At the same time, the weakness of cross-generational solidarity is manifested on both sides— the young vis-à-vis the old, and vice versa. Interestingly, when asked how they feel about elderly people, young Czechs usually say they need looking after, one could almost call it compassion, even though the older generation might not want to be treated with compassion! They want to be respected for their achievements. There is also a difference between what different generations regard as important. Whereas 20 years ago active, left-leaning people would rail against social injustice, nowadays left-wing discourse is dominated by gender and cultural equality issues—in other words issues that the older generation regards as marginal. On the other hand, young people don’t pay much heed to social inequality despite the fact that in the Czech Republic it has increased quite considerably over the past 12 years. And inequality continues to be reproduced. Where both parents have higher education, the chances of their child going to university are seven times higher. This is also to do with the fact that your background also provides you with contacts on which you can build.

Martin Buchtík

is a sociologist and analyst working for MEDIAN market research company, he directs sociology and lifestyle research. After teaching and gaining doctorate at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, he worked as the director of Public Opinion Research Center (CVVM) at Czech Academy of Sciences. Recently, he has been working on research methodology and non-standard research methods, on lifestyle (focusing on underage drinking, in cooperation with Czech TV and Radio, mapping the quality of life and millennial lifestyle in Generation What? project). He has been studying opinion makers and authoritarians, cohesion and inequality in society, and how public opinion forms. The topics of his work and study help him obtain a broader frame of reference regarding the processes of a dynamically changing society. In his opinion, a sociologist’s role should lie in the meticulous processing of data and the ability to communicate the resulting interpretation not only to fellow professionals but also to the general public.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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