Maclean's Poll '97: Shared Values

It’s one thing Canadians love to hate about Americans - how they talk about Canada (when they think about it at all) with such dismissive flair. "I love it," actress Loni Anderson once said of Canada. "It reminds me of Minnesota." Or this entry in U.S. writer R. W.

Maclean's Poll '97: Shared Values

It's one thing Canadians love to hate about Americans - how they talk about Canada (when they think about it at all) with such dismissive flair. "I love it," actress Loni Anderson once said of Canada. "It reminds me of Minnesota." Or this entry in U.S. writer R. W. Jackson's Diabolical Dictionary of Modern English: "Canada, noun. A socialist protectorate full of nice people and clean streets." After 130 years of living with one of the biggest national inferiority complexes in history, the stereotype is still irksome. Canadians, so the popular image goes, are a polite, deferential and largely unremarkable folk, whiling away decent, socially aware lives, prouder of their bureaucratically controlled social programs than of such impractical ideals as freedom or individuality or the pursuit of happiness. Like all stereotypes, the one that dogs Canadians is overly simplistic and a little insulting. But (perhaps annoyingly) it is also true.

That, at least, is one conclusion to be drawn from the 14th year-end Maclean's/ CBC News poll. And given recent history, it is surprising. In the 1990s, the nightly news is crammed with tales of violence and crime. Unemployment and disaffection among youth scream from the headlines. Faltering social programs, celebrity divorces and sex scandals are the order of the day. But against that, what is remarkable is that the poll does not reveal Canadian society to be a crumbling coalition of conflicting priorities, generational angst or declining "family values." In fact, what emerges is a portrait of a nation that largely holds in common - across age-groups, genders and incomes - values that might be called traditionally Canadian. "There's no huge animus between one generation and another, and no emerging value system that is at the ramparts," says Allan Gregg, chairman of The Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll. "What we found is a remarkably cohesive society."

More than any of the previous assays of the national mood, this year's survey asked Canadians about their values, from the importance of family life and job fulfilment to their attitudes on sex, honesty and money. As well, the respondents were asked whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future, and to categorize their attitudes as either liberal or conservative. And for the first time, the 1997 year-end poll oversampled a specific age-group in a quest for suspected generational differences. Beyond the 1,200 adults of all ages who took part in the telephone survey, The Strategic Counsel interviewed an additional 200 people in the 18- to 29-year-old age-group, in an attempt to gauge the mind-set of the so-called baby busters, the smaller generation that followed the dominant baby boomers.

But far from finding evidence of a generation gap, the poll reveals that Canadians, young and old, share a deep concern for family life and the value of social tolerance, supported by a growing sense of optimism. Overall, 36 per cent of respondents say they are generally more optimistic than they were a decade ago - up from the 27 per cent who felt that way in last year's poll. And surprisingly, given all the attention paid to youth unemployment in recent years, 18- to 29-year-olds are largely in sync with the rest of the population. Fully 38 per cent - just above the national average - say they have become more optimistic, while 57 per cent agree with the statement, "There are a lot of opportunities out there for people of my generation."

The poll also demonstrates that, despite the widespread approval of budget-cutting policies, small-l liberalism is alive and remarkably well in Canada. Asked to characterize their views and behavior, 56 per cent of respondents describe themselves as liberal, contrasted with 42 per cent who say they are conservative. The liberal bent is also clear in responses on the issue of homosexuality: only 29 per cent say they are bothered that there are openly gay or lesbian teachers in schools - down a full 10 percentage points from responses to a similar question four years ago. That liberal leaning was apparent among the youngest respondents: at 65 per cent, baby busters were the most likely to consider themselves liberal and the least likely (33 per cent) to lay claim to conservatism. They are also the most comfortable with gay teachers and the least likely to say abortion is wrong.

Still, that sturdy liberalism does not automatically translate into a faith in big government. Perhaps because they reached adulthood in an era of spending cuts and a national preoccupation with debt and deficits, the baby busters display an unrivalled skepticism of governments' ability to operate within their means. Even as Ottawa ponders what to do with a projected budget surplus, 41 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds - compared with just 29 per cent of respondents overall - say they expect deficits to increase over the next few years. Among respondents who expect more public debt is Julie Dickinson, a 22-year-old science student at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. "The government has this problem with delegating money in a thrifty fashion," says Dickinson. "The major social programs aren't too expensive, but the administration is. Having 50 million people to do one job, having directors and sub-directors and undersecretaries, and 500,000 tons of paperwork - it all seems useless."

In the private sphere of behavior and values, the survey displays a remarkable consistency across age-groups. Poll participants were asked to rank eight key values according to their importance. Overall, making money ranks lowest - although a healthy 58 per cent still deemed it important. Then, in ascending order, come developing a spiritual side (75 per cent), living according to a strict moral standard (82 per cent), having a healthy sex life (85 per cent), being physically fit (93 per cent), being in a good relationship (95 per cent) and having a fulfilling job (96 per cent).

But the most strongly held value is a true motherhood - or fatherhood - issue. Fully 98 per cent of respondents overall say being a good parent is important; 86 per cent - again, higher than in any other category - call it extremely important. Those findings change very little across age-groups, with parenting ranking first even among 18- to 29-year-olds - many of whom do not have children. "Parenting is really important," says poll respondent Suzanne Williams, a 28-year-old graduate student in communications at McGill University, who is single and has no children. "As I see people getting older, it really informs people's skills, their ability to express themselves, to get along - based on their relationships with their parents."

On the issue of stay-at-home mothers, responses seem to reflect that deep belief in parenting. Asked if they agree with the statement, "Most women with young children would be far happier if they could stay at home and take care of their children," a majority (58 per cent) concur. With 56 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women agreeing that a mother would be happier at home, there is no significant gender gap on the issue. But the consensus breaks down across the age spectrum. While more than three-quarters aged 65 and up agree with the statement, only 40 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds do. That clearly reflects the relative acceptance by the young of the new reality in Canada: despite the ideal of staying at home with children, the fact is that both parents work in about two-thirds of households with children.

The poll also finds Canadians of all age-groups committed to a sense of spirituality. Among the 75 per cent who say that developing their spiritual side is important, that belief is strongest with the seniors over 65 (82 per cent), and weakest with baby busters (66 per cent). As for living according to a strict moral standard, a similar pattern emerges, with 82 per cent overall rating it as important, ranging from 71 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds to 88 per cent of those over 60.

Canadians, in fact, have clearly not turned their backs on traditional concepts of morality. In every province except Quebec, a majority of respondents (56 per cent) find it "totally unacceptable" for someone involved in a long-term relationship to have an affair. And lest anyone think morals are looser among the young, 61 per cent of the 18-to-29 set think affairs are wrong - compared with 48 per cent of 50- to 64-year-olds and a mere 45 per cent of over-65s. Asked about having many sexual partners before settling down, only 21 per cent of Canadians say that is desirable. At 26 per cent, baby busters are more accepting than average - but less permissive than the thirtysomething young boomers (30 per cent).

Beyond ethics and values, the poll also taps into what might be called generational identity - how people think about their own and other age-groups in society. With some exceptions, the results suggest that Canadians are at once confident in today's youth and respectful of elders. Asked whether they think "the world has changed so much . . . that people over 40 can teach those under 25 very little," only 31 per cent of respondents agreed. In fact, fully 62 per cent of baby busters - that age-group so often saddled with a rebellious, disaffected reputation - disagree. Contrarily, at the other end of the scale, more than half the people over 65 agree with the statement that they have little to teach today's youth. Baby busters are more likely than other age-groups to blame their problems on older generations. But even there, just under a quarter (23 per cent), compared with 15 per cent overall, agree with the notion that "my parents' generation really messed things up for those coming along after them."

On the other hand, the poll respondents are reluctant to brand young people as slackers. Just over a third - 37 per cent - agree with the statement, "People under 30 today don't seem to have much ambition or motivation." Not surprisingly, the 18- to 29-year-olds themselves are least likely to agree - although even among them a significant 30 per cent think their peers need to pull up their socks. But the next generation up is much more likely to pass negative judgment on their juniors. Among 30- to 39-year-olds, 43 per cent say the under-30s lack ambition - the highest of any age-group except seniors (45 per cent). But most tellingly, perhaps, a majority of respondents in all age-groups - and 78 per cent overall - express optimism about the future for the next generation coming along. "The older generations are concerned about the prospects for young people," says Gregg. "But there's no kind of hysteria about the next generation."

Paradoxically, given that they share so many attitudes, the generations all feel strongly that they are distinct. A majority of respondents - 54 per cent - say they believe their own generation is different from any other. Most likely to feel distinct: the baby busters, at 65 per cent. Least likely: the 50- to 64-year-olds, still at a significant 49 per cent.

So what differences do the younger poll participants see? Williams, the McGill grad student, says she does not want to be painted as the voice of twentysomethings - "there's as much diversity in my generation as in past generations." But she does think that a sense of rootlessness characterizes people under 30, a generation raised in a time of family disintegration and declining faith in religion. "Because we don't have religion as much, I think we have to spend more time seeking out what's right and what's wrong," says Williams. "Our grandparents provided our parents with a lot of wisdom. They had a very clear value system passed down to them, but we've had to figure out a lot of it for ourselves." That may well be true. But if their poll responses are any indication, the conclusions that Canadian youth have reached about right and wrong are hardly shocking or revolutionary. When it comes to values, at least, they seem to share with other Canadians a gratifying - if stereotypical - quality: they are doomed to be decent.

Maclean's December 29, 1997