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Times change... but not necessarily attitudes

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The attitudes of young people today are not so very different from those of ten or even 25 years ago, a study published in Bern on Friday has revealed.

This content was published on August 22, 2008 - 21:39

The study, entitled "Values and Opportunities at a time of Change", polled 20-year old Swiss men and women – resident foreigners were excluded - about their general satisfaction with their lives and their social and political attitudes. The information was gathered in 2003.

It is the third study of its kind; the first was conducted in 1979 and the second in 1994.

"The most surprising thing was the high stability," Professor Karl Haltiner of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and one of the authors of the study told swissinfo.

Given the negative image of young people that is often peddled in the press, some might find it surprising that the overwhelming majority of those polled were satisfied with their lives, optimistic about the future and valued their families.

In 2003, 81 per cent of respondents said they were happy or very happy with their current life – just one per cent less than the result in 1994.

They were also asked about their feeling of well-being, which the study described as an indicator of integration into Swiss society. The number who put this feeling as good or very good had risen from 75 in 1994 to 83 per cent in 2003.

The structure of families has changed quite considerably in the last quarter century. Today's 20 year-olds have grown up with fewer siblings and the proportion who have not been brought up by both parents has increased from ten to 20 per cent.

Nevertheless, the relationship which young adults say they have with their parents has not only remained good, but has even slightly improved: 96 per cent described them as good or very good.

One cliché confirmed by the study, however, is that people who grow up in poorer families are more likely to experience serious conflicts at home. And a harmonious climate at home has a strong influence on the degree of satisfaction young people feel with their current life, the study says.

It makes the point that people's attitudes tend to be rooted in their past – family and school - rather than in their current situation.

New materialism

The fact that attitudes have remained stable over the years does not mean that nothing is new.

"There has been a small change in priorities. Protecting the environment, which was the most important factor in the early 80s has lost in importance in favour of more materialistic values," Haltiner said.

"I wouldn't over-evaluate this. If you look back at past surveys, you will see that whenever you had an economic crisis, materialistic values popped up, and when the economy was doing well they dropped back. It's more a cycle than a change."

This new outlook has had a knock-on effect on people's attitude to the state. Although politics remains a matter of minor importance, there is a growing trend for young people to judge the state by the services it provides and the benefits they derive from it.

Those who are least satisfied with the state are those who have directly felt the effects of economic recession, for example in finding themselves unemployed.

Political attitudes

Some of the biggest shifts noted in the report have occurred in the area of politics and the state. Far more young people are ready to take part in strikes and demonstrations, or at least to tolerate them.

In 1979 only 21 per cent said they would be willing to take part in a protest action; by 2003 the figure had almost doubled to 41 per cent.

Also new is the phenomenon of "glocalisation": a new stress on local identity in reaction to globalisation. This includes a pride in being Swiss.

"In the 1960s you couldn't have walked in the street with a red shirt with a Swiss flag on it. Today this is fashionable. This kind of Swissness has gained in importance," Haltiner commented.

In the same connection, there has been a clear move to the right politically – although Haltiner was keen to stress that this doesn't mean young people have become xenophobic. But where in the 1990s many young Swiss wanted Switzerland to open up to other countries, today this openness enjoys less support than it did even 25 years ago.

Despite their general lack of interest in politics, young Swiss adults showed broad support for the Swiss political system of direct democracy, where the people have the final say in controversial issues. Even if they usually don't bother to vote, they know that they can do so when an issue touches them closely, Haltiner explained.

The purpose of the survey is to help frame youth policy. By carrying it out at regular intervals, it is possible to determine long-term trends.

swissinfo, Julia Slater

In brief

The report "Values and Opportunities at a time of Change" is one of the Swiss Federal Surveys of Adolescents.

The organisation responsible for conducting it is known as ch-x.

The new report is the third of its kind; the previous surveys were made in 1979 and 1993.

The authors are sociologist Karl Haltiner of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, media researcher Luca Bertossa of Mediapulse and sociology professor Ruth Meyer Schweizer of Bern University.

The first Swiss youth survey was conducted among army recruits in 1854 to determine their level of education and to compare this across the cantons.

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