By Robert Moran and Jeremy Ruch

There is a saying that the plural of anecdote is not data. Brunswick Insight surveyed more than 42,000 people across 26 countries to test perceived wisdom and stereotypes about age groups—to see if the popular anecdotes matched the data. Do organizations really need to reinvent themselves to keep Millennials happy? Are big businesses out of touch with younger generations?

The starkest differences between generations emerge on questions about how well things are going today, and how well they are likely to be going tomorrow—especially on questions about financial security and wellbeing. For all their differences, generations broadly agree that technology and business are forces for good today. People also believe businesses are the most effective path to solving national challenges, although skepticism remains, especially of business leaders and their ability to relate to everyday people.

Businesses need to hone a relevant and informed point of view, to further tip the scales of stakeholder opinion in their favor.

Positively Divided

The young have long been considered more idealistic. It turns out they are also more positive. Across the globe, more people thought things were going well than not. Brunswick Insight found those between 18 and 24 years old were the most positive, closely followed by those 25 to 29 and 30 to 34. The shift from positivity to negativity took place among those 45 to 49 years old, and held true for every older age group.

New trends emerge when the data is broken down by country. The UK and the US straddle the mean: a slight majority of British citizens think their country is doing well, while a slight majority of Americans think their country is on the wrong track. However, in France, Brazil, and Italy, pessimism carried the day – close to 80 percent of respondents believed things weren’t going well. More than 70 percent of people in China, Switzerland, Indonesia, Singapore, Sweden, India, and the Netherlands were happy with the current state of affairs. Members of the oldest generation tend to be the least positive in these countries.

Money and Technology

Despite a common perception that older generations are fearful of being left behind by technology, across the board, in every country, in every age group, the pace of technology is seen to be fast – and good.

Almost 70 percent think technology is changing quickly, far outpacing the changes in society, the economy, and government. Some 88 percent think technological changes are for the better, while the slower changes in society, the economy, and government are perceived to be for the worse.

Older generations do, however, feel that they have been left behind financially. While the young and middle-aged rate their own finances better than most people their age in their country, those aged 50 and above think they are doing worse. While every age group believes they are doing better than their parents when they were their age, those over 60 years old believe that when today’s children reach their age, they will be doing worse.

Part of the Solution

People believe businesses are most capable of solving the array of problems facing their countries. When asked to choose which of the six categories of institutions—businesses, government, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, the military, and religious institutions—most represents their interests, respondents again overwhelmingly chose business. In countries such as South Africa and the United States, not only did business come first, government came last.

Across countries and generations, there is broad agreement that business success is a common good; people believe that when businesses do well, the entire country benefits.

Global economic concepts elicited similar ambiguity. While 58 percent have a positive view of international trade, only 45 percent feel that way about globalization; 33 percent have a positive view of capitalism, as opposed to 55 percent on the free market economy. Among many possible conclusions, one appears inescapable: the words businesses and governments use matter greatly.

In most countries, younger people were the most positive about the state of their nation, while those aged 50 and older were typically the most negative. Only in two countries, Indonesia and Thailand, were those aged 18 to 29 the most negative.

Not all respondents feel change is taking place. But among those who do, opinions are divided along generational lines about whether the change is good or bad. The oldest generation is most likely to believe things are changing and most likely to regard the change negatively. Almost 60 percent of those aged 50 or older say societal and governmental changes are for the worse.

Among all age groups, businesses, more than any other institution, are seen as the most effective at providing solutions to problems. They are also seen as best representing individuals’ interests, although 18- to 29-year-olds thought academic institutions better represented their interests, while those 50 and older selected nonprofits.

While questions remain about executive pay and empathy, there is broad agreement that businesses help provide for the common good. The older generation is more ardent in this belief than their younger counterparts.

Most business types, regardless of description or geography, are viewed positively, especially among the youngest generation. However those older than 50 were more negative about foreign businesses.

About the Author: Robert Moran leads Brunswick Insight, the firm’s public opinion research function, and is a Partner in Brunswick’s Washington, DC office. Jeremy Ruch is a Director with Brunswick Insight, based in London.

Posted by Robert Moran and Jeremy Ruch