The world today is often portrayed as being less kind, friendly or giving than it used to be.
So-called Gen Me, today’s teens and young adults, are the poster-children of moral decline, routinely characterised as narcissistic, selfish and hedonist.
Despite such concerns we know relatively little about the social composition of kindness and how it is changing across generations.
Our research provides new evidence that Australians exhibit a strong attachment and commitment to kindness as a moral value – and that generation may shape understandings and the practice of kindness in a powerful way.
Rethinking moral decline
We used the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes to assess the state and shape of contemporary moralities. This survey takes 4,000 names randomly from the electoral roll as its sample. We asked how kind Australians are, how expressions of kindness are socially distributed and what the motivations for kindness are.
We defined kindness as:
an everyday act of care for another person, for example, giving directions to someone who looks lost; phoning a family member who is experiencing some difficulties; offering to look after a neighbour’s pets while they are away.
The findings reveal most Australians see themselves as kind, think most Australians are kind and agree that it is important to be kind to one another.
Australians believe family and friends to be the two most important groups to be kind to, followed by work colleagues, neighbours and strangers.
Our research uncovers particularly high levels of kindness towards strangers, with levels consistent with a recent OECD report (2013), which found 65% of Australian survey respondents reported helping a stranger in the last month. This compares to the OECD average of 48%.
These data indicate fears about a generalised moral insensitivity in contemporary culture may be misguided or at least exaggerated. Rather than growing moral indifference, “charitability” remains strong in Australia.
It’s not all good news
But the picture is more complex than a simple rebut of moral decline accounts.
Almost a third of respondents agreed that some people are less deserving of kindness, with men the group most represented in these negative appraisals. Gender structures the distribution of kindness, with women kinder across the board. They are more likely to see themselves as a kind person, to think most Australians are kind, to think that everyone is equally deserving of kindness and report engaging in act of kindness monthly.
Gender is particularly influential in relation to social ties, with women more likely than men to think it’s important to be kind to work colleagues, family, neighbours and strangers.
This supports the idea that women are the “kin keepers” of Western society. Think, for example, who writes the birthday and Christmas cards at your house, organises the presents and prepares the food.
Our results also provide new evidence that we need to re-think moral decline arguments that characterise younger generations as the heralds of a new self-indulgent age.
In what we’re dubbing the generational paradox, we found that, compared with older generations, younger generations are more likely to engage in acts of kindness, but less likely to see most Australians as kind.
There are a number of possible explanations for this. The first is simply that younger generations are less likely to see other Australians as kind because they they compare their own, more frequent acts of kindness more favourably with the rest of the population.
Another possibility is that the generational paradox reflects wider social transformations that are being felt acutely by young people.
Young people have the greatest exposure to the world of the precariat, those sections of the population described by development scholar Guy Standing as “denizens” rather than citizens, because of the uncertainties of their existence.
The impact of globalisation on the labour market and the state’s retreat from universal welfare has meant they have few opportunities for a secure life. The lack of employment opportunities has robbed them of an occupational narrative in which they can feel they are becoming something.
This economic uncertainty co-exists with a political agenda in which respect for the individual has elevated human rights and created an increased emphasis on values of respect and recognition.
This tension possibly underlies why younger generations are more committed to kindness yet are less likely than older generations to regard Australians as kind.
Whatever the explanation, these findings do suggest the need for a re-think of popular and academic characterisations of moral decline, including the role of younger generations in the supposed push toward a more narcissistic, selfish and uncaring society.
This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia.