Hand-wringing about a new “crisis of trust” is a regular occurrence in discussions of our relationships with each other and institutions. But the reality is much more stable. We have researched trust a great deal over the years, and one of the defining features is how little most measures have actually changed, at least in the last few decades. Of course, this is not to say nothing changes (the expenses scandal did hit views of MPs, if only in the short-term) or that levels of trust are particularly high (they are, for example, very low for politicians – but have been since we started measuring it, in the 1980s).
However, this overview misses a striking new pattern in trust in other people to tell the truth. As the new analysis in the chart above shows, generation Y are very different from other generations on this measure: they started with much lower levels of trust in 2002 when we could first measure their views as adults, and this gap has, if anything, increased by 2013.
The differences are stark. Just 46% of generation Y say other people can be trusted to tell the truth, compared with 73% of the pre-war generation. And the benefit of looking at this generationally over a long period of time is that we can say with more confidence that this isn’t an effect of age: generation X were roughly the same age as generation Y are now back in 1999, and at that point they had a much higher level of trust in others (60%) than generation Y do now, and were also on a par with other generations.
So there is something different about this generation in the UK.
And the pattern is quite different to that seen in earlier analysis in the US, in the classic study Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The chart below shows the results from a similar question about honesty from Putnam’s work - and here we see a clear hierarchy, where each generation is less trusting than the preceding one. In the UK, generation Y stand alone.
And in the UK it is not just on this specific question of “telling the truth” that we see this pattern. It is also evident in the “generalized trust” question that’s included in many studies (in this case from British Social Attitudes
). The gap between generation Y and the rest is not as large as with the “truth” question, which suggests there may be a specific effect from the focus on honesty among this generation. But generation Y is still clearly lowest, on average around 10 percentage points lower than the average among the other generations over the period covered.
Many possible explanations have been suggested for this generational decline in trust. Some of these only really fit where the pattern is of stepped decline in successive generations, as in the US: for example, it is often cited that the civic obligation encouraged by the Second World War and its aftermath helped set a more collective and trusting context for those growing up then. However, some others do seem relevant, in particular the growing economic inequality, combined with the shifting cultural context and increasing role of the media (and increasingly new media) in forming views of others.
While the pattern in the UK is striking and concerning, it is important not to see this as a failing of our current youngest cohort. As Putnam says: “The social distrust among America’s youth should be seen not as a character flaw, but rather as a mirror held up to social mores of recent decades. Our youth are, in effect, telling us that in their experience most people really aren’t trustworthy.”
Trust in institutions
But there is a very different picture with institutional trust and trust in professions. For a large number of the different institutions and groups we looked at, there are no differences between generations: all generations have an equally high and stable level of trust in doctors to tell the truth, and not quite as high but consistent views of teachers, and similar, if declining, trust in the clergy, and so on.
A small number of professions do receive lower trust ratings among younger generations - for example newsreaders, as shown in the chart below. This is likely to be explained by the very different scale, nature and variety of news coverage today compared with previous decades. It is easy to see how the role of newsreader could become devalued among those who do not remember times when there were just a handful of very well-known newsreaders. It is worth noting though that the pattern does not look particularly generational: generation Y didn’t start with a lower level of trust, and the lines are a little erratic.
But there are a number of professions and organisations where trust among younger groups is at least as high and often slightly higher than other generations. For example, generation Y and X tend to report slightly higher levels of trust in the police than other generations, as shown in the chart below. The difference is small (on average around 8-10 percentage points over the last few years), but the expectation may have been for trust to be lower, given police engagement with young people is often a focus of concern.
But the pattern is much more clear-cut for civil servants, with generation Y clearly the most trusting, followed by generation X. Indeed, two-thirds (65%) of generation Y say that civil servants can be trusted to tell the truth, compared with under half of the two oldest generations (47%).
We have discussed the reasons for the general increase in trust in civil servants that we’ve seen in recent years in a blog for the Institute for Government
– but this new analysis suggests that it is in fact mostly to do with generational replacement effects rather than a general shift in views. That is, trust is increasing because older generations who have a less positive view are dying out and being replaced by younger cohorts who are more trusting of civil servants. This provides some weight to the explanations we suggested about the cultural context being different: the “Yes, Minister” effect is probably real, but there has also probably been less political bashing of the civil service in recent times (although that may shift again, and note that we may see a very different pattern if we had asked about NHS managers or bureaucrats).
And that view of the importance of formative context is given further weight by the similar pattern we see for trade union officials, in the chart below. Generations X and Y are twice as likely to say they trust trade unionists (both around 50%) than the pre-war generation (24%). Generational memories of the political struggles with trade unions are fading, the younger cohorts have had much less direct experience of the 1970s and 1980s, and trade unions have a very different position today.
And finally on political trust, Ipsos MORI’s long term trends on trust in politicians to tell the truth shows that the youngest generation are in the pack, no different from other generations: only 18% of the whole population said they trust politicians in our 2013 survey – but that is exactly the same figure as our first survey in this series in 1983.
And a different question from the European Social Survey on trust in parliament (chart below) shows that the youngest generation is, if anything, slightly more trusting (but not significantly so). This is a pattern that is repeated in many other countries across Europe, and is an interesting contrast to the much lower levels of identification with political parties among the young, seen on other pages
on this website. This suggests lack of engagement is not to do with lack of trust, but more the perceived relevance of the political process (although even here young people are as or more likely to recognise politics as important
Overall then there is a striking contrast of patterns in generational trust, some counter-intuitive and some emerging that need further examination. The key concern is clearly the step-change downwards in trust in others among our current youngest adult cohort. As has been persuasively argued by many, a sense of connection is important to all sorts of other positive outcomes and this generational rift in trust is therefore worrying.