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America’s generational divide doesn’t apply to technology. Gen Zers and boomers share the same techno-optimism–and nostalgia – Fortune

September 17, 2023

Amidst America’s mental health crisis, emerging technologies now come to an anxious marketplace. Generative A.I, pundits claim, will inevitably lead to more loneliness, mass unemployment, and even the end of humanity, according to the most pessimistic voices. Throw in the lingering concerns over social media’s perils, and the doom and gloom becomes difficult to escape. Even the White House is on edge.
We are also seeing familiar stereotypes reemerge: Older generations are out of touch with technology and prone to panicking about it, while younger generations are naive about both its potential risks and their own dependence on it.
It turns out, though, that Americans across generations have a lot in common when it comes to their technological hopes and fears. As a nation, we are both enthralled by and leery of the rush of change. Like Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings, we are looking forward and backward at the same time. We eagerly anticipate the next great innovation while yearning for a simpler past. And, while Americans of all ages are significantly aligned on these issues, subtle intergenerational differences uncovered by a recent Harris Poll/Human Flourishing Lab survey of Americans’ views toward technology are enlightening.
Americans of all ages share a curious, open-minded, and trusting attitude toward new technologies. Most respondents (78% overall) are interested in learning how new technologies such as A.I., robotics, and virtual reality work. A similar number of people are interested in trying out such new tech.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans tend to be most enthusiastic. Some 88% of Gen Zers and 89% of millennials expressed interest in using new technologies, while Gen Xers (78%) and baby boomers (69%) agreed in strong but still smaller numbers. Additionally, over 80% of each generation agrees that it is important to keep an open mind about new technologies. And a majority in every generation indicate that they trust companies which create new technologies are doing so to improve society.
Even as we charge headlong into this peripatetic, hyperconnected future, most Americans long for a quieter and more private past. Two-thirds (67%) said that they wish they could go back to a time before everyone was “plugged in.” While every age group shares this desire, it still cuts across generational stereotypes, with millennials (74%) and Gen Xers (73%) markedly more wistful than those at the ends of the generational spectrum–Gen Zers (60%) and baby boomers (61%). It may be that those who best and least remember that past are the least enthusiastic about it.
This sentimentality towards the past is more than a sign of resistance to progress. Nostalgia actually helps people adapt to change and energizes them for the future, research shows. It helps people cope with new circumstances by grounding them and reminding them of their own origins and values. Nostalgic feelings for a past in which humans spent less time in front of screens and more time physically engaged with one another can help people figure out how to improve technological development and usage in ways that increase human flourishing and avoid the pitfalls we fear.
And yes, Americans’ abundant techno-optimism is moderated by concerns over the scope and speed of the changes we’re witnessing.
A narrow majority of Americans (52%) claim that new technologies are more likely to drive people apart than bring them together. Notably, younger generations are most likely to share this belief, with 58% of Gen Z and millennials expressing it, compared to 48% of Gen X and 47% of boomers. Perhaps younger Americans more clearly understand the disconnecting effects from first-hand experience, or maybe the older ones remember previous technology-driven moral panics about television rotting kids’ brains and violent video games turning them into gun-toting maniacs.
This wasn’t the only instance where younger Americans proved more techno-skeptical than their elders. Roughly half of Americans (51%) say they feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with technology, but millennials (57%) are the only generation where a majority agreed. Gen Z was roughly as likely to find it overwhelming as older generations.
Americans of all ages (85% overall) also worry that young people are too technology-dependent. And while older generations are most likely to hold this view (87% of boomers and 89% of Gen Xers) sizable majorities of millennials (82%) and Gen Zers (80%) agree. Similarly, 81% of Americans worry about the effect that social media has on the mental health of young people. Again, all generations share this concern.
Although Americans appreciate technological invention and innovation, they are mindful of ways it could undermine human agency and psychological well-being. But the best way to approach technology is largely how we are: with interest, optimism, skepticism, and a healthy dose of nostalgia.
Will Johnson serves as CEO of The Harris Poll. Clay Routledge is the Vice President of Research and Director of Human Flourishing at the Archbridge Institute.
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