Generation Cynical

, Sarah Carlsruh, Leave a comment

“Cynicism exists. It’s toxic,” said Michael Josephson at an October 29th presentation on “High School Character” at the National Press Club. Josephson is president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics (JIE), which recently released its study on the link between high school attitudes and subsequent adult conduct.

In its study, the Institute found that “younger generations are significantly more likely to engage in all forms of dishonest conduct than those who are older.” This raises the question, is the study measuring the increasing moral degradation of society or simply the fact that older people are more mature than younger people? Perhaps the surveyed youth will outgrow their ethical deficiencies.

Yet, Josephson claimed that a “disease of cynicism has infected our youth.” Cynicism, which the study defines as “the belief that lying and cheating are…necessary to success,” not surprisingly consistently predicts dishonest behavior. He argued that this “character formed in high school matters,” because those attitudes shape a person’s lifelong moral codes.

The study shows through statistical analysis that “high school character matters”—“People who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life on all major measures.” This reveals that the cynical youth of this generation are, in fact, likely to be the cynical “next generation of nuclear inspectors, of politicians,” Josephson stated. The Institute’s Press Release revealed that “compared to those who never cheated in high school, high school cheaters” are:

  • “three times more likely to lie to a customer,”
  • “twice as likely to lie to or deceive their boss,” and
  • “one-and-a-half times more likely to lie to a spouse or significant other.”

This moral degradation is occurring, he claimed, due to less effective parenting, a survival mentality derived from a cultural emphasis on performance, an entitlement mentality, and a failure to consistently punish negative behavior.

The press release issued by JIE claimed that “The hole in the moral ozone seems to be getting bigger—each new generation is more likely to lie and cheat than the preceding one.” The Institute has reported on American high school ethics biennially since 1992 and has seen a “significant erosion of values.” It is unclear whether the Institute’s assertion of escalating moral degradation is based on this data or on evidence covering a longer time period.

As an interesting side note, don’t trust your local salesman. Respondents who listed “sales” as their occupation were consistently some of the most dishonest.

Also, people who claimed that “religion plays an important role” in their lives tend to be only slightly more honest than those who are not religious, and non-religious respondents are just as “satisfied with their own ethics and character” as religious respondents. In fact, self-image was high in every group—at least 90% of respondents in every single age group were satisfied with their personal ethics.

As for respondents “who were not completely honest in answering all questions on this survey…” nearly one-fourth of respondents ages 17 and under admitted to lying on this ethics survey. Ouch.

Sarah Carlsruh is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.