The Way We Will Be

Trends: Media and the American Character

As individuals, we make judgments about one’s character based on our actions and words.  Based on census data and social research, researchers describe the outward and mostly observable characteristics of individuals such as income, age, gender, nationality to create demographic profiles of who we are as a society. Marketers study what we buy to create profiles they call psychographics,  clusters of preferences for brands and products that describe a group of consumers, for example “soccer mom,” or “young digerati.”   These descriptions focus on external features or commercial habits. Sociologists and other researchers study our values, and group individuals together so that they can talk about the  character of a society as a whole, or for groups within it, e.g. 16-20 year olds, or boomers.

Individuals develop their values in through experience and interaction with family, peers, other people, and increasingly in our society, through time spent engaged with media. The lens of mass media is a powerful source of  a sense of self and of other, in relation to the values and character of their peers and society.

In the early 1950s as the American character made a big shift from  “inner-directed,”  to “other-directed.” as David Reisman wrote about in The Lonely Crowd (Riesman, et. al., 1956.) Before and  after World War II, rural American became increasingly urban. In an industrialized society, literacy among the populace who were moving off farms to work in factories and live in cities becomes an important skill. Reisman’s work shows the unanticipated consequences of literacy, including the impact of mass media, print and radio, on what it meant to be an individual. A new American character, arose as Americans looked to the mass media as much or more than they looked to the people right around them, affected the whole society.

In 1956, Television was the “new media,” putting an end to the short but celebrated “Golden Age of Radio.” Individuals from small-towns and closely couple communities were, and often still are, “inner-directed,” meaning they acquired values and calibrated their social compass based on the people they saw everyday. Their social peers were in direct physical proximity (the town, their church, the school, the Union, etc.) to individuals in rural areas and small towns. You didn’t need to read or be educated to be in tune with the community, you tuned in as you shopped and otherwise interacted with your neighbors.

For literate individuals, the lure of mass media is keen, and books, magazines, newspapers, television and radio (and Internet today), helps form our values and provides peer approval. “Other-directed” individuals internalize a peer group that is more general, idealized, and not necessarily like those who live nearby. For “other-directed” individuals,  peers exist in their own mind, not down the street or in church each Sunday. For someone with a connection to mass media, the values of the community of people they see every day is mediated, by the values experienced via exposure to mass media.

Different generations of individuals share values and aspects of this social character because they have shared experiences. As the balance between generations shifts with time, values in the larger society itself change. All the systems of production, creation, entertainment, and education are transformed as the character of a society changes.

In the 1950s, the authors of The Lonely Crowd pointed out the socializing functions of print media in the shift from an other-directed to inner-directedness in the character of Americans. They focused research on comic books, which were seen as a threat to the well-being of young people. The role of comics in peer-group identity was suspect because it wasn’t shared by older generations. This seminal research focused on a time of transformation of society through technology. Print had not been dethroned and then re-invented by television technologies. It is useful to revisit the observations about media, communication, socialization and what Riesman et. al. called “character” in a time where there are major changes in our media and communications that will be reflected in our society.

The young people who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, were other-directed, and faced with mass media in the form of a television broadcast system with a limited number of channels. This meant there were a few strong channels to provide a rival to values coming from family, school, and traditional sources.  The effects of media, which are extensions of the human nervous system, can affect the “sensory ratios,” says McLuhan, and as radio, both AM and then “underground” FM stations proliferated, young people listened. Other generations didn’t tune in, though, and the “Generation Gap” of the 60s and 70s grew large and eventually hostile. Riesman’s exploration of the character effects of other- and inner-directedness are restated by McLuhan in his discussion of how media are extentions of our senses, and so alter patterns of human interaction and socialization.

As the 70s influence waned, moving into the 80s,  Robert Putnam noted in his Bowling Alone a variety of socio-demographic  trends and changes from previous decades to now. Looking back to an era before Reisman’s Lonely Crowd defined the American character, Putnam’s analysis of the value of the clubs, churches, and associations  in building social capital is inciteful. Capital refers to a factor of production that isn’t used up in production, and generally refers to money. Social capital are the reciprocal bonds, obligations, and social networks that result from human interactions. Someone who works as an editor on Wikipedia, or contributes to an open source project is building up social capital, just as a volunteer at a food pantry does.

Comparing an individual in the Lonely Crowd with an individual in today’s Crowded Loneliness, is illustrative. Considering the rise of personal electronic devices, from the “Walkman” to the “iPod,” and “iPhone,” for example, we can expect the rise of tolerant “other-directed” individuals, who expect a customized experience of the world, and adopt a “do unto others” attitude as they queue into the subway, shoulder to shoulder, each encased in an individual media zone, together but separate. This is not the togetherness of the Woodstock generation, stuck in mud, straining to occupy the same space and to listen as one to the same song.

Trends from Today

Moving from a look at how the American character has evolved with the rise of mass media during the 20th century, we will look at what we are like now, and what we will be like. Pollster John Zogby draws on thousands of in-depth surveys to show us what we are like to day in The Way We’ll Be. His work dispels incorrect assumptions about the American character in his look at four groups he labels generations. Americans today are not isolated from the world, politically fragmented, and inclined toward material pleasure– in fact, just the opposite might be true.

Zogby’s research identified four generations, he calls the “First Globals,” the “Nike Generation,” the “Woodstockers,” and the “Private Generation.” The table below shows the approximate age range for each cohort, and a short descriptive statement of each group.

The Generation Descriptive characteristics
First Globals
Bi-directional, they are self-absorbed but caring and tolerant. Conservative
Nike Generation(1965-1978) The generation with no “good old days.” They grew up with AIDS, were latchkey children. Libertarian, they distrust everyone and live for the moment.


“Stopped a War” they have high expectations but high disappointments. They have drifted “right” with age.
Private Generation


Go along, don’t question authority. Believe in the American Century, don’t think US should share power around globe.

Zogby’s characterizations are based on his work for polical polls as well as polling he has done for corporations. Umair Haque has added an edge to Zogby’s generational groups, and suggested that attitude can be more important than age, and has begun to spell out how these attitudinal differences relate to political, social, and economic relationships and theories.

A ChangeWave survey of business professionals between the ages of 45 and 63 found that TV viewing habits vs. home Internet usage, these Woodstockers/Boomers spend more free time online than they do watching traditional TV. And, by a five-to-one margin, Woodstockers/Boomers are watching less traditional television than they did a year ago. Among this group, 62% say it’s because they’re not as interested in what’s on TV these days, and another 26% say they’re spending more time surfing the web.

In addition, according to the study, video-over-the-Internet now clearly represents a significant threat to traditional TV viewing:

  • 69% of Woodstocker/Boomers say they’ve watched video content on their computer over the past 90 days
  • 48% of respondents say they’d be willing to pay a monthly fee for a Video-over-the-Internet subscription if it provided the same programming currently available on their TV service
  • 79% watch as the leading online website Boomers use to watch video
  • 39% TV Network Websites
  • <16%
  • 11% iTunes

While Boomers clearly want to see fewer ads than they do with conventional broadcasting, 68% say they are willing to view at least some ads online.

According to the findings of the study, one place that Boomer professionals are spending more time online is with social networking sites, where 51% say they currently maintain one or more profiles. Nearly three-in-five of these Boomers report they use the networking site LinkedIn, while another 55% have a Facebook profile, the site normally thought to be most popular among teenagers.

One Paid Subscription Service Most Likely To Give Up If Necessary (% of Respondents, May 2009)
Subscription Willing to Sacrifice

% of Respondents

TV service


Home telephone


DVD/Movie rental








Cell phone


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